Evidence and Ideas for Change How to adapt to climate change without worsening inequalities
Sarah Rosen Wartell
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What would it take to ensure that all communities—not just the well-resourced ones—are prepared for the effects of global climate change? The Urban Institute delved into this question over the past several months and surfaced a few promising climate adaptation solutions that philanthropies, state and local governments, federal agencies, and community organizations are carrying out nationwide. Our latest Catalyst brief, released today, highlights these bold ideas and identifies areas where innovators and experts need more information to fast-track equitable, inclusive actions that respond to the consequences of climate change.

The evidence is overwhelming: as our country faces the challenge of mitigating climate change, we must also prepare our communities to adapt to its effects. And the latter is the focus of our latest work, the second in our series of eight Catalyst briefs that are part of our Next50 initiative.

Why climate change? Our transforming climate could exacerbate inequalities and block opportunities in the decades ahead. American communities are already far behind others in preparing for climate change’s effects—and we’re likely to experience greater pains in catching up. Traditionally underresourced communities, the elderly, people with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups will be left further behind, as they are less likely to be prepared for climate disasters, are more vulnerable to losses, and have a tougher path toward recovery.

But we’re hopeful that today’s leading thinkers and doers have the power to ensure that lower-income neighborhoods have the same opportunities to adapt as more affluent ones have. We envision a future where communities and families have a range of options to help them prepare for the disruptive effects of global climate change. These preparations would give every family and community the information they need and agency to decide how best to adapt. And they would protect communities’ historical assets and social networks.

This was the vision guiding our researchers as they spoke with climate change experts, local leaders, advocates, and other changemakers working on equitable climate adaptation solutions by

  • adopting decisionmaking processes, public engagement strategies, and awareness campaigns that include all affected communities;
  • revamping existing property insurance, retrofitting building infrastructure, and enhancing emergency preparedness services in ways that can transition as more severe climate effects arise;
  • reconsidering and reforming land use, building techniques, and property rights to respond adaptively to climate change’s effects; and
  • relocating families and entire communities to safer locations, where appropriate and as they need.

To help changemakers take their solutions even further, Urban surfaced several areas where they need more information. Here’s how these knowledge gaps could be addressed:

  • assess the framework for a climate safety net so federal and state policymakers can identify critical gaps, strengthen existing programs, and develop new ones
  • uncover individual and household risk perceptions and behaviors so local policymakers and planners can anticipate how people will respond to new incentives, regulations, and immediate environmental hazards
  • measure inclusive engagement and equitable outcomes so local officials and community leaders can create robust processes for people to exercise real voice and power
  • monitor and build local capacity and leadership to develop and implement equitable climate adaptation strategies
  • evaluate changes in climate governance and property law so public officials in regions across the country can develop and apply new models that span jurisdictions
  • integrate several risk scenarios into population and provider projections so local officials and community leaders can have access to reliable risk projections that encompass multiple climate effects and their implications for people and places
  • develop tools for calculating value so both public- and private-sector decisionmakers can assess the full range of costs and benefits of alternative investments in climate adaptation

I look forward to hearing your thoughts as we begin providing tools to strengthen the capacity of communities and families to adapt to climate change. And I hope you’ll continue to stay tuned as Urban unveils what we learn from our remaining “what would it take” questions.

Research Areas Climate, disasters, and environment
Tags Climate adaptation and resilience