Climate Change Prompts Collaboration

Regional Groups Address Common Vulnerabilities

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Kif Scheuer is climate change director at the Sacramento-based non-profit Local Government Commission.

Pam O’Connor is mayor of Santa Monica, Calif.

Celia VanDerLoop is director of environmental quality for the city and county of Denver’s Department of Environmental Health.

Abby Hall is a San Francisco-based policy analyst with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Sustainable Communities.

Posted: Wednesday, April 9, 2014 1:23 pm

With broad consensus on the fact of climate change, organization around the issue has shifted from convincing the world of its inevitability to working together to do something about it with resiliency and sustainability planning.

Some of these efforts were presented at the “New Partners for Smart Growth” conference held recently in Denver. While collaboration was an overarching theme of the aptly-named conference, its meaning took on added urgency at a panel discussion on climate change.

The session, “New Partners for a New Climate,” convened local, regional and federal representatives to share their efforts to partner with others to approach the issue in more unified ways.

“This is a problem that does not end at your jurisdictional borders,” said moderator Kif Scheuer, climate change director at the Sacramento-based non-profit Local Government Commission, “and the solutions require some engagement on the part of states – in particular in regional governments – to get to the bottom of this and to find ways to work together.”

At a local level, some cities are finding solutions via participation in regional organizations. Santa Monica, Calif., Mayor Pam O’Connor told attendees her city has benefited immensely by being part of the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG), a regional planning organization that represents six counties, close to 200 cities and about 16 million people.

For example, via SCAG, member cities can access resources and funding to help them develop a climate action or adaptation plan. The organization also enabled participating cities to work together to unanimously adopt a regional transportation plan in compliance with the region’s mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

“Achieving adaptation to solve climate change and reduce vehicle miles traveled to meet greenhouse gas emission targets can’t be done by one city alone,” she said. “It’s those partnerships, it’s our cities working together and working with our metropolitan planning organization, our county transportation commissions and working with our county governments so that our region in southern California continues to be a great place to live.”

Other places in the country are finding success through partnerships across state lines. Denver, for example, is a member of the Western Adaptation Alliance, which brings together 11 communities in six states – Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Utah – around the issue of climate change.

According to Celia VanDerLoop, director of environmental quality for the city and county of Denver’s Department of Environmental Health, the alliance was established after a number of western cities with semi-arid environments got together in 2010, formed a regional network and worked together to get a grant to do joint climate adaptation planning.

“We have found some real strength in collaborating across the region,” she said. “There are [climate change] impacts happening across the intermountain west. The intent in collaborating is to recognize and utilize commonalities across the region. There are very few issues we expect to see that someone in the area has not addressed already.”

The federal government also is reaching out to promote more efficient approaches to climate change, while simultaneously maintaining a conscientious distance from what is happening on the local and regional level so as not to interfere.

“I do strongly believe that a lot of climate adaptation work should be locally and regionally led just by the fact that risks and vulnerabilities vary a lot by region,” said Abby Hall, a San Francisco-based policy analyst with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) Office of Sustainable Communities. “I think that local and regional governments are going to trust the data and the science that comes from regional entities. We [the federal government] should get out of the way and help in whatever instances that we can.”

Instead of micromanaging from above, the EPA has instead found success in establishing partnerships with fellow federal agencies, including the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as a way to more effectively approach climate adaptation in various places around the country.

According to Hall, the EPA formally joined forces with FEMA several years ago, in 2010, in response to widespread flooding in Iowa. The EPA’s role was to consult communities on how to best redevelop devastated areas in more sustainable, environmentally-friendly ways, including smart growth, green infrastructure and green building strategies.

EPA played a similar role in Vermont after Tropical Storm Irene in 2011, Hall said, again assisting FEMA’s disaster recovery efforts by providing specific expertise on smart growth strategies to help make communities affected by the storm more resilient to similar weather events in the future.

The two agencies have since worked together on projects in more than a dozen states.

“I’ve heard my colleagues at FEMA say they’re one of the biggest investors and real estate developers in the nation when you look at how much money they spend on infrastructure and buildings after disasters happen,” Hall said. “So there’s a big opportunity to affect how that money gets spent and those plans get written.”

The chorus of success stories made it clear that collaboration – and more specifically, strategic collaboration – is key to effective response to climate change, whether based on geography, proximity, like-mindedness or something else.

“It doesn’t do me a whole lot of good to go to adaptation meetings and talk about sea level rise,” said Denver’s VanDerLoop, “and so to be working with others who have common vulnerabilities is very powerful.”

The LGC’s Scheuer agreed. “This is an order of magnitude,” he said, “and a set of stakeholders who maybe haven’t been working together and really need to.”

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