Eyes on Environment: making climate change local to motivate city adaptation strategies

Read the original post on Eyes on Environment as part of Nature’s Scitable Network!


It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.

– Leon C. Megginson

How prepared is your city to adapt to global warming? If you don’t know the answer, you’re not alone. Few cities have created systematic plans to respond to climate change.1 City-scale preparation for global warming is a unique social problem that requires substantial investment of finances and labor to protect against weather events that are both unpredictable and thought to be far in the future (the latter is only a perception – climate change is happening now!). High costs combined with uncertain beliefs about the future usually do not lead to rapid policy decisions or implementation.

And yet, temperatures increases of at least two degrees Celsius over the coming century are expected to create extreme weather changes, especially along the coasts. Something must be done. But how do we motivate city leaders and decision makers to move forward with preparations to respond to global warming? Why have some cities like Chicago or Boston2 already implemented adaptation strategies while others seem to ignore the looming problem?

A new research study3 in Global Environmental Change has addressed these questions by interviewing over sixty government officials and non-governmental leaders working on climate change responses in six cities across the United States. The cities – Tucson, Portland, Boston, Los Angeles, Tampa, and Raleigh – widely vary in their progress preparing for climate change, which gives a diverse backdrop to elucidate just what determines a city’s degree of response. For example, both Portland and Boston officials have already been researching and implementing pilot climate change adaptation programs whereas Tampa officials have done little to respond and report less concern about global warming.

The interviews

To access as many experts as possible in each city, the researchers used an interview technique known as snowball sampling. Using this method, an initial interviewee recommends other important officials to interview, allowing researchers to efficiently traverse the social network of relevant city planners. In this way, a variety of groups across non-governmental organizations, city and state government, and academia were interviewed. Only the private sector was not well-represented.

The qualitative interviews covered a range of topics to identify officials’ beliefs about climate change, availability of financial and expert resources, level of communication with academic disciplines or between governmental departments, and current or future planning of adaptation measures. This is one of the first studies to assess why cities differ in preparation levels, and open-ended, qualitative interviews provide a broad perspective that can be focused quantitatively in future studies.

What officials said

In general, the interviews uncovered three major factors affecting response levels in each city:

1) Swing

This factor describes how local events or environments interact with public perception to push action or inaction. For example, one might think that cities experiencing a greater threat of extreme weather events might be more motivated to put climate change response plans in place. But this isn’t the case. Tampa is one of the most vulnerable cities to hurricanes – a natural disaster predicted to increase in frequency with climate change – but residents appear unconcerned. Interviewed officials claim that residents see hurricanes as a normal part of life, losing power something to deal with, and additional preparedness as unnecessary. Such views limit the ability for policymakers to create adaptation programs without political backlash.

Contrast this inertia with the case of Los Angeles, an equally vulnerable city to droughts and wildfires instead of hurricanes. However, officials there have used emergency response plans already in place as a starting point to develop further climate change adaptation strategies. Why the difference? Tampa hasn’t experienced a hurricane in 93 years, whereas Los Angeles officials are dealing with wildfires annually. Thus, proximal experiences with disasters may be extremely important in swaying public opinion that allows officials to implement climate change adaptation measures. Put simply, our brains aren’t wired to emotionally respond to events 93 years ago – we need to feel the effects viscerally and in the present.

2) Inhibitors

These factors describe perceptions held by city officials that slow their response to climate change. Two major themes crystallized from the interviews. First, officials need more local scientific studies of potential dangers and successful adaptation strategies. A significant amount of global warming research has looked at global or country-wide trends in temperature changes, natural disaster frequency, or other warming-related trends. But interviewed officials clearly describe a need for tailored predictions of city-wide events. Without this type of data, the dominant response has been a ‘wait-and-see’ approach.

These interview responses suggest a concrete solution to improve city adoption of adaptation strategies: more funding for studies of climate change localized to major cities. Such tailored knowledge will be more influential to persuade officials to spend money on adaptation strategies.

Second, the politicization of climate change has hampered officials who would otherwise try to implement pilot response programs. Some policymakers identified colleagues who rejected the certainty of climate change and whose support would be necessary to move response programs forward.

3) Catalysts

Cities with significant adaptation programs already in place demonstrated two major catalysts: strong public advocacy and substantial academic resources. In cities like Los Angeles and Portland, officials recognized the strong community engagement in environmentalism and this perception created more openness among policymakers to try new adaptation strategies.

But even in a city like Boston, with some response programs already in place, officials believed that citizens see climate change as a global, not local issue. This finding resonates with the need for local scientific study discussed above, hitting home the issue of making the effects climate change as personal as possible.

Finally, cities with close academic ties have made much more progress on adaptation programs. This is probably the ideal way to provide the local scientific expertise to inform city officials about why climate change adaptation is important and provide cost-effective methods to proceed. Even then, politicians in the city must respect what scientists have to offer for this connection to be helpful. Some interviewees suggested that other city officials perceived academics as being in ‘ivory towers’ with no practical knowledge to give. Repairing this bridge of communication will be key to give city officials the expertise necessary to construct evidence-based adaptation programs.

Making climate change local

The image of global warming for many people may be the melting polar ice caps, world maps with bright red dots where temperature is increasing, and vague warnings about what the world will look like in 100 years. But the interviews with city officials show the importance of making climate change a local phenomenon. Officials need to know what dangers their particular city faces and identify examples of successful strategies that have been implemented in similar urban settings.

Several possible solutions emerge from these qualitative discussions, but the most important is a local scientific connection to cities. Universities should work with city officials to provide their expertise and focus on city-scale research studies to determine specific effects of global warming on that region. Second, the threat of natural disasters is not enough to influence opinion, but more public education could sway public perception about how global warming will make ‘routine’ disasters like hurricanes even worse.

Finally, public engagement matters! If you care about global warming, make your voice heard! Officials listen to this type of advocacy and often described public resistance as a major reason to not move forward with climate change adaptation strategies. Climate change is already happening and, in the US, almost 80% of the total population live in cities. Officials must be ready to protect and serve the citizens under their watch. But this also requires that the citizens themselves get informed and tell policy decision-makers what kind of global warming preparation they would like to see.


  1. Carmin J and Zhang Y. Achieving urban climate adaptation in Europe and Central Asia, 2009.
  2. Kirshen P et al. “Climate change and coastal flooding in Metro Boston: impacts and adaptation strategies.” Climate Change, 90(4), 453-73, 2008.
  3. Carlson K and McCormick S. “American adaptation: Social factors affecting new developments to address climate change.” Global Environmental Change, 35, 360-7, 2015.

Photo Credit

Photo of coastal waters courtesy of David Baird via Acclimatise


Carlson, K., & McCormick, S. (2015). American adaptation: Social factors affecting new developments to address climate change Global Environmental Change, 35, 360-367 DOI: 10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2015.09.015

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