Climate Resilience on the High Plains

For those who think only in terms of the politics of red and blue states, the conference I attended March 30-31 in Lincoln, Nebraska, may seem like a paradox, if not an oxymoron. It is neither. It is a matter of looking beyond labels to facts and common sense, and ultimately toward solutions to shared problems. The problem with climate change is that the subject has been politicized into federal policy paralysis. But the scope for local and even state action is wider than it seems.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) Public Policy Center with support from the High Plains Regional Climate Center (HPRCC) sponsored the conference on “Utilizing Climate Science to Inform Local Planning and Enhance Resilience.” I spoke first on the opening panel. The sponsors have been working with communities across Iowa, Missouri, Kansas, and Nebraska. Planners, floodplain managers, and civil engineers from eleven municipalities in those states participated, along with UNL staff, climatologists, the Nebraska emergency manager, and myself.

My job was to provide a national perspective on the subject from a national professional organization, representing the Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association. I talked about two projects we are conducting with funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: “Building Coastal Resilience through Capital Improvements Planning” and “Incorporating Local Climate Science to Help Communities Plan for Climate Extremes.” I made light of the fact that there was not a single coastal community among the four states of the region, but I added that the lessons from the first project are still relevant because every community plans for capital improvements, which generally constitute the biggest investments they make in their future. Capital improvements cover long-term expenditures for transportation and waste and wastewater infrastructure as well as other facilities potentially affected by climate change. In the Midwest and High Plains, instead of sea level rise, communities are watching a rise in the number and severity of extreme events on both ends of the precipitation curve—in other words, both prolonged drought and more intense rainfall. Drought taxes water supply while heavy rainstorms tax local capacity to manage stormwater. Both may require costly improvements to address vulnerabilities.

This park is part of the new urban amenity created for Lincoln residents.

I simply set the stage, however, for an increasingly deep dive over two days into the realities facing the communities represented at the workshop. Such input was an essential point of the conference. Different professionals speak differently about the problem; if planners or local elected officials are to interpret climate data in a way that makes sense politically and makes for better local policy, it is important for, say, climate scientists to understand how their data are being understood. There must also be effective information conduits to the general public, which is often confused by overly technical presentations. Moreover, what matters most is not the same for every group of listeners.

Glenn Johnson explains some of the planning of Antelope Valley.

Some of the challenges, as well as the successes, were clear from presentations by two speakers who followed me to talk about the situation in Lincoln. Glenn Johnson is retired from the Lower South Platte Natural Resources District. Steve Owen is with the city’s Public Works and Utilities Department and spoke about the challenges related to water supply and quality, as well as flooding. At the end of the conference, we spent three hours touring Lincoln’s Antelope Valley project, an interesting combination of using a weir (small dam) and landscaping tools to create adequate water storage to reduce flooding in the downtown area. This had the interesting impact of removing some land from the floodplain and sparking redevelopment in what are now some of Lincoln’s most up-and-coming neighborhoods. At the same time, the project through creative urban

Now you know what a weir looks like (if you didn’t already). Photo courtesy of UNL.

design has allowed the city to create new urban park space and trails that enhance the urban experience for residents. Responding to climate and flooding challenges need not subtract from a city’s overall prospects; it can help enhance its attractiveness to both citizens and developers. The result is that good planning has helped make Lincoln a more interesting city than it might otherwise have been. That is a message worth considering amid all the political hubbub over climate change. We can create opportunity, but we must also embrace the reality. My guess is that this is why the other ten cities were present.

Jim Schwab

Step Forward on Water Hazards Resilience

Satellite photo of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. Image from NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It is time to make America resilient. The trends have been moving us in the wrong direction for a long time, but we know how to reverse them.

Planners — and elected officials — have to embrace the science that will inform us best on how to achieve that goal, and we have to develop the political will to decide that public safety in the face of natural hazards is central both to fiscal prudence and the kind of nation we want to be. America will not become great by being short-sighted.

Damage from natural disasters is taking an increasing toll on our society and our economy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), currently the target for serious budget cuts by the Trump administration, operates the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), a vital national resource center for data. It has long tracked the number and costs of the nation’s weather and climate-related disasters, and the conclusion is unavoidable: The number of billion-dollar disasters is growing and getting worse.

APA’s Hazards Planning Center has long studied and highlighted best planning practices for addressing the vulnerabilities that lead to such disaster losses. However, the uptake into community planning systems varies, and it is often a long process challenged by resource shortages.

In recognition of Water Week, I offer the following recommendations to Congress for ways in which federal partners and planners can work together to create stronger, more resilient communities:

Maintain funding levels

Maintaining the necessary funding support for agencies like NOAA is critical for providing us with the baseline information the nation needs to track data. It’s only through the ongoing coordination, maintence, and strengthening of national data resources that federal partners will truly be able to support local planning efforts. More data — not less — is the key to creating hazards policy that prepares communities for the future.

Translate science into good public policy

It is important to find new and better ways to translate science into good public policy. This is one of the objectives for NOAA’s Regional Coastal Resilience program — just one of the many important grants in danger of being defunded in FY 2018.

Support America’s coastal communities by ensuring that they benefit from projects directing the nation’s scientific and technical ingenuity to solve problems related to coastal hazards. The price tag is a tiny fraction of what the nation spent on recovery from Hurricane Sandy. The program is clearly a wise investment in our coastal future.

Reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program

The National Flood Insurance Program expires this year. Reauthorization must include continued support for the flood mapping program so communities have essential baseline information on the parameters of their flooding challenges.

Municipalities and counties need accurate and current flood mapping and data in order to make more informed judgments on both how and where to build. Only then will the nation begin to dial back the volume of annual flood damages.

