What Will It Take to Advance Climate Adaptation Equitably?

Low-income communities are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change. From flooding to air quality, adverse heat effects, and energy constraints and reliability, our most disadvantaged citizens are among those at highest risk of negative health impacts and loss of life and property.

Increasingly, cities across the United States are acknowledging that addressing climate change can’t only include mitigation efforts, but must also include activities to prepare for more frequent and intense natural disasters and weather events. Some cities are developing climate action plans, and considering how climate will affect equity and impact key systems and assets, such as transportation, power and essential services.  However, clear prioritization of recommendations and detail as to how those recommendations will be implemented are relatively less developed within cities.

Over the summer, we convened leading sustainability and resilience officers from cities and counties across the country for a conversation on how places are currently preparing for the effects of climate change in low-income communities; what we can learn from projects and transactions currently underway about the role of finance; and what it would take move from individual pilots and high level plans to effectively channel resources and attention to the measures that could make the greatest difference.

We heard:

  • Equity is important. Many of the sustainability and resilience officers are incorporating equity considerations into their work as a key part of their practice. This intentional focus is encouraging, given the disparate vulnerability that low income residents have to climate impacts.
  • Climate is not a top city-wide priority. One of the challenges of climate adaptation is that it’s hard to conceptualize and make visible future avoided risks, especially if those risks are uncertain. In many places, challenges around health, job creation, and crumbling infrastructure are considered to be more pressing, limiting resources and attention for climate adaptation. There may be an opportunity to leverage this challenge by aligning climate adaptation efforts with top-line priorities, e.g. by prioritizing infrastructure development that alleviates climate risk.
  • Scale is challenging. In many of these cities, climate adaptation efforts are currently taking place as pilot projects, rather than investments commensurate with the scale of the climate challenge. How to achieve the necessary scale was not obvious to the participants, many of whom are contending with limited resources and competing priorities.
  • Finance is stuck on the how, not the what. The climate adaptation field is seeing innovation in financing tools (like green bonds), and an explosion in guides and toolkits designed to explain these tools and their uses. Stakeholders are increasingly educated on what their options are for financing, but in many places, it’s not clear that there is a concrete set of activities ready to be financed that will contribute to solving the climate adaptation challenge.

The wide-ranging impacts of climate change, especially given unclear and variable timelines, necessitate the development and/or strengthening of cross-silo and cross-sector partnerships that address the issue. To address the true scale of our challenges, these partnerships may find value in engaging new stakeholders with different kinds of resources, like utilities.

We believe that framing the challenges of climate adaptation in terms of priorities, pipeline development and changes in the enabling environment would help communities move their climate work with greater scale, speed and impact. We are continuing to explore what that might look like, and invite your feedback.

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