Although advocacy continues to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions through mitigation, much of the action worldwide is all about adaptation, or managing the risk of climate impacts that cannot be avoided. And two places that have started to take serious steps to prepare for these impacts -- flooding, sea level rise, storm surges, wildfires, drought -- are the United States and Australia.
The two countries, both large, sprawling, and showing a predilection for coastal development, have much in common when it comes to climate change. First, they are among the highest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitters per capita in the developed world, with Australia usually heading the list and the United States close behind. Second, both countries are exposed to significant climate-related risk relative to sea level rise and storm surge, drought and water shortage, floods, wildfires, and heat waves.
A new book just published by the Lincoln Institute lays out nine case studies of adaptation responses from New York City, the Southeastern Atlantic Coast States, New Orleans, Los Angeles–San Diego, and San Francisco; and in Australia from Melbourne, Sydney, South East Queensland, and Perth. Examples of the initiatives include reconfiguring ecosystems and banning development in the wake of devastating fires in Melbourne, creating one super-agency to manage water supplies in Los Angeles and San Diego, and the concept of “strategic retreat” of infrastructure, housing, and other assets vulnerable to storm surge and flooding in New York and Connecticut.
“We are humbly aware that this is only an initial response to a challenge with a magnitude of potential impacts never before experienced in human history, a challenge that will test our ability to work together at every scale,” said Lincoln Institute senior fellow Armando Carbonell, who co-edited Resilient Coastal City Regions: Planning for Climate Change in the United States and Australia with Edward J. Blakely from the University of Sydney, and former recovery czar in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.
The focus is on coastal regions in the United States and Australia, but the aim of the volume is to suggest adaptation and mitigation initiatives applicable throughout the world, he said -- anyplace that has seen severe climate impacts already, such as extreme temperature and precipitation events. A recent story in the New York Times surveyed how some 3.7 million Americans along the coastline are threatened by sea level rise.
The Lincoln Institute initially became involved in the issue of climate change through work with planning directors in the 30 largest cities of the United States. Beginning in 2006 these city planners started raising the issue of how to respond to their mayors’ questions about global warming. Many of the mayors were already signing the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement, launched by Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels in 2005 as the Kyoto Protocol was going into effect.
The pivotal environmental issue of our time has been crowded off the world stage as governments across the globe struggle for economic stability in the wake of the financial crisis of 2008. But in spite of mixed prospects for action at the international and national levels, state and local governments have shown a surprising ability to respond to climate change. Resilience and adaptation are rapidly becoming a major emphasis in these jurisdictions, warranting greater attention on best practices.
To avoid catastrophic results, however, it remains necessary to significantly reduce GHG emissions, Carbonell and Blakely conclude. While there are encouraging developments at the national level in Australia, recent analysis suggests that the time for action is critically short.