Pass the Digital Coast Act

Passing the Digital Coast Act means authorizing and enabling NOAA to provide the suite of tools, data, and resources under the Digital Coast program that have proved useful to local planners, coastal resource managers, public works departments, and water agencies in better managing coastal zones and the natural systems that keep them healthy.

Through the Digital Coast Partnership, APA has been a strong advocate for formalizing NOAA’s Digital Coast project through legislation and providing adequate federal appropriations for robust funding.

This legislation already has bipartisan support because the program shows government at its best in providing cost-effective support to scientifically informed public policy and decision making.

As APA Past President Carol Rhea, FAICP, has noted, “This legislation will directly improve local disaster response and hazard mitigation planning. This bill will help local communities minimize potential loss of life and damage to infrastructure, private property, and conservation areas. The Digital Coast Act is an important step for effective coastal management.”

Continue funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created partly in response to the sorry condition of the Great Lakes and major tributaries like the Cuyahoga and Maumee Rivers. We have come a long way since then. The lakes and rivers are healthier, and the communities around them are, too. Yet the administration’s budget would zero out such programs despite their megaregional and even international impacts.

Recognize the progress we have made and renew America’s commitment to further improve these major bodies of water. Support coastal resilience along the Great Lakes.

These are not dramatic requests. Mostly, they recognize the slow but steady progress — and the persistent creativity — that has resulted from past commitments. They are, however, critical to successful water policy and to our national future as a resilient nation.

Jim Schwab

This post is reprinted from the APA Blog with permission from the American Planning Association, for which it was produced.

Make Community Planning Great Again

The American Planning Association (APA), the organization that employs me as the manager of its Hazards Planning Center, made me proud last week. It took a rare step: It announced its opposition to President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

It is not that APA has never taken a position on a budgetary issue before, or never DSC00244spoken for or against new or existing programs or regulatory regimes. In representing nearly 37,000 members of the planning community in the United States, most of whom work as professional planners in local or regional government, APA has a responsibility to promote the best ways in which planning can help create healthy, prosperous, more resilient communities and has long done so. It’s just that seldom has a new administration in the White House produced a budget document that so obviously undercuts that mission. APA would be doing a serious disservice to its members by not speaking up on behalf of their core values, which aim at creating a high quality of life in communities of lasting value. That quest leads APA to embrace diversity, educational quality, environmental protection, and economic opportunity. Making all that happen, of course, is a very complex task and the reason that young planners are now largely emerging from graduate programs with complex skill sets that include the use of geographic information systems, demographic and statistical knowledge, public finance, and, increasingly, awareness of the environmental and hazard reduction needs of the communities they will serve. They understand what their communities need and what makes them prosper.

The Fiscal Year 2018 White House budget proposal, somewhat ironically titled America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, is in essential ways very short-sighted about just what will sustain America’s communities and make them great. Making America great seems in this document to center on a military buildup and resources to pursue illegal immigrants while eliminating resources for planning and community development. The proposal would eliminate funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, the HOME Investment Partnerships program, and the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. It also eliminates the Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, which was created under President Ronald Reagan, as well as the Department of Energy’s weatherization assistance program.

It also eliminates the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports job training in the very areas where Trump irresponsibly promised to restore mining jobs. There is no doubt that hard-hit areas like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky are in serious need of economic development support. Trump’s promise, however, was hollow and reflected a lack of study of the real issues because environmental regulation, which the budget proposal also targets, is not the primary reason for the loss of mining jobs. The mines of a century ago were dangerous places supported by heavy manual labor, but automation reduced many of those jobs long before environmental protection became a factor. Competition from cheap natural gas, a byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) revolution in that industry, has further weakened the coal industry.

No rollback of clean air or climate programs will change all that. What is clearly needed is a shift in the focus of education and job training programs, and in the focus of economic development, to move the entire region in new directions. To come to terms with the complexity of the region’s socioeconomic challenges, I would suggest that the President read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which deals compassionately but firmly with the deterioration of the social fabric in Appalachian communities. If anything, it will take a beefed up Appalachian Regional Commission and similar efforts to help turn things around for these folks who placed so much faith in Trump’s largely empty promises.

The March 9 issue of USA Today carried a poignant example of the realities that must be faced in producing economic opportunity in the region. The headline story, “West Virginia Won’t Forget,” highlights the problem of uncompleted highways in an area where a lack of modern transportation access impedes growth, focusing specifically on McDowell County, one of the nation’s most impoverished areas. It is hard for outsiders to grasp the realities. In the Midwest, if one route is closed, there are often parallel routes crossing largely flat or rolling land that maintain access between communities. In much of West Virginia, narrow mountain passes pose serious obstacles when roads no longer meet modern needs. It is the difference between the life and death of struggling communities, with those left behind often mired in desperate poverty. When I see a budget and programs from any White House that address these questions, I will know that someone wants to make Appalachia great again.

I say that in the context of a much larger question that also seems to drive much of the Trump budget. You must read the budget blueprint in its entirety, with an eye to questions of community and coastal resilience and climate change, to absorb fully the fact that the Trump administration is at war with any efforts to recognize the realities of climate change or facilitate climate change adaptation. The proposal zeroes out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coastal mapping and resilience grant programs. I will grant in full disclosure that APA, in partnership with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, is the recipient of a Regional Coastal Resilience Grant. For good reason: Our three-year project works with pilot communities in Georgia and Ohio to test and implement means of incorporating the best climate science into planning for local capital improvements. Communities invest billions of dollars yearly in transportation and environmental infrastructure and related improvements, and in coastal areas, ensuring that those investments account for resilience in the face of future climate conditions will save far more money for this nation than the $705,00 investment (plus a 50% match from ASFPM and APA) that NOAA is making in the project. The problem is that you have to respect the voluminous climatological science that has demonstrated that the climate is changing and that a serious long-term problem exists. And it is not just the focus of our singular project that matters. Today’s Chicago Tribune contains an Associated Press article about the race by scientists to halt the death of coral reefs due to ocean warming. The article notes that the world has lost half of its coral reefs in the last 30 years and that those reefs produce some of the oxygen we breathe.

