Cities Take Charge on Climate Change

December 9, 2013

By Raksha Vasudevan

Short- and long-term climate impacts are having direct economic, social and environmental consequences on communities of all sizes.  From immediate and costly devastation caused by hurricanes, floods and wildfires to the longer term effects of sea level rise, saltwater intrusion, drought and changing weather patterns, cities are confronting the very real impacts of a changing climate right in their backyards.  These impacts range from unprecedented amounts of stress on water, transportation and energy infrastructure and economic costs from post-disaster recovery, to direct threats to community safety, community well-being and local industry.  And while the strategies to tackle these issues vary, mayors across the country are taking the lead on how to adequately and proactively prepare their communities.

This was the topic of conversation during the mayor’s panel at the Climate Impacts Collaborative workshop, hosted by the World Resources Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington, DC last week.  The four cities represented —Salt Lake City, Utah; Boulder, Colo.;  Pinecrest, Fla.; and Hoboken, N.J.—made a strong case that, despite little action from the federal government on the topic of climate adaptation and resilience, cities across the nation are taking  local action to address climate change. 

Climate Adaptation and Resilience

Tackling the climate crisis through adaptation and resilience strategies has allowed cities to not just respond after a crisis, but actually envision how to more comprehensively and holistically plan to address the range of impacts within a community.  Cities are taking a proactive systems approach to identify climate vulnerabilities, develop comprehensive strategies using risk-based prioritization, create partnerships to leverage resources and monitor and shift strategies based on new climate information. City leaders recognize that effectively addressing this issue requires a multi-pronged approach and the support of a range of stakeholders.

Hoboken, recently devastated by Hurricane Sandy, has created a nine-point Resilience Plan, which includes green infrastructure strategies to manage stormwater, communication strategies to inform the public prior to and during a climate emergency and floodproofing of critical community facilities, to name a few. 

Pinecrest, facing the short- and long-term effects of sea-level rise in South Florida, has not only joined the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, but Mayor Cindy Lerner has also actively focused on improving vertical coordination and action between the city and the state. 

Mayor Ralph Becker, his staff and partners are using the direct, visible effects on people’s livelihoods to inform and educate residents of Salt Lake City and the region of the need to take action.  For example, Salt Lake City, currently supplying drinking water to more than one million people in the region, is severely threatened by the loss of snow-packed mountains that provide their water supply. Given the consequences of this on all residents in the city and the surrounding county, the mayor and his staff have actively worked to dispel the idea that climate is a partisan issue.

And in Boulder, Mayor Matt Appelbaum, has focused on preparing critical infrastructure and developing building codes to help reduce the impact of expected and unexpected weather events, such as the flood that took place in September.

Cities Lead, but Still Need Strong Federal Support

During the panel, Susan Ruffo, the White House Council for Environmental Quality’s Deputy Associate Director for climate change adaptation, described a newly appointed climate preparedness taskforce comprised of 24 state, local and tribal leaders.  A primary goal of the taskforce, which will convene its first meeting this week, is to gather feedback on ways in which the federal government can support local action. NLC 1st Vice President Mayor Ralph Becker will serve as NLC’s representative on the taskforce.

Undoubtedly the impacts of climate change are local and as a result, cities are, and will continue to be, at the forefront of action and innovation to tackle these issues.  Cities are hopeful that the creation of the taskforce and other efforts by the federal government will help to not only support current local adaptation efforts, but also remove any regulatory and process- oriented barriers to implementing smarter long-term and post-disaster planning.  The need for stronger federal government support is indispensable if cities are to be able to leverage federal government resources most effectively, learn from and act on the latest information available on climate change and find ways to partner with regional and state agencies that encourage smart planning.

In the meantime, mayors in cities across the country are mobilizing, with the support of local and regional partners, to prepare for the climate issues that will inevitably affect their residents and community infrastructure.  As Mayor Learner noted during the workshop, “Our task is to solve problems,” and indeed that is what cities are doing.

In January of 2014, NLC’s Sustainable Cities Institute will be releasing a Climate Adaptation and Resilience section with the latest resources for elected officials and city staff.  Stay tuned! Email sustainability@nlc.org if you would like to be more involved with this work or are looking for specific resources on this issue.