by Niles Anderegg, research and content development associate, ICMA

If you’ve already listened to the Local Gov Life podcast Fighting the Threat of Climate Change and Rising Sea Levels, you are familiar with why climate change is happening and how it’s impacting communities. 

But how, as a local leader, can you make effective choices supporting resilience to the impacts of climate change in your community? During the 2018 ICMA Annual Conference session “Planning, Preparing, and Adapting to Climate Change,” three session leaders shared their ideas on how local government leaders can shape decisions that enhance the safety and welfare of their residents. Here are five tips for planning, preparing, and adapting to climate change in your community. 

1. Consider a Semi-Centralized Organizational Structure

Florida State University Professor Richard Feiock conducted a report on how local governments organize themselves around sustainability. He found that communities that tended to have the most sustainability policies in place organized themselves around a semi-centralized structure, where local government agencies or departments operated on their own.

This type of organizational structure includes a "headquarters agency" that coordinates a community’s sustainability efforts. Feiock’s research found that communities with a headquarters agency were often the best performing and were often led by an organization’s environmental department.

By considering a semi-centralized organizational structure, you can eliminate the silo issues that local governments often face, as well as eliminate the tension between those focused on sustainability and those focused on resilience.

2. Be Open to Partnerships

Local governments who participate in partnerships with nonprofits and universities can take advantage of the knowledge and expertise that these entities possess to complement the work they are doing on climate change. Another advantage of partnerships is with budgeting, namely that partnerships can help absorb some of the financial costs of addressing climate change. Partnerships can also be used to help communities with their work of adapting to climate change, which might be too small for local governments to spend a lot of staff time or community resources on. By giving a little bit of help to local nonprofits, individual neighborhoods can meet their environmental challenges. 

In Ann Arbor, Michigan, for example, an important partner in this area is the University of Michigan. This partnership is important for two reasons. First, the university has the skill and expertise to partner with the city on ways to adapt to climate change and second, the university accounts for some 25 percent of the city's emissions. This partnership has helped Ann Arbor deal with such issues as aging in place. Aging in place involves planning for future changes in an environment and for the people who currently live in a community. In the case of Ann Arbor, this involves helping community members modify their homes to adapt to such changing weather conditions as an increase in large rain events. 

Another partnership that Ann Arbor is pursuing is with a nonprofit organization that is helping neighborhoods better use their composting resources. Increasing the use of composting benefits Ann Arbor, as it reduces the amount of waste going to landfills and reduces the community's greenhouse gas emissions. These examples demonstrate how partnerships can help local governments leverage community resources to combat climate change.

3. Educate Your Residents on Climate Change Issues

An important part of adapting and planning for the impacts of climate change is educating residents. In Dubuque, Iowa, educating residents about climate change meant having a conversation about resiliency. Local government staff and residents focused on the characteristics of what makes a person or a family resilient. Participants were able to set resiliency goals and priorities, and the city was able to take one step forward on combating climate change issues related to stormwater management and disaster preparedness with the help of its residents.

4. Improve Equity While Addressing Climate Change

One of the best ways communities can look at climate change is through an equity lens. While climate change will affect everyone, it will disproportionately affect poor and older populations in a community.

Planning and preparing for the effects of climate change involve trying to find ways to identify the communities that will be impacted the most. In Ann Arbor, mapping technology was used to identify vulnerable neighborhoods. Another example of an equitable climate change policy is in housing. Ann Arbor has been working on a program that will create new affordable housing that has net-zero energy use. The goal here is to use sustainable practices along with renewable sources of energy to create housing that generates as much energy as it uses. This type of housing project allows lower-income residents to reduce their energy costs while making their homes more environmentally friendly. 

Dubuque, Iowa, has a similar focus on equity, making it one of the values that defines the city's sustainable framework. One particular climate change equity issue is food security and safety. As climate change occurs, the type and quantity of food available will also change. It is important, therefore, for communities to find ways to conserve and use their food resources wisely. Dubuque has instituted a food recovery program to connect local businesses and farmers with food banks and other resources that allow the most vulnerable populations access to food that otherwise would have been thrown away. This not only improves the food resources of lower-income populations but also allows better management of the community’s food system.

5. Add Climate Change to Your Regular Planning Processes

Identifying the areas your community needs to address in terms of climate change is part of the planning process. Dubuque followed the standards set by STAR Communities and used its new resilience guide to help the city frame climate change in its planning process.

Once your community has identified the areas of concern, there are ways to incorporate climate change into your regular budgeting and planning processes. In Dubuque, the public works director had to budget for changes in how often a big snowfall will occur in the future, especially regarding overtime budgeting.

The Parks and Recreation Department, on the other hand, had to change the type of vegetation it needed to plant in public parks because as the temperatures vary, the variety of plants that will survive the new environmental conditions will also change. 

Want More?

You can access this presentation and 22 other 2018 ICMA Annual Conference sessions through the ICMA Virtual Annual Conference archives. 

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