The damage on climate change, however, does not stop with the NOAA budget. The Trump budget also zeroes out U.S. contributions to international programs to address climate change and undermines existing U.S. commitments to international climate agreements.

There is also a failure to take seriously the role of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which would suffer a 31% budget reduction and the loss of 3,200 jobs. Among the programs to be axed is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, ostensibly on grounds that, like the Chesapeake Bay programs, it is a regional and not a national priority and therefore undeserving of federal support. That ignores the fact that four of the five lakes are international waters shared with Canada. It also ignores the history of the agency and its 1970 creation under President Richard Nixon, largely as a result of the serious water pollution problems experienced at the time.

IMG_0256Younger readers may not even be aware of some of this. But I grew up before the EPA existed; I was a college student environmental activist when this came about. When I was in junior high school several years earlier, our class took a field trip aboard the Good Time cruise, which escorted people down the Cuyahoga River to the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland. The river was such an unspeakable industrial cesspool that one classmate asked the tour guide what would happen if someone fell overboard into the river. Matter-of-factly, the guide responded, “They would probably get pneumonia and die.” We have come a long way, and for those of us who understand what a difference the EPA has made, there is no turning back. I am sure that White House staffers would say that is not the point, but to me it is.

I am sure that, as with other agencies, one can find duplicative programs to eliminate, and ways to tweak the budget for greater efficiencies. That should be a goal of any administration. But in the broad sweep of the damage this budget proposes, I find it impossible to discern that motive in the butcher cuts the White House embraces. It is time to contact your Senators and U.S. Representatives. Ultimately, the budget is up to Congress, which must decide whether the new priorities make sense. My personal opinion is that they are short-sighted and ill-informed.

 

Jim Schwab

All’s Well at Burwell’s

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Chad Berginnis shares a story during the roast. To his right is Nicole LeBouef, new Deputy Assistant Administrator for NOAA for the National Ocean Service. Photo by Susan Fox.

Warmth is a concept with many dimensions. In the realm of physics, it is a relative measure of temperature. In reference to weather, perhaps the most common subject of human conversation, it is a measure of the kinetic energy of the atmosphere around us, which is constantly changing. Mark Twain has been erroneously quoted as saying, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” His friend Charles Dudley Warner sort of said it, but no mind. On Tuesday, February 7, in Charleston, South Carolina, no one around me had any complaints. We were perfectly happy with the kinetic energy of the atmosphere of the day, which brought the city to a very comfortable 75° F. No rain, just a mild breeze. Let it be. (You can accurately take that quote from the Beatles.) Two days later, I would have to return to Chicago, where it was 18° F. when I stepped off the airplane.

Like many other English words, warmth takes on many metaphorical and emotional connotations derived from its physical qualities. “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” President Harry Truman used to say, and he was not referring to room temperature in the White House. Conversely, there is the warmth of positive human relationships, just as there is a chill in the air when they are not going well.

That evening, at a downtown Charleston restaurant, Burwell’s, I experienced that warmth at a group dinner organized by some National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) staff for those members of the NOAA Digital Coast Partnership who were attending the Coastal GeoTools Conference. The partnership consists of both NOAA, through its National Ocean Service, and eight national nonprofit organizations, including the American Planning Association, which I represented along with a colleague, Joseph DeAngelis, a research associate for the Hazards Planning Center. The conference was hosted for NOAA by the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM).

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

Susan Fox, NOAA point of contact for APA in the Digital Coast Partnership, presents a gift before the roast. Photo by Miki Schmidt.

But enough of the organizational details. Shortly after all our carloads arrived at Burwell’s, and our party of 24 was led upstairs by the wait staff, it became apparent that something special was afoot. Miki Schmidt, Division Chief for Coastal Geospatial Services at NOAA, attempted to get people’s attention by clinking empty glasses. It wasn’t working, so I decided to use my booming voice to say, “Miki wants your attention.” That worked. Then he announced, to my surprise, that they wanted to honor my upcoming retirement with a few gifts, among which were a framed certificate of appreciation from the U.S. Department of Commerce for my service in supporting Digital Coast and a framed photograph of those who had attended the last full meeting of the partnership in Rhode Island in September 2016, signed by many of the attendees. The warmth of the professional and personal relationships built with colleagues since APA joined the partnership in 2010 became readily apparent to me in this unexpected moment.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Allison Hardin poses with the wolf; David Hart observes (September 2011). Photo by Melissa Ladd.

Then we sat down, and the “roast” began. More than once, as Miki seemed ready to turn the floor over to me for the final word, someone new would pop up to offer stories both fun and serious. Yes, it was true that I had once, wearing a moveable wolf mask, climbed through the open window of a park shelter in Madison, Wisconsin, during an evening reception for a partnership meeting hosted by ASFPM, asking the whereabouts of “them three little pigs.” Undaunted by the momentary confusion my entrance engendered, Allison Hardin, a planner from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, insisted on posing for a photograph with the wolf, who politely obliged. I was known (though not alone) in trying to provide such moments to enliven the more relaxing moments of partnership gatherings. When my “final word” finally came, I shared not only some enhancements of the recollected moments, but my own plans beyond APA, which I discussed in a recent blog post, “The Fine Art of Stepping Down.”

