Getting Ready for the Storm [INTERVIEW]: Missy Stults on ICLEI's New Climate Resilient Communities Program

“We have to tell the international community that it's in the cities that the battle to slow global warming will be won.” That's Mexico City Mayor Marcelo Ebrard speaking before a World Mayors Summit in Mexico that concluded this Sunday.  One week before the UN climate negotiations begin in Cancun, 138 mayors at the summit signed the voluntary Mexico City Pact that commits them to measurably reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. 

For people who follow this kind of thing, the announcement will sound familiar. Thanks in large part to work by ICLEI – an international organization that focuses on urban sustainability – cities have become prominent advocates for strong climate policies. And like the Mexico City Pact, discussions of cities and climate change have usually focused on what cities can to do reduce emissions.

But last week also marked the launch of a program of a different sort.

A few days before the Mayors Summit, the US branch of ICLEI turned a new leaf by announcing that eight cities and counties have been chosen to pilot what is the USA's  first national level effort to get cities ready for the impacts of climate change. Following a growing recognition that major challenges are on the horizon, the new Climate Resilient Communities program (CRC) gives cities the tools they need to understand and plan for life in a changing climate. In an announcement yesterday, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino summed up what is at stake:

“Climate change is not a distant problem, but a threat that is here and now. We have a responsibility to protect the people, the businesses and institutions, the history and the future of Boston.”

Ebrard and Menino's comments are really two sides of the same coin: cities need to cut emissions, but they also need to brace themselves for big changes.

ICLEI has created an online list of climate impacts by region (drawn from the landmark 2009 federal Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States report). While not on par with the impacts expected for some of the world's most vulnerable regions, the picture still isn't pretty:

In Boston for example, sea level rise will increase flooding and erosion, extreme heat events and the urban heat island effect will take their toll on public health, and increased storms will test the city's infrastructure. Miami-Dade County can expect more frequent and severe storms, more flooding and saltwater intrusion into drinking water aquifers thanks to rising sea levels.

The new CRC program guides cities through the steps of assessing their own vulnerabilities, setting preparedness goals, selecting appropriate actions, implementing them, and monitoring success.

I spoke with ICLEI USA's Adaptation Manager Missy Stults about ICLEI's new push to get cities ready for a changing climate.

Alex Aylett: A large part of ICLEI's climate change work over the past 15 years -- almost all of it -- has been focused on reducing emissions. There was a lot of optimism that cities could help "solve the climate crisis." What does it say that we are now talking about adaptation?

Melissa Stults: Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are critically important and ICLEI members have been making significant strides to reduce their carbon footprints. However, we know that we have enough momentum in the climate system that even if we were able to halt emissions to zero tomorrow, we would still experience a changing climate. Recognizing this, communities need to start preparing for existing changes as well as future changes that are unavoidable. What's important though, is that climate adaptation and climate mitigation should not be viewed as mutually exclusive strategies. The more we mitigate, hopefully, the less we have to adapt.

AA: For cities already working on mitigation, what does it mean to begin addressing adaptation as well? Where does working the two link up, and what new demands does working on adaptation place on cities?

MS: Many communities are already doing things that would be considered adaptation strategies - they are just not calling them adaptation strategies. For example, efforts around energy and water conservation are both climate mitigation measures as well as climate adaptation measures.

ICLEI's Climate Resilient Communities program is designed to help communities integrating climate considerations and climate adaptation planning into existing community planning. By doing that, ICLEI will help communities leverage existing efforts and existing funding to be more effective in building community resilience.

AA: What are some of the short and medium term benefits (or cobenefits) that cities can expect from engaging with work on adaptation?

MS: Healthier, more socially just communities. Tangibly, this will manifest itself with financial savings (through avoided impacts), more resilient economies, reduced greenhouse gas emissions; significant advances in local sustainability; and safer and healthier communities.

AA: Putting together an adaptation strategy is going to include picking some low-hanging fruit, as well as dealing with some difficult trade-offs. What do you think is ripe for the picking, and what do you see being an issue where cities are going to have to make some hard decisions?

MS: This is a tough question to answer. Adaptation is fundamentally a local issue meaning that the strategies that localities will need to move forward with will very much depend on local vulnerabilities and local circumstance. One of the first things ICLEI recommends our members pursue is understanding how they are already vulnerable and start figuring out how those vulnerabilities could change in the future.

In regards to low hanging fruit; urban forestry has lots of other benefits (like stormwater management, urban heat island mitigation), so do energy conservation, water conservation, community/public awareness and education. Forming partnerships with scientists and others to get information on climate change and possible vulnerabilities, and integrating climate considerations into existing planning process (i.e. using the future 100 year flood for planning) are also strategies that can be effective as gaining momentum and building resilience.

AA: The central step in the CRC's 5 milestones is "making a leadership commitment."  With mitigation, we have seen that cities struggle to truly commit to ambitious policies.  [see for example this recent poll]  Do you think that focusing on adaptation will increase the number of cities that are getting actively engaged with climate change?

MS
: Yes. There is a hypothesis in the field that climate adaptation is the backdoor to climate mitigation --- and I very much think this is true. At some point, we realize there are things that we can't adapt to and maintain the basic services and quality of life we are use to. This information is often a motivator for action.

AA: Is that because Adaptation has a more visceral side to it? That seeing the risks that your community could face down the line might have a more immediate impact on decision makers and citizens?

MS: Absolutely. Adaptation is about making sure your community is prepared for existing and future climate and weather impacts - it's about building resilience. It's about being a socially justice, vibrant, dynamic, and healthy community.

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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