Time for climate adaptation?

It’s us. We’re responsible. Well, not us directly exactly, but our internal combustion engines and our land clearing and the flatulent animals we love to eat and our need to be somewhere other than where we are right now. I’m talking about the most important issue of our time of course, the intractable and undeniable problem of climate change. The scientists call it anthropogenic climate change; ACC in Acronym.

For years many of us have been thinking and writing and doing what we can to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases: eating local food, driving less while driving an efficient car, making our homes more energy efficient. Ten years ago I even wrote in this newsletter about how we could store all of that extra atmospheric carbon in the soil and how good that would be for agriculture and ecosystems and water as well as bringing the climate back to what our grandparents knew. Collectively all these ideas are known as “mitigation.”

But a new strategy has emerged, recognizing that all of those years of thinking and writing didn’t actually generate much doing.  So now it’s time to consider “adaptation.” How can we adapt? Thankfully someone has been working on this, and I’m delighted that it’s happening right in my backyard. Groundbreaking work is being done in my county of California by a consortium of folks called the North Bay Climate Adaptation Initiative (NBCAI). In December 2014, the Obama Administration recognized Sonoma County’s Regional Climate Protection Authority (RCPA) as one of 16 leaders on climate change, highlighting it as the nation’s first local government agency created specifically to address climate change. NBCAI has been integral to RCPA’s work.

This is not to suggest that mitigation, the emissions-reduction work we’ve all thought and written about and somewhat done over the previous years isn’t important. It’s crucial to avoid catastrophic climate shifts (Waterworld, anyone?), but it is no longer sufficient. We need to plan and prepare and adapt. As the International Panel on Climate Change said in their 5th Assessment Report, “Adaptation and mitigation are complementary strategies for reducing and managing the risks of climate change.”

A diverse group of folks, including natural resource managers, non-profit directors, and scientists have been working in Sonoma County for the past several years to bring adaptation to the forefront of the climate change response. As we say in The Resilient Investor, we need to be ready for anything, and climate adaptation initiatives are the forefront of how to do that.  A key element is careful, strategic thinking: what to tackle first, how to solve one problem without making others worse, etc.

Assisting the effort locally is a major recent advance in climate science, the ability to “downscale” the forecasting to see how local climate might change. Previous models of what future climate might look like were at a very large scale, with each “pixel” comprising an area of several western states, maybe 8 “pixels” for the entire United States. Now the resolution is much finer, with each “pixel” about the size of a local watershed. This generates considerably more predictive capacity, and gives county-scale decision makers useful information for planning and prioritizing.

Building on this enhanced science and predictive capacity, NBCAI worked to define what the actual changes will probably be for us in Sonoma County, and brought that down to specifics like areas with higher susceptibility to more fires, and what the sea rise in specific coastal areas will be. They could also predict more accurately how drought stress on plants increases and what that means economically for vital agricultural industries, like say, fine wine (now you can see why this is an issue the whole world should be concerned about!).

I had a few moments recently to sit down with Genevieve Taylor, the consultant to and facilitator for the North Bay Climate Adaptation Initiative and ask her some questions that might be helpful to other folks looking to get climate adaptation thinking happening in their communities.

What do you see as the keys to the successes you’ve had so far?

From the start, the partners in this process have been highly committed; and the local Community Foundation has had faith in what could come from it, providing long-term core funding.  Having professional facilitators has kept us moving, and helped the various organizations collaborate more deeply. And finally, the decision to create clear, simple strategic plans has given the whole process a very constructive kind of focus.

What does that planning look like?

Adaptive management is a key part of it: set a goal, then do, learn, and adapt. Also, moving strategically to broaden our audience and engagement.  We started with some key, close partners like the Sonoma County Water Agency, then reached out to public agencies like emergency services, public health, and city and county planners. A key point of alignment has been with organizations who also have long planning horizons – like 50 years. As soon as it started, the RCPA got involved.  It’s kept broadening as it’s gone on.

What would you have done differently to do it better?

More communication and outreach, and ‘pushing out’ our resources on climate and resilience with e-blasts and social media a lot earlier. Its easy to get caught in the “doing” of events – and sometimes our planning has suffered.

Any advice to others thinking of starting on this road?

Do a vulnerability assessment to start; it focuses your energy and captures attention.  Be willing to share, help, and support each other. Of course, look around at what’s worked elsewhere.  And as you start implementing, anticipate the possible outcomes enough to avoid doing harm.  Don’t make something else worse as you tackle one of your goals.  And learn how to develop systems thinking competency.  That’s going to be key as we learn to live in this new world we’ve created.  This is something that any community around the country and world could work on. And should.

Full disclosure: I am married to the consultant mentioned in this article, and have been a funder of NBCAI’s programs.

Christopher Peck

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