Still, the Digital Coast Partnership was also built through a great deal of hard work, which was also celebrated. The representatives of the groups involved worked hard over the past decade to build the partnership, which is now celebrating its tenth year. Meetings sometimes involved long discussions of how we could better collaborate, and we now often partner on important proposals and projects in which our complementary strengths facilitate important progress in achieving Digital Coast’s mission. NOAA established Digital Coast to advance the use of geospatial technology by coastal communities to improve and enhance coastal planning and resource management. Much of this consists of a substantial and growing of free, online tools and resources for mapping and visualization purposes. The partnership consists of the user communities that can help vet Digital Coast products and assist in their dissemination. But the operative Digital Coast slogan has been “More than just data.” It is the human dimension that matters, and the science and technology have been means to an end, which is enabling the achievement of noble coastal community goals such as environmental protection, hazard mitigation, economic sustainability, and climate resilience.

And so—I suppose it was appropriate that the organizers of the dinner chose to bring us to Burwell’s Stonefire Grill, which generates its own warmth through its comfort menu of steaks and seafood. Though it certainly can be pricey like any steakhouse (most steak entrees are between $30 and $40), the food is outstanding. Personally, I indulged in the lobster bisque for starters. It offered some of the deepest, most flavorful spoonfuls of joy of any bisque I have had in a long time. Alan, our waiter, was not lying at all when he told me it was great. On the subject of warmth, let me add that the wait staff of Alan, Mat, and Will were very patient and careful in tending to this large crowd, as was bartender Jo Jo Chandler. I did not meet the owner, John Thomas, but he is to be commended for both the staff and the cuisine. The Wagyu flat iron steak that I ordered was tender and delicious. I also indulged in a side order of Brussels sprouts, which I love but which require some attentive preparation to succeed. These were great in part because they were prepared in combination with caramelized onions. Others around me

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell's.

Miki to the right of me in the upstairs dining room at Burwell’s. Photo by Susan Fox.

enjoyed the seafood offerings, including oysters and scallops, and I heard no complaints and considerable praise. I can assure readers that, if you visit Charleston, Burwell’s is worth a visit for one of your evening outings. It also features a warm and casual atmosphere and a good downstairs bar, from which that amber beer in my hand originated, courtesy of Chad Berginnis, the executive director of ASFPM. I wasn’t sure, when we first arrived, why he offered to buy. Now I suspect he was in on the “roast” plan all along. Thanks, I say, to all of my friends at Digital Coast. My actual retirement from APA may have been almost four months away, but they knew this might be the last chance to do it before that day came. I hope they do the same for others when the time comes.

Jim Schwab

 

Think Globally, Adapt Locally

In times of political hostility to scientific truth, knowledgeable people sometimes wonder how we can progress without federal support for important initiatives such as adaptation to climate change. The answer, in a vibrant democracy, is that the truth often bubbles up from the bottom instead of being disseminated from the top. When the top is dysfunctional, as it currently seems to be, it is the creativity of local officials and their communities that often saves America from itself. For me, part of the joy of a career in urban planning has been watching and sometimes abetting the great local experiments that pave the way for an eventual federal and international response to pressing urban and environmental problems. The struggle to adapt successfully to climate change is one of those urgent problems. We may indeed confront a wave of scientific ignorance among some leaders in the Trump administration for a few years, but they should be aware that they cannot halt the wave of innovation as communities work to solve real problems.

Denying that humans have contributed significantly to climate change through the Industrial Revolution and transportation driven by fossil fuel consumption will do nothing to stop sea level rise, nor will it prevent the bifurcation of extreme weather events that flattens the bell curve with fewer normal events and more high-precipitation storms and prolonged drought, which sometimes also feeds a longer and more intense wildfire season. Disasters happen, and the numbers don’t lie.

UNISDRAs a result, I was very happy a couple of years ago to be invited to join a Project Advisory Committee for the Kresge Foundation, which had hired Abt Associates to produce a report on climate adaptation at the community level. The foundation has supported a good deal of work related to community resilience and social equity in addition to making serious investments in the resuscitation of Detroit as a functioning urban community. Kresge wants to know what makes communities tick in responding to resilience challenges like climate change, and the study by Abt was intended to establish a sort of baseline for understanding the best practices in local planning related to climate adaptation.

I was thus involved in a series of all-day or multiday meetings of 16 project advisors from around the United States who reviewed and commented on the progress of the study for the consultants. Our meetings involved some serious debates about what constituted climate adaptation and resilience, and the degree to which communities needed to use such labels for what they were doing, or conversely, the degree to which we needed to recognize what they were doing as climate adaptation. Sometimes, we learned, adaptation may quack like a duck without being called a duck by local citizens and officials. What matters is what is accomplished.

Climate Adaptation: The State of Practice in U.S. Communities was officially released by Kresge Foundation in December; I will confess to being a little late in sharing the news, but at the time I was trying to recover from pneumonia. It took me a while longer to find time to read the report in its 260-page entirety, but I thought it important to do so to report intelligently on the final product. There is a difference between reviewing case studies in bits and pieces before committee meetings and seeing the full report between two covers.

I am happy to tell you that I think the nine authors who contributed to the report hit a home run. The bulk of its wisdom lies in 17 case studies spread across the nation, including some surprising places like Cleveland, Ohio, and the Southwestern Crown of Montana. I applaud Abt Associates for its work in even identifying many places that may not have been on the standard maps of leadership in climate resilience. Some of that can be attributed to maintaining an open mind about what they were looking for and what constituted innovation and success in adaptation. One thing that is utterly clear is that no two communities are the same, nor do they face the same problems. Ours is a very diverse country in spite of all that binds us together. Ours is also a nation of creative citizens who confront local problems based on local circumstances rather than “one size fits all” solutions. Perhaps that is why support from Washington does not always matter as much as we think, except in the international arena, where it is critical.

