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Climate Change Adaptation

Increasing Local Climate Resilience

jumpin jacks drive in building surrounded by water coming half way up the windows
A warming climate favors intense storms like
Hurricane Irene, 2011. The swollen Mohawk River
flooded Jumpin' Jacks Drive-in, located on the river's
bank in Scotia, New York.

Individuals, communities, organizations and institutions have opportunities now to protect their most important assets -- human, natural and infrastructure -- from the impacts of climate change.

Public health and safety, key responsibilities of every local government, today include adapting the community to a changing climate by increasing the resilience of its natural and human systems to climate hazards. Even if we are successful in mitigating greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, some climate change will occur from GHGs already emitted. Resilient communities evaluate how climate change may affect them and take steps to counteract these impacts.

Climate Impacts are Local

A dry, stoney, stream bed.
Extremely hot summers in 2005
and 2010 dried up the Plattekill
(above) and other New York
streams, breaking century-old
heat records.

For New York, climate change means changes in weather patterns and sea levels. As the global average temperature rises, localities are seeing more extreme precipitation, heat and storms. Rising sea levels make storm surges more damaging and can inundate low-lying areas. These weather extremes and sea level changes are the chief hazards associated with climate change.

Extreme weather and flooding have profound and immediate impacts on people, economies, the built and natural environments, and human activities like agriculture and recreation that rely on predictable and moderate conditions.

  • Flooding and extreme precipitation threaten health and safety by contaminating water, threatening food and water supplies and promoting insect-borne diseases.
  • Temperature-sensitive agricultural products, including maple syrup, apples and dairy, also will decline as temperatures warm. Scientists expect continuing temperature rise, with hot, dry spells of several weeks' duration.
  • Drought reduces the productivity of field crops, such as grains, corn silage and hay, and the availability of water for drinking, hydropower production and irrigation.
  • Projected at between 4 inches and 33 inches in this century (or even more if the earth's large ice sheets begin to melt), the amount of sea level rise that actually occurs will depend in part on how successfully, and how soon, nations are able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Climate Change Adaptation is also Local

Local Adaptation Planning

Adaptation planning protects public health and safety, and also reduces the economic and social costs of the changing climate. Scientists project global climate change impacts; scaled down to regional levels, these projections underlie the three steps of local adaptation planning:

  1. Assessing local climate change hazards -- typical hazards would be extreme heat or storms, and sea level rise; regional-scale information about hazards that communities can use in planning for adaptation is being developed.
  2. Identifying local vulnerabilities to climate change -- natural or human resources in the local community are subject to harm if climate hazards affect the local area; typical local vulnerabilities might include roads or treatment plants near rising water, or ill or aged populations without air conditioning.
  3. Evaluating local climate risk -- climate risk includes both the likelihood that harm will actually occur and the seriousness of the consequences if it does.
A pair of hands holding trout against rocks and flowers as a backdrop
Trout and other New York fish and wildlife,
long adapted to cool conditions, will
not thrive in warm streams.

The NYSERDA ClimAID and IPCC Managing Risks links at right provide more information about planning for climate resilience. Once vulnerabilities and risks are clear, the adaptation planning process concludes with selection and implementation of adaptation actions, followed by evaluation of how much the locality's resilience has improved.

Local governments can develop separate climate adaptation plans, or incorporate adaptation planning in comprehensive plans or other ongoing planning projects. Many adaptation experts refer to the incorporation of climate-change into these routine plans as mainstreaming, and many consider it to be more important than development of a stand-alone adaptation plan. To assist with mainstreaming efforts, the Climate Smart Communities program has developed Climate Smart Resiliency Planning (see Important Links on right), a tool to help municipal leaders work collaboratively across departments to recognize opportunities to enhance community resilience in existing documents and to begin to create a set of integrated planning documents that identify vulnerabilities, assess risk and mitigate hazards. A spreadsheet version of the Climate Smart Resiliency Planning tool to facilitate information gathering is also available upon request to climatechange@dec.ny.gov.

Climate Smart Community task forces are ideally positioned to lead local climate adaptation programs. Broad community participation in risk assessments and adaptation actions will result in the greatest improvement in resilience.

Planning for climate change and acting to increase resilience will probably cost money. But the cost of failing to adapt as the climate changes is likely to outweigh any savings from delaying a response. The ClimAID statewide climate change adaptation study estimates that without adaptation measures, by mid-century annual climate change costs for New York State's key economic sectors may approach $10 billion.

Local Adaptation Action

Railroad tracks running very close to the Hudson River
Infrastructure located where flooding is likely from
sea level rise or heavy rains constitutes a climate
vulnerability. Resilient communities recognize and plan
to reduce risk to infrastructure and other resources.

Although adaptation planning and incorporation of climate change considerations into existing planning processes are important, municipalities need not - indeed should not - wait for planning processes to conclude before taking positive adaptive actions.

"No- regrets" actions and policies, which help protect against the effects of future climate change and also provide enhanced protection from current climate risks, are a good starting point for community adaptation.

Typical adaptation actions include planning, communication and preparedness for extreme weather events; incorporating expected changes into land-use decision-making processes; guiding development out of flood-prone areas; improving the resiliency of shorelines, natural systems, and critical infrastructure; applying cost-effective green technologies and using natural systems to reduce vulnerabilities; and conserving healthy forest, wetland and river ecosystems and agricultural resources, which are vital to successful climate change adaptation.

Columbia Law School has created a Climate Change Adaptation Resources page which is organized by federal and state efforts. Here you can find out what New York State and your local governments are doing to adapt to climate change. (See link on right)


More about Climate Change Adaptation: