U.S. climate-adaptation plans long on ideas, short on details and priorities

New research from UNC-Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan published this week shows that local communities are good at developing strategies to combat the harmful effects of climate change but often fail to prioritize actions or offer details necessary to support implementation.

UNC graduate student Sierra Woodruff is the lead author of the new paper – “Numerous strategies but limited implementation guidance in US local adaptation plans” – which was published online by Nature Climate Change this month. The paper will be published in a future print edition.

Local communities are already feeling the impacts of climate change, including longer and hotter summers, heavier downpours, more frequent nuisance flooding and larger wildfires. In response, local governments are beginning to invest in adaptation – actions to limit the negative consequences of climate change – and, in many cases, create climate adaptation plans to help guide their efforts and investments.

In the last decade, dozens of U.S. communities have created stand-alone climate adaptation plans that detail how climate change is projected to impact the community and what actions should be taken to prepare.

In their paper, Woodruff and Missy Stults, a doctoral candidate at University of Michigan, evaluated 44 local climate-adaptation plans, examining how their content and quality varies across communities. Among the questions they asked were, “What are the strengths and weaknesses of existing U.S. local adaptation plans?” and “What opportunities exist for improving the next generation of climate adaptation plans?”

They found that communities applied wide-ranging strategies, such as improving infrastructure design, protecting ecosystems and public education. On average, the adaptation plans included 93 unique strategies for addressing climate challenges.

However, most communities failed to prioritize their climate-adaptation efforts or to offer details on how their strategies would be implemented. Only a third of communities included detailed timelines or assigned responsibility for plan implementation.

“This raises concerns about whether adaptation plans, which often involve years of development, will translate into on-the-ground projects that help communities prepare for climate change,” Woodruff said.

Woodruff and Stults also found that planning efforts that originated in municipal planning departments and that engaged elected officials were of higher quality than those created by other government agencies or by outside consultants that may be less familiar with community issues and vulnerabilities.

“Local communities are already feeling the impacts of climate change, and those impacts are projected to become more severe and intense in the future,” Stults said. “We hope that our findings lead to higher-quality adaptation plans and to more resilient communities.”

Their results suggest that in order to more effectively plan for climate change, planning efforts should engage planners and elected officials. Greater attention must also be dedicated to determine timelines, responsibilities, and funding for implementation to help ensure that plans translate into actions.

Partial financial support for this research was provided by the National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program.

“Sierra’s work will assist researchers and practitioners better understand the role that planning plays in helping communities better adapt to both climate change as well as natural hazards and disasters,” said Dr. Gavin Smith, Director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Coastal Resilience Center and a research professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at UNC.

“Given the importance of Sierra’s work, I have asked her to speak in my fall class Planning for Natural Hazards and Climate Change Adaptation in the last two years and to use the evaluative tool she has developed as a way for students to assess the quality of climate change adaptation plans.”

This three-hour course is part of a 10-credit graduate certificate in Natural Hazards Resilience.

While affiliated with the CRC and pursuing her Ph.D., Woodruff served as a Center-sponsored Graduate Student Climate Preparedness Intern in Washington, D.C., working with the White House on the President’s national climate change policy.

For more on the research, Woodruff can be reached at sscheleg@email.unc.edu