The example of Cleveland may be enlightening in this regard. While issues of social equity may not always seem like a logical starting point for engagement on climate adaptation, Cleveland is a city that was utterly battered by economic change from the 1970s into the early 21st century. The result is a community that is noticeably IMG_0256less prosperous than its surrounding metropolitan area, and has some of the lowest socioeconomic rankings among major cities nationwide. It is also a city that has lost more than half of its 1950s population, which peaked around 900,000. It is a city that may well say, in evaluating its place on the prosperity scale, “Thank God for Detroit.” That also means that no discussion of climate adaptation will move forward without a solid anchor in efforts to confront these inequities because it is hard to imagine how a community can become resilient in the face of climate challenges without also rebuilding economic opportunity for a badly battered working class. I know. I may have decamped for Iowa in 1979, but I grew up in the Cleveland area and worked my way through college in a chemical plant. Rebuilding prosperity in Cleveland has been tough sledding.

By the same token, climate change has had a direct impact on Montana, and the Southwestern Crown, a rural area of mountains and forests, has suffered the loss of timber industry jobs, which has in much of the Pacific Northwest resulted in some bitterness toward environmentalists. At the same time, nature takes a serious toll in increased wildfire damage, and at some point, if people of different perspectives can sit down for some serious discussions of reality, they can also imagine new futures for a region at risk. That has been the job of the Southwestern Crown Collaborative.

Pike Street MarketMentioning every case study here would not make sense. But it is worth noting that communities generally seen as not only prosperous but on the cutting edge of the new high-tech economy, such as Seattle, face other challenges that nonetheless tax local resources and resourcefulness. Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) became another Kresge case study, in large part, it seems, because its management needed to find ways to bring its staff and customers into the difficult realm of defining the threat and deciding how it could best be handled. SPU is responsible for managing Seattle’s water supply. When one confronts a future that portends potential water shortages as a result of decreased winter snow pack, leading to reduced snow melt that combined with drought can leave a huge metropolitan area high and dry, the need to recalibrate the system can be daunting. This case study is not important for providing precise answers to such questions, for there are none. Instead, it emphasizes the challenge of accustoming utility engineers and managers to an uncertain future, and helping them find comfort levels with uncertainty. What needs to change to make Seattle’s water supply resilient in the face of natural hazards? How does a city on Puget Sound cope with sea level rise? What plans will be adequate for protecting water supplies two or three decades into the future? In the end, the answers revolve around changing the culture of decision making within the organization as well as communicating those challenges clearly to the public. One product of SPU’s efforts, however, is a path forward for other communities facing similar long-term challenges.

Bottom line: This report is a great resource for those who want to descend from the heights of overarching theory on climate change to the realities of confronting the problem on the ground. Use this link, download it, and read it. Few resources in recent years have been so thorough in documenting the state of practice in climate adaptation at the local level. I am proud to have been involved even in an advisory capacity. I have learned a great deal from the process.

Jim Schwab

 

Petition the White House on Climate Change

I was made aware yesterday of a new petition on the White House website concerning climate change. The White House website has long contained a mechanism by which citizens can initiate an online petition on an issue of concern and then seek support from others to bring that issue to the concern of the President and his staff. To get a formal response from the White House, the petition must attract at least 100,000 signatures in 30 days. The clock is already ticking. Because petitions have a word limit, the statement is brief and to the point:

  1. Reinstate the President’s Climate Action Plan and double down on your commitment to ensuring the U.S. is the leader in combating climate change.
  2. Allow the EPA to do their job and protect the waters, air, and people of the United States. This includes allowing them to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
  3. Use climate change as a lens when making decisions for our country. Don’t pit economic development against environmental protection – that is a false dichotomy.

I have discussed numerous times on this blog why climate change is a serious issue facing this nation’s future, how it affects our vulnerability and undermines our resilience to natural hazards, and the scientific basis for understanding that climate change is a real phenomenon significantly influenced by human activities. While President Trump seems to deny this reality, what he has not offered so far is any scientific evidence to support his assertions. I would go so far as to say he has offered little more than tweets and campaign slogans. It is time to get serious; far, far too much is at stake for the future of both the U.S. and the world to continue in this vein.

If you wish to sign on to the petition, just go to https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/make-us-worlds-leader-combating-climate-change, and enter your name and a valid, current e-mail address. We may not get the response we desire, but we can at least make our voices heard.

Jim Schwab

Climate Change as a Security Threat

It was the end of yet another trip to Washington, D.C. I generally find myself in the nation’s capital between three to five times per year, all depending on project needs, meeting invitations, and other factors mostly relevant to my work for the American Planning Association. I don’t even remember now which trip it was or what I was doing, just that when it was all over, I found my way as usual to Reagan National Airport to fly home. It was early evening, and I had left enough time for dinner at Legal Sea Foods, one of my favorite restaurants. They just happen to have an outlet in the main hall before you go through security into one of the concourses.

I was sitting at the bar, an easy place to have a good seafood dinner alone with a beer, but soon found myself next to another gentleman. Being a compulsive extrovert at heart, I introduced myself, and we were soon engaged in a conversation about what we both did. I explained my work on planning for natural hazards and learned that he was a career Navy officer. Relating to my obvious interest in coastal hazards, he informed me that he had worked on some Pacific island bases and had taken note over time of the rise in sea level that posed long-term problems for those naval facilities. I was already well aware the Department of Defense has been paying close attention to climate change as a possible source of concern for national security, in part but not solely because of its impact on military facilities and capabilities.

The conversation eventually drifted to the politics of climate change and the disconnect between many Republican conservatives’ skepticism about climate science and the more objective and cautious position of the Defense Department. He observed, as I recall, that he preferred science to ideology and then delivered his unintended punch line: “I used to be a Republican, but they’re making a Democrat out of me.” I chuckled with him, and the conversation continued.

