These U.S. Cities Are Best Prepared to Adapt to Climate Change

Researchers find that while many municipalities have plans to cope with higher temperatures and rising sea levels, few have developed detailed strategies to implement them.
Street flooding in Miami Beach, Florida, in September 2015 was caused by a combination of seasonal high tides and rising sea levels due to climate change. (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
May 16, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.

Depending on where you live, climate change could lead to longer and hotter summers, heavier downpours, frequent flooding, and more intense wildfires.

That has led scores of cities to develop strategies to adapt to climate change. A study just published in the journal Nature Climate Change found that such plans contained many good ideas for improving infrastructure, protecting ecosystems, and educating residents.

But researchers concluded that many plans fall short on the details, such as how to prioritize the most urgent needs, estimating costs, securing funding to implement projects, and planning for uncertainties surrounding climate change.

“The biggest weaknesses we saw were that they failed to include monitoring their progress in the plans, and they didn’t think of uncertainty with climate change projections,” said study coauthor Sierra Woodruff, an environmental planning researcher at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Woodruff and her colleagues looked at 44 climate-adaptation plans developed by big cities like New York, small towns, and tribal governments. They found that many simply didn’t envision different climate change scenarios and how to manage them.

Among the solid ideas the researchers found were plans for altering maintenance schedules for storm-water drains and cleaning them more frequently to minimize flooding during extreme downpours.

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Woodruff said coastal communities have also started thinking about flooding from sea-level rise and realizing that new development needs to be built “so it lasts and doesn’t do damage.”

She pointed to three cities with unique strategies that made them stand out.

“Baltimore has a wonderful plan that integrates natural hazard mitigation and climate change adaptation,” she said.

The city identified multiple threats, such as heavy snowfall, ice storms, torrential rains, and storm surges, that it will face as climate change accelerates. “City officials recognize they can’t rely solely on the past to understand future risks,” Woodruff said, noting that Baltimore also spelled out details on how climate-adaptation strategies will be implemented.

Denver monitors progress toward meeting its climate change goals; it has one-year, three-year, and five-year plans that set specific targets.

Chula Vista, a Southern California city of 250,000 near the Mexican border, developed one of the earliest climate-adaptation plans. Woodruff said the city details who will implement climate-adaptation strategies, provides cost estimates, and produces timelines for measuring progress toward meeting goals, which include retrofitting buildings with white roofs that reduce urban temperatures and energy use.

The study found that the better plans engaged elected officials and planners in the process from the start and set short-term as well as long-term goals.

Woodruff said funding shouldn’t be an obstacle to climate-adaptation plans. “We can incorporate climate change considerations into our day-to-day operations as we upgrade infrastructure,” she said.