The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released two reports in early spring detailing ways communities can adapt to climate change and potential solutions to mitigate it. The IPCC’s latest reports demonstrate how climate change is advancing at a rate that soon may outpace society’s ability to adequately adapt—reinforcing the need for intentional, long-term measures.
Adaptation is not a substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating rising temperatures, but as we’re already seeing with the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events like flooding, wildfires, and droughts, climate change is a real threat that is already affecting every aspect of society.
Adaptation planning is an inherently uncertain act, as it involves preparing for future conditions with a range of known and unknown factors. Adaptation should be viewed as a continuum between the desired outcome and negative effects. At its best, adaptation diverts risk and effectively adjusts to altered conditions. But at its worst, it can make people and places even more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change—what’s known as maladaptation. Research is increasingly highlighting the importance of the process of adaptation as much as the outcome.
In a recent Urban Institute report on flood planning and adaptation, we conducted a national survey of state-level flood plans that identified significant gaps between states in their flood preparation. States are central players in adaptation planning because they are conduits between federal resources and local priorities. That’s why a lack of cohesive, long-term planning at the state level can create significant risk for maladaptation and potentially cause further harm to communities already vulnerable to the effects of climate change.
When does maladaptation happen?
Existing vulnerabilities can be reinforced when adaptation only touches on the impacts of climate change without considering what drives that vulnerability. Most of the state flood plans in our survey did not meaningfully incorporate discussions of social vulnerability in geographic flood risk assessments, creating a knowledge gap in how socioeconomic and demographic factors influence risk. Without an understanding of the disproportionate effects of climate change, existing vulnerabilities rooted in systemic and historical inequities will be reinforced.
Adaptation planning that occurs without a nuanced understanding of local contexts, power dynamics, and community needs can lead to marginalized groups’ continued exclusion from decisionmaking and benefits. Most plans in our survey had limited public engagement, with many feedback sessions and public comment periods seen as check-the-box actions rather than purposeful engagement. And although most plans did involve considerable municipal and county-level government engagement, few of them included strategies to assist communities with limited financial, staffing, or technical capacity to plan for or implement flood adaptation.
Maladaptation can also occur when physical land-use and infrastructure changes lock people into development pathways that limit their ability to adapt to climate change. The IPCC report explicitly cited coastal protection strategies that rely on grey infrastructure—such as levees and seawalls—as some of the most likely to lead to maladaptation. While these structures protect the local area from short-term sea-level changes, they can exacerbate flooding in other parts of the shoreline and offer a false sense of security to future risk.
Four ways to improve long-term state flood planning efforts
For state and local flood plans to support effective adaptation and reduce the likelihood of maladaptive practices, the following considerations can help inform planning efforts:
- Offer funding and technical assistance to communities with limited capacity. States should focus efforts on ensuring communities with limited financial and technical capacity have access to state funding and technical support to develop long-term plans with clear visions and goals. States need to build capacity across localities to avoid gaps in data, knowledge, and planning that could lead to maladaptation.
- Apply inclusive governance practices and engage historically marginalized groups in planning decisions. Without intentional action to redress past inequities, climate change will further entrench disparities. To meaningfully pursue inclusive governance, states need to budget appropriate time and funds for meaningful public engagement into all planning processes to create opportunities for public education and input on state flood hazard mitigation efforts. This includes engaging community members where they live to tap into their knowledge of flooding’s real-world impacts and ensure solutions are addressing the community’s full range of needs.
- Improve the quality of climate data available, especially at the local level. Having granular climate data is crucial to accurately plan for new threats posed by climate change. Many states still rely on outdated Federal Emergency Management Agency flood maps and are therefore assigning adaptation resources based on potentially inaccurate risk. Achieving this granular data may include collecting local data that goes beyond the national models and incorporating data on socially vulnerable communities into flood risk assessments.
- Connect comprehensive planning across different plans. To combat siloed and disjointed planning, states need to focus on integrating consistent goals and objectives across the range of plans that address flooding and natural hazards. Comprehensive planning creates the link from plan to implementation to ensure follow-through and includes elements such as identifying a timeline, a budget, funding, and parties responsible for execution.
Many of these considerations are mutually reinforcing and can support states in ensuring adaptation efforts diminish, rather than exacerbate, communities’ flood vulnerability.