Catalyst Fall 2016
Final Analysis

How Can Communities Build Climate Resilience?

FEMA community meeting

Louisianans meet with a FEMA representative about concerns for their communities’ future after Hurricane Katrina.
Photo: FEMA

by Erika Spanger-Siegfried

Many consequences of climate change, such as hotter temperatures and higher seas, have been irrevocably set into motion. Unless communities take aggressive steps now to increase their resilience to these consequences, the damages and dangers will mount as the climate continues to change. And yet, while planners and politicians around the world feel the pressure to protect people from harm, they must do so in ways that do not also create harm—for example, by prioritizing the needs of wealthy waterfront property owners over those with few financial resources.

How can decision makers act swiftly, but with care? How can communities put their limited resources to best use in light of an uncertain future?

This summer, UCS released a set of 15 principles designed to help guide decision makers and practitioners from the local to the federal level in building climate resilience. The principles are structured around three basic themes: science, equity, and what we call ambitious common sense. Here’s a sampling:

Decide with, not for

Communities or groups affected by climate preparedness decisions should be directly engaged in shaping those decisions. Local residents are best positioned to determine the actions that can improve their quality of life.

Aim for "robust" decisions

The climate is changing, but the precise nature of that change is unknown. Making decisions that produce favorable outcomes under a wide variety of conditions is a way to move forward despite that uncertainty. For example, a farmer in the Northeast could shift to planting crops that better tolerate both wet and dry conditions.

Consider the costs of inaction

Adaptation to climate change can be costly. But these expenses must be viewed against the mounting costs we will face down the road if we don’t start preparing. The costs of investing in preparedness versus recovering from a disaster are striking even today: for cities along US coasts, one dollar spent proactively can save as much as four dollars on recovery.

As these adaptation principles are adopted by practitioners and decision makers in the months ahead, we plan to learn from their initial experiences and refine the principles if necessary. UCS hopes this document proves to be a useful tool as our resilience-building nation adapts and learns to live with a new climate reality.

Erika Spanger-Siegfried is a senior analyst in the UCS Climate and Energy Program. Read the full list of 15 principles.