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Cities trying to plan for warmer, wetter climate

Steve Carmody
Michigan Radio

City officials around the country are trying to figure out how to make changes in their communities to adapt to climate change.

Researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of North Carolina looked at 44 of these climate adaptation plans, and found they were a mixed bag.

Missy Stults is a Ph.D. candidate at U of M in the Urban and Regional Planning Program and the School of Natural Resources and Environment.

She says in the Great Lakes region, city officials are mainly concerned about excessive rainfall events.

“Heavy precipitation events leading to localized flooding, storm water overflows. Those are really the main issues, at least in the Midwest," she says.

Stults says they examined stand-alone climate adaptation plans.

"What that means is these 44 communities created a plan solely focused on understanding how they’re vulnerable to climate change, both existing impacts as well as future impacts, and then they created a plan focused on solutions to those different impacts," she says.

She says there are a lot of other ways communities can plan for climate change, so this group of plans from 44 cities is just a small subset.

Strengths and weaknesses

Stults says there were strengths in some of the plans.

"They do a really great job of drawing on different fact bases. What I mean by that is they’re pulling reports from the U.S. federal government or local universities. They’re also doing a really good job at selecting a wide array of strategies to prepare."

That could mean changing infrastructure in a city to make it better able to withstand heavy wind or flood events, or creating green rooftops or permeable pavement that allows storm water to soak in instead of running off into a drain.

"So that’s great, they’re thinking about lots of different things they can do within their powers to become more resilient; we’re excited about that," she says.

But there's a flip side.

"We don't see a lot of detail about how they're going to implement these strategies."

"We don’t see a lot of detail about how they’re going to implement these strategies. So they’re putting these great ideas forward, but they’re not substantiating that with detail about who’s responsible for implementing, how they’re going to fund these strategies, how they’re going to evaluate whether these strategies are effective," says Stults. "So that leaves us really questioning whether these plans are going to translate into actions on the ground that are going to create more resilient communities."

There are barriers to putting these plans in place.

She says funding, of course, is a big one.

“We just don’t have the amount of capital needed to really invest at scale in climate adaptation. And there are a lot of discussions that are happening within philanthropy, at the private scale, at the federal government, to really try to figure this out."

And she says a lot of local governments have had to cut staff in recent years.

"The Great Recession hit local governments really hard, so they laid off a lot of staff. And now you’ve got people that are, really in my eyes, they’re kind of heroes at the local level that are fighting the fight to make sure you have your trash being picked up, that you’ve got good drinking water that’s coming out of your faucet, but then they’re also responsible for planning for climate change, this big issue," she says.

"Stakeholders believe it's happening, and that belief is really strong at the local level."

And so they’re basically doing the job of two and a half to three people, so there’s just not a lot of capacity to take on more work. So we’ve got to overcome a lot of hurdles in that space."

But Stults says they also found that local officials acknowledge climate change is real.

"Stakeholders believe it’s happening, and that belief is really strong at the local level, because it’s where you see the impacts: because you flood ... and you need to prepare for a flood. Or it’s hot, and you have to prepare for heat,” she says.

The studywas published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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