As I thought about it later, however, I considered it sad if he felt forced to abandon his Republican roots. It may sound attractive to most Democrats to attract such a man to their ranks, but I also think it is important that some voice for climate sanity and allegiance to scientific evidence retain its voice in the Republican party. It will be a bad day for this nation when such people feel there is no room for their voice in Republican circles because it is already sad enough that climate change is viewed by many as a matter of ideology instead of scientific inquiry. There is also no question, skeptics aside, that the evidence overwhelmingly indicates human influences on a changing climate and a need to prepare for effective adaptation to changes already underway and largely inevitable.

I mention all this as a way of introducing readers to a briefing book for the change in administrations, prepared before it was clear who would become the next president. The Climate and Security Advisory Group (CSAG), chaired by the Center for Climate and Security in partnership with George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs, produced the briefing book and released it in September. CSAG consists of a number of energy and climate experts in addition to numerous prominent retired military officers and officials.

Numerous such briefing books will find their way to the transition team for incoming President-elect Donald Trump’s administration. Exactly which get read and when, and how many cabinet choices may be made before that happens, is anyone’s guess. A cynical or doubtful view can be had by considering both Trump’s past comments to the effect that climate change is a hoax and the views of some of the people surrounding him. A more positive view may be gleaned from the fact that his views on many such topics seem less than solid. It also remains to be seen how serious he may be about reading briefing books, given a reputed lack of interest in reading, but it is hard to imagine how long any president can avoid confronting the briefing materials that will come his way. The fact that the advice is coming from military experts may weigh more heavily than warnings from environmentalists or even scientists. Right now, it is just hard to know. Trump is almost surely one of the least predictable incoming presidents of modern times. But if he were ultimately to take climate science seriously—admittedly a big if—his administration could almost become transformative on the issue by bringing many of his supporters with him.

As for the briefing book, “Recommended Policies and Practices for Addressing the Security Risks of a Changing Climate,” it is worth understanding its purposes, and what it does and does not do. It is not itself a scientific document. Instead, it is a consensus-based set of recommendations from the many people listed as advisors. It details specific actions the incoming administration is advised to take in areas of defense, foreign policy, homeland security, intelligence, and energy, often urging that positions responsible for monitoring and counseling on actions to address climate change be elevated to a higher status in their respective agencies and in the White House.

For example, one area that receives repeated attention throughout the document is a melting Arctic Ocean, which introduces a number of national security questions ranging from the opening of a previously frozen seaway to oceangoing traffic to issues related to the extraction of natural resources from its fragile environment. These are no small issues and demand urgent attention. A sobering but fascinating view of those changes was offered five years ago by geographer Laurence C. Smith of the University of California-Los Angeles, in The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern Future.

The briefing book also takes the approach, already widely under consideration in the Pentagon, that climate change can potentially spawn serious international conflicts over scarce resources as a result of drought, extreme precipitation, and sea level rise, which are already inducing migration from affected areas. The ultimate question for the new Trump administration may be whether it is worth the price to the nation to ignore such potential sources of national and international instability. In the meantime, it is incumbent upon those with an intimate understanding of these issues to continue to advocate the truth as they know it—because climate change will not cease simply because some people refuse to believe in it. Climate change is not a matter of faith. It should be treated as a matter of scientific evidence and investigation.

Jim Schwab

Tools for Stronger Communities

dscf2307What makes a community stronger and more resilient in the face of severe weather threats and disasters? Clearly, preparation, awareness of existing and potential problems, and a willingness to confront harsh realities and solve problems are among the answers. Can we bottle any of that for those communities still trying to find the keys to resilience? Perhaps not, but we can share many of the success stories some communities have produced and hope that the knowledge is disseminated.

One agency with which I have worked at the federal level that seems to understand the value of partnerships with nongovernmental organizations, both business and nonprofit, in achieving this dissemination of critical knowledge is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). At the American Planning Association (APA), we have worked with them through the Digital Coast Partnership, advancing the use of geospatial technology to improve coastal planning and coastal resource management, but also on water and climate issues. I personally participated on behalf of APA in a cooperative effort to assist NOAA in creating its Climate Resilience Toolkit, which aims to give communities and private sector stakeholders some of the tools and information they need to address issues of resilience in the face of climate change and extreme weather events.

More recently, I was very pleased to be part of an effort to add to the toolkit a Built Environment topic, or sub-toolkit. The Built Environment section aims to show that, “Cities and towns are vulnerable to sea level rise, heavy downpours, and extreme heat. Cooperative efforts of local government agencies and the private sector can promote adaptation by integrating physical resilience, social resilience, and nature-based solutions.”

A team of us, composed of people from federal agencies, academia, and national organizations, labored for months in contributing specific topics and material to the toolkit to ensure that it covered the most essential points and provided the most useful references to additional sources of information. I am especially happy to have recently completed the Planning and Land Use topic, after it survived the routine vetting by colleagues to ensure accuracy and effective message delivery. It was the last piece added, but I was very happy to put my own small stamp on the overall toolkit site.

The site is not intended to answer all questions; no site can. It is a window into the key issues, with additional resources, and a chance to reach those busy public officials and decision makers who do not have time to read entire tomes on issues like disaster recovery or transit resilience. It is more like a series of briefing papers for those looking for cogent ideas to address some of the most chronic, stress-inducing challenges community leaders face. The Built Environment is one of eleven major sections of the overall toolkit, each of which has a series of topics. For example, a section on Coasts includes several major topic areas such as sea level rise, coastal erosion, and tsunami, each with its own explanation and resources. It is an easily navigated one-stop source of information. The Climate Resilience Toolkit also includes case studies and an index of related tools.

Rummage around. You may find yourself still rummaging an hour later.

