A Changing Climate Means A Changing Society. The Island Press Urban Resilience Project, Supported By The Kresge Foundation And The JPB Foundation, Is Committed To A Greener, Fairer Future. This Post Was Originally Published December 12, 2016 in The Nation.
President-elect Donald Trump doesn’t believe the climate is changing. Alone among world leaders, he has called climate change a “hoax,” perpetrated by the Chinese. Accordingly, he appointed a prominent climate-science denier to head the Environmental Protection Agency; fossil-fuel industry lobbyists are advising him on energy policy.
Here in the real world, of course, the climate is changing. We just experienced the warmest five-year period in recorded history, according to the World Meteorological Organization. Human-induced climate change is increasingly to blame for the extreme weather that wreaks havoc on American cities and towns—from Alaska’s thawing permafrost to the flooded streets of Miami and Norfolk. Even as we work to cool the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, there’s an urgent need to adapt to the changes that are now unstoppable.
With Trump at the helm, the prospects for addressing climate change in the United States seem bleak. But in the absence of federal leadership, we may see an explosion of climate action at the local level. In fact, some communities are already stepping up and preparing for a warmer, wilder future.
According to a new study—the first in-depth assessment of climate adaptation in the US—communities are busily preparing for risks by moving people out of harm’s way, reducing the vulnerability of vital systems, and building capacity to deal with disaster. The study, a two-year project conducted by environmental research firm Abt Associates with support from the Kresge Foundation, shows that communities are taking action in red states and blue states, in big coastal cities and small rural towns—even where the phrase “climate change” is rarely uttered in public. All while avoiding the political polarization that has led to gridlock at the national level.
With a new administration predisposed to deny climate change, these local works-in-progress will become even more important to the safety and security of Americans.
Disaster Focuses the Mind
Fighting climate change requires a wholesale rethinking of how we power our economy, grow our food, and move from place to place. Perhaps that’s why it has taken the international community two decades to produce a non-binding climate agreement. So how have cities and towns managed to move forward on an issue that has been so challenging for nations and the world?
In many cases, they were pushed into action by disaster. While some communities (including Miami, Seattle, and Oakland) developed forward-thinking plans informed by climate science, most received a wake-up call in the form of a flood, fire, or drought.
In Flagstaff, Arizona—a town that draws 5 million visitors a year—the 2010 Schultz fire was that wake-up call. Kindled by an abandoned campfire, the conflagration torched 15,000 acres of ponderosa pine forest. Like many recent wildfires in the west, the Schultz fire was accelerated by unusually dry conditions, which are likely to intensify in a changing climate. And, soon after the fire, exceptionally heavy rains (another climate impact) poured down the denuded mountain slopes, flooding the town and killing a 12-year-old girl. Those events spurred voters to pass a $10 million bond measure that improves forest management and reduces the risk of catastrophic fires.
In the crimson-red city of Tulsa, Oklahoma, decades of flooding along the Arkansas River and its tributaries made many Tulsans question the wisdom of building in the floodplain. A citizen-led effort to limit construction was met with serious pushback from development interests, especially during the years that climate-science denier James Inhofe served as Tulsa’s mayor. But the naysayers were largely silenced after a calamitous flood killed 14 people and damaged 6,800 homes. Ultimately, the city bought up over 1,000 repeatedly flooded properties, converting them to public parkland.
And in the college town of Fort Collins, Colorado, threats to the beer supply galvanized action. A series of droughts raised fears about water shortages—an existential threat to local breweries that collectively suck up more than a billion gallons of water each year. In response, the town’s 16 breweries adopted—and championed—voluntary water-conservation strategies that reduced water use by 25 percent over the last decade, even as the population grew.
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