Preparing for Climate Change with Vicki Arroyo

Vicki
Photo: James Duncan Davidson / TED

 

Rising sea levels, droughts and wildfires are just some of the impacts the US is facing because of climate change. How can we prepare for more to come?  Vicki Arroyo, the Executive Director of the Georgetown Climate Center, is helping cities around the country safeguard their communities, businesses and homes from these impacts. She talked to us about her work and steps people can take to make their communities resilient.

 

For many years, the symbol of climate change has been the polar bear. What do you believe is a better symbol for people in the US, considering the many local impacts?

I like polar bears as much as anyone.  But I think that image conjures up something remote without a real connection to our lives, when in fact, we are facing the consequences of climate change just as much as the polar bear. Communities along the East and Gulf coasts face increasing risks of flooding and damage from more powerful storms and rising seas; Farmers are dealing with losses of crops and livestock from severe drought and invasive pests; and communities in the West are seeing more wildfires. It’s our families, our neighbors, our communities being affected – and more than anyone, it will be our children and grandchildren.

 

What is the difference between climate change mitigation and adaptation and how are they connected?

Climate change mitigation involves steps to curb or capture greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.  Adaptation is our response to the changes at hand – it’s essentially preparing for climate change and coping with the inevitable consequences.

In recent years, as more people experience severe weather and climate impacts, there has been increased attention on adaptation. Because we have not been successful in reducing global emissions of greenhouse gases, we have no choice but to adapt.  However, the changes that will occur if we continue the current rate of emissions are expected to be so catastrophic that successful adaptation will not be possible.  So we need to do both: We must reduce climate pollution and we must adapt to the increasingly severe impacts of our changing climate. Both are imperative.

 

Why are so many cities now at the forefront of climate action?

Climate change is a global problem, but it is being felt on a very local level.  Cities are on the front lines – whether it be because of increased heat waves, more severe storms, or rising seas.  Most of our population is clustered in cities around coastlines.  So communities are seeing the changes already occurring and are taking action.  Across the country, from New York City to Austin, from Seattle to Miami, cities have recognized they must confront these very real threats and take action.

 

Which US cities should others emulate when it comes to adaptation?

While many cities are making progress, no one city stands out as a model for all the steps that can be taken to adapt to climate change. But there are a number of efforts being taken that help point the way to building resilience:

  • New York City has laid out an important vision for adapting to climate change with a nearly $20 billion plan, PlaNYC, that was developed under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg after Hurricane Sandy. The plan includes over 250 initiatives to address current and future climate change impacts as well as resiliency strategies.
  • In 2010 four South Florida counties -- Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach -- established the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Compact, to partner in both mitigation and adaptation efforts, sharing information and responding to changes at a regional level.
  • Boston requires that developers complete a climate-smart checklist for new projects. Applicants must answer questions about how their projects will respond to (and cope with) higher temperatures and heat waves, sea-level rise, and more powerful storms. 
  • Funding climate adaptation is often the biggest hurdle for cities to overcome. Instituting small fees, such as the 5-cent fee on plastic bags in Washington, DC, can help fund important projects. Washington has used its bag-fee revenue to clean up the Anacostia River and to support programs such as a $7-10 per-square-foot subsidy for green roofs, stream restorations, and community education and outreach.

 

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Washington, DC’s bag fee helped to subsidize green roofs from 200 square feet to 25,000 square feet. Green roofs help insulate buildings, reduce urban temperatures, curb stormwater runoff, and reduce emissions. (Photo: USDA)

 

What are the most urgent threats that the country needs to address?

We must act now to build more resilient communities and tackle the underlying causes of climate change by reducing carbon pollution. Three critical steps are:

  • Building resilience to climate impacts. Some of the many cost-effective approaches include installing green roofs and planting trees to reduce heat impacts, and restoring wetlands and beaches and other buffers to protect against rising sea levels, floods and storm surges. Government leaders need to identify their communities’ vulnerabilities and change their policies and investments to reduce those vulnerabilities.
  • Enacting policies that reduce carbon pollution from the power sector, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, and that also promote clean energy and energy efficiency across all sectors and all levels of government (local, state, and federal).
  • Increasing public understanding and awareness of climate change, of our vulnerabilities, and of ways to reduce carbon pollution and to prepare for more extreme weather, rising seas, and other changes.

 

What are some of the qualities of a resilient city/region/state?

Resilient communities are those prepared to handle shock and stresses, such as from a devastating storm or wildfire, and emerge stronger after the challenge. Some key characteristics of such communities include the ability to anticipate risks – especially the risks to vulnerable populations, re-establish infrastructure to avoid long-term disruptions, be flexible, share knowledge as conditions change, and have spare capacity to serve as back-ups when critical components fail.

Many local governments have sound ideas for building resilience, but funding what must be done is often a big barrier. This is where the federal government needs to step in, and the Climate Resilience Fund proposed by the President earlier this year would provide a big lift. The Georgetown Climate Center is also playing an important role by assisting state and local policymakers in crafting legal and policy solutions to prepare for and mitigate climate change.

 

Marsh
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation, an EarthShare Mid-Atlantic member charity, plants marsh grasses in Maryland to protect tidal shoreline from erosion. These “living shorelines” are one way communities are adapting to rising sea levels from climate change.



In your travels around the country, are there any personal stories about resilience that have stuck with you or kept you motivated?

My own family has experienced tremendous losses in recent major hurricanes, which are becoming stronger and more devastating in this era of climate change.  The Climate Center works with people from coast-to-coast on a range of issues affecting their communities – drought, sea-level rise, wildfires, heat waves.  It’s all about helping people and their communities navigate and prepare for these challenges, and it’s all very personal because each of has strong bonds to wherever we call “home.”

 

What can people do to encourage resilience in their communities?

We can no longer rely on established norms and past experience when planning for the future – including how we design and locate buildings, homes, roads, water systems, and other critical infrastructure that our society and economy depends on. We need to understand that the future climate our children and grandchildren will live in will be different than today’s, and we need to start now to prepare for these changes. We need to acknowledge the risks presented by these changes, and confront them head-on with smart solutions that reduce costs and safeguard communities.

It’s up to us to plan and prepare and to call on our government leaders to do the same even as they address the underlying causes of climate change. There are no quick fixes, no one-size-fits-all solutions. We’re learning by doing. And the operative word is doing. 

 

Georgetown Climate Center works with U.S. state and federal policymakers to help craft legal and policy solutions and to prepare for and help curb climate change. To learn more about their work, watch Vicki’s TED talk on climate adaptation.

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