It is possible to wonder, and I am sure a few people are wondering, what the fate of such sites will be in a new administration that is highly skeptical of climate change. I don’t know the answer to that, but NOAA has been with us as a federal scientific agency for a long time, and I suspect it has a long future ahead of us. The agency includes the National Weather Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, and coastal management responsibilities. It is well-known as an employer of thousands of scientists, and its current administrator, Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, is both a geologist and former astronaut. She, however, will soon be gone, and it remains to be seen who will take her place.

NOAA, like the U.S. Geological Survey, is primarily a scientific agency. The fact that its mission includes a focus on climate science should not be a detriment. It should be a badge of honor, and any new administration would serve itself well by finding out what its experts have to say and why. The nation has seen some wonderful returns on its investments in fostering such expertise, and it would be foolhardy to curtail it now. The value of NOAA goes further, however, as Sullivan’s leadership in recent years has spurred the agency to seek to bridge the gap between scientific information and public policy decision making, a direction that has allowed Sullivan and many in NOAA to seek partnerships with information conduits like APA, which can effectively reach professional audiences who can multiply the dissemination capabilities of agencies like NOAA. All parties win.

It is critical not only to generate scientific knowledge but to share it with the public in plain English forums that deliver key points. That achievement is why I recommend checking out the Climate Resilience Toolkit. I’m proud to have been part of the effort.

Jim Schwab

Regional Green Infrastructure

The subtitle to this headline for many people might be: Who Cares? As a term of art, green infrastructure may be popular with landscape architects, civil engineers, and urban planners, among a few other allied professions, but it does not often mean much to the average person. Many people may struggle to define infrastructure even without the word green in front of it.

Infrastructure generally refers to those modern systems, such as roads, bridges, and utility grids that allow our cities and regions to function effectively. Recognizing that the value of infrastructure lies in the services it provides, green infrastructure has been distinguished from traditional gray infrastructure by focusing on the use of natural systems, such as wetlands and urban forests, to protect or enhance environmental quality by filtering air pollution, mitigating stormwater runoff, and reducing flooding. It stands to reason that such natural systems are most likely to provide such “ecosystem services” well when we respect and preserve their natural integrity. It also stands to reason that, to the degree that such systems face threats from urban sprawl and urbanization, their ability to perform those services for human populations is diminished. To say that development has often helped to kill the goose that laid the environmental golden egg is to state the obvious, no matter how many people want to avoid that truth. That does not mean that our cities cannot or should not grow and develop. It does mean that, using the best available natural science, we need to get much smarter about how it happens if we want to live in healthy communities.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, California.

Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, California.

I mention this because, as part of the American Planning Association staff pursuing such issues, I spent three days in Washington, D.C., last week at a symposium we hosted with U.S. Forest Service sponsorship on “Regional Green Infrastructure at the Landscape Scale.” We were joined by about two dozen seasoned experts not only from the Forest Service and APA, but from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, several national nonprofits, and others to sort through the issues impeding better planning for green infrastructure. We explored major hazard-related issues such as wildfires, flooding, and coastal storms and how green infrastructure can or should function in relation to them.

This matters because there are huge costs associated with the way we choose to develop. There can also be huge benefits. Whether the ultimate ledger in any particular region is positive or negative is largely dependent on the approach we choose, and that is heavily dependent on how broadly or narrowly we view our responsibilities. Historically, in America, we have been rather myopic about the damage we have done to our environment, but our perspective has become more comprehensive over time, starting with the conservation movement in the late 1800s. But today, as always, there are undercurrents of more myopic attitudes and impatience with the more deliberate and thoughtful calculations a more long-term view requires. There is also the simple fact that understanding issues like climate change requires some degree of scientific literacy, something that is missing too often even in some presidential candidates.

But it helps to drill down to specific situations to get a firm sense of consequences. For instance, the Forest Service budget is literally (and figuratively) being burned away by the steadily and rapidly increasing costs of fighting wildfires. That is in large part because the average annual number of acres burned has essentially tripled since 1990, from under 2 million then to about 6 million now. As recently as 1995, 16 percent of the agency’s budget went to suppressing wildfires. Every dollar spent on wildfires is a dollar removed from more long-term programs like conservation and forest management. By 2015, this figure has risen to 52 percent, and is projected to consume two-thirds of the agency’s budget by 2025. Clearly, something has to give in this situation, and in the present political situation, it is unlikely to be an expansion of the Forest Service budget. At some point, a reckoning with the causes of this problem will have to occur.

What are those causes? Quite simply, one is a huge expansion in the number of homes built in what is known as the wildland-urban interface (WUI), defined as those areas where development is either mixed into, interfaces with, or surrounds forest areas that are vulnerable to wildfire. The problem with this is that every new home in the WUI complicates the firefighters’ task, putting growing numbers of these brave professionals at risk. Every year, a number of them lose their lives trying to protect people and property. In an area without such development, wildfires can do what they have done for millennia prior to human settlement—burn themselves out. Instead, a century of aggressive fire suppression has allowed western forests, in particular, to become denser and thus prone to more intense fires than used to occur. The homes themselves actually represent far greater densities of combustible material than the forest itself; thus fires burning homes are exacerbated by increased fuel loads. In addition, prescribed fire, a technique used to reduce underbrush in order to reduce fire intensity, becomes more difficult in proximity to extensive residential development. A prescribed fire that spun out of control was the cause of the infamous Los Alamos, New Mexico, wildfire in 2000. The entire situation becomes highly problematic without strong political leadership toward solutions.

At the same time, denial of climate change or even reluctance to broach the subject does not help, either. It compounds the difficulty of conducting an informed dialogue at a time when increased heat and drought are likely to fuel even more wildfires of greater intensity. The recent major wildfire around Fort McMurray, Alberta, displacing thousands of people, may be a harbinger of things to come.

