Climate Adaptation

Formation of Climate Adaptation

Climate adaptation is still in an early formative phase. Most climate adaptation work is being led by cities and within cities by community-based champions. The champions may, for example, be the mayor and the city council, or they may be in a health department or a disaster preparedness group or in the finance department. The fact is that many city climate adaptation projects could as well be called something else, for example an intelligent response to a weather or climate incident like repeated flooding, a hoodad or a hurricane. Climate adaptation projects fall within the climate adaptation category but they also fall into the categories of health, disaster preparedness and – what might not be expected -- economic development and employment. Most climate adaptation projects serve multiple purposes, for example health, social justice and providing attractive investment opportunities.

The essential nature of city climate adaptation is economic development and community organization. Community organization involves developing and anchoring cross-community support, leveraging interests and resources, building partnerships and creating conditions that attract people and capital. The projects tend to benefit all people in the city and people who live outside the city. City climate adaptation projects tend to be inclusionary, with social justice components along with new employment and economic development. However, though inclusionary, in current practice may or may not have a social justice component.

Consultants who assist cities in climate adaptation are drawn from many backgrounds, including former government experience, disaster preparedness, hazard mitigation, insurance, finance, the military, sociologists, specialists in environment, seasoned managers in the areas of water and energy utilities, city planners, urban forestry, parks and recreation, emergency services, disease prevention and control, police services and natural resources backgrounds. Though they share common insights and rely on a growing core of available knowledge, climate adaptation is in a formative phase and consultants are all learning along with the cities they advise. Some climate adaptation projects are systematic and structural and addressed to incorporating climate concerns within all city and organizational decision-making. The hope is that what may begin naturally as a specific project in relation to a climate incident will eventually become part of “business as usual” for the city and that with climate mitigation and climate adaptation “built-in” to city and organizational processes, the long-term climate trend can be systematically and effectively addressed. The goals of climate adaptation projects are to reduce vulnerability to extreme events, reduce sensitivity to climate variability and, in some cases and going forward systematically address both the short-term and the long-term climate trend.

Measurement & Evaluation

Evaluation of climate adaptation is also in a formative phase. Many projects do not have formal evaluations. For some, evaluation consists of after-action consultation and debriefing following an incident; for others, evaluation consists of informal observations and testimonials. Evaluations will become more formal and systematic but comprehensive, systematic and defensible evaluations are still the exception. Evaluation of climate adaptation is evolving.


In Climate of Hope (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2017), former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Carl Pope focus on immediate threats to cities and demonstrate resiliency solutions that are attractive and provide “wins” to cities.

These climate adaptation projects bring signal improvement in the quality of city life. They also create responsive opportunities for public and private return on investment. Bloomberg and Pope are believers in the idea that certain kinds of markets and economic growth can help solve climate problems. This is a careful understanding of markets and a forward-looking rather than a backward-looking understanding of economic growth.

The reality is that cities can independently carry out both climate mitigation and climate adaptation in ways that improve livability. These projects improve public health, increase livability, increase housing and open park space, create a meaningfully better quality of life and attract people to live in the city. In this way, opportunities expand and the city not only attracts people, it attracts capital. They note six hopeful intersectional realities, of which we here select three:

  1. Climate change is a series of manageable problems that all have solutions,
  2. Cities are taking action,
  3. More businesses are taking climate change into account – and taking action to prevent its impacts.

Bloomberg and Pope demonstrate pragmatic workable pathways forward that are both hopeful and optimistic. They outline and report on successful city projects.

We support the approach demonstrated by Bloomberg and Pope, first because it is good. Win or lose, this approach makes sense regardless of how it works out. However, it turns out, that for cities we can also be optimistic in the short-term. This approach leads to winning across cities for all groups since adaptation can, if carefully structured, drive economic growth and successful public and private return on investment. These, in turn support mitigation and adaptation in a virtuous relationship, and mitigation and adaptation can lead to a better quality of life and a full employment economy for the city.

Since we also focus on measurement and evaluation, we remain lucid regarding the long-term challenge. But considered within the perspective of the political economy of cities, Bloomberg and Pope demonstrate a kind of local optimization that leads to a pattern of meaningful citywide results that benefit all groups and contribute positively at the global and long-term level.

Breadth and Depth

The Kresge Foundation has supported a study of the breadth and depth of current climate adaptation practice in US Communities (Abt Associates, Climate Adaptation: The State of Practice in US. Communities, November 2016); This report profiles projects in seventeen cities. Four are utility projects. Projects included in the study are not put forward as best practices but as an index of what is now happening in cities to advance climate adaptation.

The range of projects is very broad, and a case study for each project provides depth. Most projects reduce vulnerability to climate variations and extreme events, some in response to a climate incident that has facilitated community mobilization. Many do not go beyond resolution of a recent climate incident. Although accomplishing popular and successful projects that provide a workable solution to a climate incident and may also improve the economy of a city is a remarkable achievement, this is not the same as addressing the long-term climate challenge. Nevertheless, these projects can project short or moderate term “wins” for all groups in the city and improve the quality of life. They can also be full time and optimistic engagements for public and private investment. Though they do not address the climate situation at a global long-term level, they contribute local positive results.

Though not necessarily an outcome of most city adaptation projects, the ability to explicitly address long-term climate change is being developed throughout these projects in several ways. Some projects have high costs, but many are low cost since many things can be effectively accomplished at a low cost using tools like existing regulatory authority and the development and administration of city ordinances. For example, for a coastal city, there may be a legal determination not to build any new city facility in an area that has been, is now, or will be subject to frequent flooding. This is essentially an intelligence improvement of site selection procedure.

The Abt study introduces ten principles of climate change adaptation (Exhibit 3.1, P. 41), of which we select four to emphasize here:

  1. Go beyond climate variability and extreme events: address the anticipated impacts of climate change.
  2. Incorporate climate change systematically in relevant decision-making processes.
  3. Consider the implications of an adaptation action both over the near- and long-term to insure an action is effective over time.
  4. Engage in monitoring and evaluation of climate change adaptation progress.


Until the federal government decides to protect the country with a Marshall plan for climate mitigation and climate adaptation, cities do not have a lot of money for projects. Yet, a large amount of funding constantly flows through cities for building construction and maintaining of public services. A critical review of ongoing practices, rules and regulations in place to govern these cash flows accompanied by a lucid understanding of adaptation needs and possibilities can build day-to-day alertness into city agencies. Progressive small modifications to current practices (development codes, zoning, ordinances, land-use regulations, permits, bonds, easements, utility fees, health regulations, housing regulations) can build increasing resilience into the continuing development of a city as it reproduces itself over time. This work needs to be coupled with strong community organization.

Note for Economists on Special Definitions

Our focus here is on the current realities of city climate adaptation projects, rather than at the level of global realities. When climate adaptation projects are viewed as economic development programs that promote investment and new employment, and where adaptation projects attract people and capital to the city, “growth” and “economic development” mean local (citywide or regional) optimization. In this context, they do not mean the global problem of unlimited growth against fixed resources or the global problem of plunder of the commons for unlimited maximization of return on capital as a thing-in-itself. Local attraction of capital and local return on investment to reduce exposure, decrease sensitivity and improve adaptive capacity toward meeting the climate trend is a special use of markets to support climate adaptation and is not primarily extractive in nature.

Note for Utilities

It is time for utilities to systematically introduce climate adaptation into all decision-making and planning processes. It affects planning decisions, resilience of utility infrastructure and revenues.