Community-based climate change risk reduction

By Jane Bullock, Damon Coppola and George Haddow

The scientific community has argued for years that startling increases in the frequency and severity of extreme weather in the United States, such as Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, the 2011-2013 drought, and record-breaking low and high temperatures throughout the country, are the result of climate change. 

The increasing reach and regularity of these devastating events transcend politics and blame. Climate change is no longer a problem that only plagues developing countries. America and its communities, economy, environment, and citizens, face widespread impacts from climate-related disasters. Regulatory actions such as limits on carbon emissions are a vital step in addressing the root causes of climate change. These are insufficient to protect communities from rising risks. Sometimes the best defense is, in fact, a good defense.

Consensus is building across all sectors of American society that more must be done to protect our communities and our economy from the damaging impacts of climate change. In the business community, the threats are extensive. Corporate giants, including Coca Cola and Nike, are instituting more resilient production methods in recognition of the growing risks that worsening flood and drought conditions have posed to their bottom lines. 

Healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente reported that the range and spread of many diseases affected by climate variability, including vector-borne and contagious infections, respiratory and environmental illnesses, and disaster related injuries, pose a growing threat not only to their business line but to the nation’s entire healthcare infrastructure. 

For communities, the threat is equally daunting. State and local public safety officials and emergency managers continue to suffer overwhelming gaps in response capacity as extreme weather places their constituents in growing danger. In many cases these events have resulted from new threats that just decades ago seemed unimaginable or remarkably unlikely.   

A poll conducted by the Stanford Woods Institute in 2013 found that 82 percent of Americans support taking pre-disaster action to minimize the damages likely to result from climate-change.  It is time to translate this support into community action.

There are many actions communities can take now to address climate change impacts before they occur. Successful programs, such as Project Impact: Building Disaster Resistant Communities, demonstrate that communities can counteract growing climate risk by applying the following four-step process:

  1. Establishing a community partnership that involves all members of the community
  2. Identifying community vulnerabilities and calculate how climate change can exacerbate these vulnerabilities in the coming decades
  3. Identifying what actions can be taken to mitigate or reduce these vulnerabilities, and setting priorities for implementing impact reduction actions
  4. Generating the public, political, and financial support needed to implement the community’s priority climate change impact reduction actions

We have applied this methodology to help communities such as Napa, Calif., and Tulsa, Okla., to effectively reduce their natural hazards vulnerabilities while concurrently promoting economic growth and job creation

There are two significant obstacles standing in the way of effective climate risk reduction. First, many communities fail to recognize the changing nature of the disaster risks they face, and neglect to engage in efforts that identify and enable risk reduction. 

And second, many communities lack the technical know-how and leadership-support required to generate public, political and financial action. 

A 2012 Headwater Economics Report identified a clear need for effective and consistent leadership from elected officials and community members to create climate change adaptation plans. The report highlighted a lack of adequate resources as a significant barrier to implementing climate change risk reduction actions.

A climate change risk reduction platform is needed – one that is supported by each of the primary community sectors (economic development, public safety, emergency management, health care, environment, infrastructure, business, academia, and others).

To make this happen, we propose the following:

  1. Establish a coalition of organizations across those sectors impacted by climate change that would provide seed money to communities to take the four-step process to create climate change impact reduction programs and help communities to secure the resources needed to take their priority actions.
  2. Identify innovative and successful strategies and approaches to address community climate change impacts and bring these ideas and experiences to the attention of community decision-makers.
  3. Secure funding options at the local, state and Federal government levels, the private sector and the non-profit/foundation sector to support community climate change impact reduction actions.

America’s communities are experiencing the impacts of climate change every day and now is the time to give our communities the leadership and support to do something about it before the next disaster strikes.

The authors have crafted public policy, created public-private partnerships, and designed and implemented a national initiative in the field of community-based disaster risk reduction and climate change adaptation.  They were recently contracted by the United Nations to assess national- and global-regional efforts to integrate climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. They are co-authors of the 2009 book, “Global Warming, Natural Hazards and Emergency Management.”  

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Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

Jason Axelrod

Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
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