That is just one sample of the issues we need to confront through a larger lens on the value of large-scale green infrastructure and regional cooperation to achieve positive environmental results that also affect issues like water quality and downstream flooding. Because we could produce an entire book on this issue—and the suggestion has in fact been made that we do so—I will not even attempt here to lay out the entire thesis. Rather, it may be useful to point readers to some resources that I have found useful in recent weeks in the context of writing for another project on green infrastructure strategies. Most of these are relatively brief reports rather than full-length books, enough to give most readers access to the basics, as well as references to longer works for those so inclined.

On the subject of water and development in private forests, a Forests on the Edge report, Private Forests, Housing Growth, and Water Supply is a good starting point for discussion. Because planning to achieve effective conservation at a landscape scale requires collaboration among numerous partners, an older (2006) Forest Service report, Cooperating Across Boundaries: Partnerships to Conserve Open Space in Rural America, may also be useful. With regard to wildfires, a recent presentation at a White House event by Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, a firm that has specialized in this area, may also be useful for its laser focus on trends and solutions with regard to development in the wildland-urban interface and the need for effective, knowledgeable local planning in areas affected by the problem. But I would be remiss if I did not bring readers’ attention back to a 2005 APA product of which I was co-author with Stuart Meck: Planning for Wildfires. It could probably use some updating by now, but every one of our central points, I believe, remains valid.

Happy reading to all!

 

Jim Schwab

 

Engaging Preparedness for Drought

NASA-generated groundwater drought map from the NIDIS website (https://www.drought.gov).

NASA-generated groundwater drought map from the NIDIS website (https://www.drought.gov).

Drought has historically been the disaster that fails to focus our attention on its consequences until it is too late to take effective action. While other disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, and most floods have a quick onset that signals trouble, and a clear end point that signals that it is time to recover and rebuild, drought has been that slow-onset event that sneaks up on whole regions and grinds on for months and years, leaving people exhausted, frustrated, and feeling powerless. Our species and life itself depend on water for survival.

Over time, our nation has responded to most types of disasters both with an overall framework for response, centered on the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and with resources for specific types of disasters with operations like the National Hurricane Center. It took longer for drought to win the attention of Congress, but in 2006, Congress passed the National Integrated Drought Information System (NIDIS) Act, creating an interagency entity with that name, led by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NIDIS was reauthorized in 2014. Its headquarters are in Boulder, Colorado.

For the last five years, I have been involved in various ways with NIDIS and the National Drought Mitigation Center (NDMC), an academic institute affiliated with the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. To date, the major byproduct of that collaboration has been the publication by the American Planning Association (APA) of a Planning Advisory Service (PAS) Report, Planning and Drought, released in early 2014. Both NIDIS and NDMC have helped make that report widely available among professionals and public officials engaged in preparing communities for drought. The need to engage community planners in this enterprise has been clear. Much of the Midwest was affected by drought in 2012, at the very time we were researching the report. Texas suffered from prolonged drought within the last few years, and California has yet to fully recover from a multi-year drought that drained many of its reservoirs. And while drought may seem less dangerous than violent weather or seismic disturbances, the fact is that, in the last five years alone, four drought episodes each exceeding $1 billion in damages have collectively caused nearly $50 billion in adverse economic consequences. The need to craft effective water conservation measures and to account adequately for water consumption needs in reviewing proposed development has become obvious. We need to create communities that are more resilient in the face of drought conditions.

A subgroup of the NIDIS EPC Working Group discusses ongoing and future efforts during the Lincoln meeting.

Part of the NIDIS EPC Working Group discusses ongoing and future efforts during the Lincoln meeting.

Over the past decade, NIDIS has elaborated its mission in a number of directions including this need to engage communities in preparing for drought. It was this mission that brought me to Lincoln at the end of April for the NIDIS Engaging Preparedness Communities (EPC) Working Group. This group works to bring together the advice and expertise of numerous organizations involved in drought, including not only APA, NOAA, and NDMC, but state agencies like the Colorado Water Conservation Board, tribal organizations such as the Indigenous Waters Network, and academic experts in fields like agriculture and climatology. Over ten years since the creation of NIDIS, this and other working groups have made considerable strides toward better understanding the impact of drought on communities and regions and increasing public access to information and predictions about drought in order to give them a better basis for decision making in confronting the problem. NIDIS has conducted a number of training webinars, established online portals for databases and case studies, and otherwise tried to demystify what causes drought and how states and communities can deal with it. Our job for two days in Lincoln was simply to push the ball farther uphill and to help coordinate outreach and resources, especially for communication, to make the whole program more effective over the next few years.

Much of that progress is captured in the NIDIS Progress Report, issued in January of this year. More importantly, this progress and the need to build further national capabilities to address drought resilience, captured the attention of the White House. On March 21, the White House issued a Presidential Memorandum signed by President Obama, which institutionalized the National Drought Resilience Partnership, which issued an accompanying Federal Action Plan for long-term drought resilience. This plan enhances the existing muscle of NIDIS by laying out a series of six national drought resilience goals: 1) data collection and integration; 2) communicating drought risk to critical infrastructure; 3) drought planning and capacity building; 4) coordination of federal drought activity; 5) market-based approaches for infrastructure and efficiency; and 6) innovative water use, efficiency, and technology.

Drought clearly is a complex topic in both scientific and community planning terms, one that requires the kind of coordination this plan describes in order to alleviate the economic burden on affected states and regions. With the growing impacts of climate change in coming decades, this issue can only become more challenging. We have a long way to go, and many small communities lack the analytical and technical capacities they will need. Federal and state disaster policy should be all about building capacity and channeling help where it is needed most. The institutional willingness of the federal government to at least acknowledge this need and organize to address it is certainly encouraging.

 

Jim Schwab