Cities like New York City and New Orleans learned the hard way what kind of damage extreme weather events can inflict — and the limitations of current policy approaches. Facing our climate vulnerabilities demands focused action. Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, highlights some policies that can help communities be prepared for a future that looks different from our past.
Flooding. Wildfires. Severe drought. Such natural disasters have always been with us, but now they are being supercharged by climate change.
Climate scientists have long known that a warming world caused by carbon pollution leads to more extreme heat waves and a greater likelihood of everything from torrential downpours to wildfires. And in fact, the number and severity of such extreme events is increasing. No matter how fast we act to cut emissions, more climate change is inevitable.
The good news is that we have begun to see firm resolve in addressing climate change at the international and federal levels and in many states and communities. Carbon-cutting policies are imperative to curb climate change over time. But we must also put substantial resources into helping communities prepare for impacts like rising seas, hotter urban heat islands and greater flood risks.
Lessons from thousands of climate plans, projects, and reports are accessible through our Center’s Adaptation Clearinghouse which also provides a tool to track the progress made in implementing state adaptation plans. We’ve seen significant progress since the Clearinghouse originally launched in 2011, and there has been a flurry of interest since we rolled out new features this summer to help policymakers find the resources they need to build resilience to a new normal.
Leaders at the state and community level have ambitious plans and have started to promote resilience through both policies and pilot programs, and to learn from other jurisdictions.
The state of New York has set a 50 percent renewable energy mandate. New York City, after suffering nearly $20 billion in damage from Hurricane Sandy, plans to help protect Manhattan with a 10-mile flood protection system.
Despite some struggles over how the city can use of disaster relief dollars, my hometown of New Orleans has implemented both hard infrastructure solutions like sea walls and pumps and softer “green” infrastructure such as parks and rain gardens to manage water in the country’s wettest and arguably most vulnerable city.
Massachusetts passed a law requiring substantial hydroelectric and offshore wind power generation, and Boston is working across city and state agencies to develop an integrated strategy to prepare for threats from sea-level rise and heat waves.
Vermont has given its towns and regions more control over planning renewable energy projects and set an ambitious long-term renewables target of 75 percent, and worked to rebuild with climate change in mind after Tropical Storm Irene.
We will need to expand and build on these examples in order to both curb climate change and prepare our homes and communities for a future that looks very different than the past. Changes will be needed to old laws and regulations designed for more stable conditions. These changes will require political will, significant investment and public engagement.
The news in the headlines may seem grim. But the efforts already underway can provide examples that can be scaled up. Efforts to adapt to climate change impacts often bring multiple benefits — jobs, air quality improvements, community cohesion and more. These investments lay the foundation for a more sustainable and resilient future.
(Top image: Courtesy Getty Images)
Vicki Arroyo is Executive Director of the Georgetown Climate Center and Assistant Dean and Professor from Practice at Georgetown Law. Previously she was Vice President and General Counsel of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change where she oversaw Pew’s research program and U.S. policy work for more than a decade.
All views expressed are those of the author.