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Blogging from climate adaptation conference

Marc Lefkowitz  |  08/10/11 @ 4:00pm  |  Posted in Climate

A group of 100 scientists, planners and government officials are gathering at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History today for a workshop that explains climate change and how to plan for its impact to economies, public health and natural systems in the Great Lakes.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and National Estuarine Research Reserve System-quasi-governmental agencies studying the effects of climate change on coastal systems like the Lake Erie shore (and what we should do about it)-are organizing conferences like this one.

The workshop kicked off with Brent Lofgren, NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. Lofgren cautions that climate change is a disruption from business-as-usual for the planet-we may be getting fooled by the pace of change because the oceans are absorbing a massive amount of carbon and temperature.

What will be the impact on the Great Lakes? Lake effects a decade ago were not represented in climate models, but scientists are just starting to grapple with what could happen. While the studies are still emerging, the expectation is climate change will bring a more unstable climate and more severe weather events.

"Heavy precipitation events and more severe flooding and droughts."

"Regions (in the Great Lakes) could see greater amounts of precipitation, and lake breeze circulation." The latter could mean more foggy days for cities like Chicago and Cleveland.

Scientists are showing an historic increase in hypoxia or the 'dead zone' that is especially prevalent in Lake Erie (a loss of oxygen in the water from chemical runoff from agriculture and cities creating a vast area where nothing lives), Lofgren said.

Whether the Great Lakes will dry up or flood, Lofgren says, his research points to lake levels going down, but admits there is still a lot of uncertainty. "There's been a large drop in lake levels in last 20 years. There's a range of predicted lake levels, I'd say the trend is downward. Shifting lake levels will impact lake infrastructure."

But, factors like precipitation and evaporation determine the lake levels and those are pointing to the positive. Even the annual temperature cycles have uncertainty, but scientists admit these uncertainties exist, and that's why the local impacts are hard to predict with pinpoint accuracy. Lofgren researches lake level changes, and says the increased evaporation from land is likely to be less than projected, and that is one of the contributing factors to lake levels.

• Jeff Adkins at NOAA works on natural resource economics, and talked about the "Economic impacts and Great Lakes Case Study." He looks at cause and effect, such as higher temperatures could lead to coastal erosion (damages to homes, businesses and roads). If plant and animal populations shift, it could impact fishing and hunting. More extreme storms could hurt farms and lead to more sediment in our rivers, costing more to dredge shipping channels like the Cuyahoga's.

Economic impacts are difficult to plan for because they are long term, and so meeting them doesn't benefit the immediate population. Economics are value judgements; it's "the science of choice." What we value, such as our choices about where we live or play, are free (until we understand the full value of those decisions). "When you drive and it drips oil on the road and it ends in our streams...they make filters for that oil, but if I'm the community upstream who pays for that filter, the downstream communities all benefit from that. If I do nothing it's a negative externality and all the communities downstream pay for that decision."

What are some "no regrets" adaptation strategies, Adkins says, in other words, actions that have "co-benefits" or dozens of reasons it makes sense? "If you're putting in storm sewers anyway, accounting for climate change might call for a slightly larger pipe (you already have the cost of doing the work)."

Adkins presented a case study on the Lower Fox River Basin, a subwatershed of a 60-mile waterway in Green Bay, Wisconsin that had flooding problems. They studied climate adaptation work that crosses the borders of 20 municipalities. Resource for the Future, a Washington climate consultancy did the technical work, looking at how to minimize impacts of floods.

They hope to develop a framework for policy options and parse through who pays for damaged property while introducing new tools such as purchase of development rights (where local governments purchase conservation easements on land in river corridors that will probably not be developed). They also looked at transfer of development rights, agreements between communities that trade no development in sensitive areas for concentrated development where its least impactful for flood hazard and ecological impact.

"We looked at who bears the benefits and costs in these 'no regret' strategies." So, for example, if FEMA buys flood prone property and restricts its future use to recreation, this is not an example of 'low regrets' solution from an economist's lens (it's not a 'we're doing this already, even if whatever they buy up will be protected from increased frequencies of storminess and paying out damages).

• John McLeod, director of Environmental Public Health at the Cuyahoga County Board of Health presented on the adaptation strategies to human health from climate change. If there are going to be impacts, they won't be good, so we need to raise awareness and plan for them. "We'll see more heat stress, water and air borne diseases, even mental health and environmental refuges in Cuyahoga County."

Mortality will climb especially from heat. Rain has a huge impact on water supply and recreation as algea blooms grow and produce lime disease and new diseases like dengue normally found in tropical climates start appearing. "We need to prepare for them. Our combined sewer overflows make matters worse. Heat waves are one of the largest natural disasters (Chicago's 106 degree heat wave in 2009 that killed 125 people) impacts those who don't have A/C and the old and infirm-we learned a lot from that disaster...check in with your neighbors, plan for cooling centers." Asthma increases. Severe weather lead to more auto accidents. We're in the Top Ten worst winter weather cities. "We need to educate our policy makers, even more now. Incorporate health into local climate change and adaptation plans. It's all about prevention. We have a national emergency preparedness system that we're part of; but get involved, build a kit."

• Gwen Shaughnessy, NOAA Coastal Services Center, says that historic frameworks like "the 100-year flood event" can ossify discussion of what to do about climate change, especially when its dawning on us that 100-year flood event is becoming an every five-year event. To illustrate her point, Shaughnessy revealed that data from national studies found that the Great Lakes has already seen a 31% increase in extreme weather events. Rather that trying to scare the pants off people, though, it's important to communicate about climate change in a way that makes people feel they can take action.

Climate change adaptation is a field that deals with great uncertainty. Start with 'no regrets' strategies. "Even if climate change doesn't happen to the worst predicted level, not many people will take issue with what you're doing if they have win-win outcomes. You're assessments should begin with areas of highest risks." Do communities all need their own adaptation plan? Look at what you already have in your city - master plans, capital improvement plans, how is this community spending money, and how can you 'mainstream' climate plans into those existing efforts, to find benefits in the long term. And measure your progress. Adaptation planning isn't a one-time effort. You have to check in on how you're doing as a city. There are resources (pending) to help, like the Great Lakes supplement to the NOAA Adaptation Strategy book.

• Brita Pagels of ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability talked about Keene, New Hampshire's climate action plan and that of Miami Dade County, one of the leaders of climate change adaptation studies among coastal cities. What are the costs involved in planning? A climate action plan could cost $145-200,000 if you don't tap any existing resources. Shaughnessy when she worked on coastal communities in Maryland said action plans can range from $45,000-100,000.

With local community budgets being stressed, what resources can they tap for climate adaptation plans. The Great Lakes Environmental Research Center can help garner some of the science impacts. Look at FEMA Hazard Mitigation funds (to update city emergency plans). Grants at university's and Ohio Sea Grant and NOAA may become available. An existing comprehensive plan effort - ask the climate impact question.

How about implementation of climate action plans? Miami Dade County and Homer, Alaska are starting to implement their plan, Pagels said, adding that she's not aware of how much they're budgeting for the effort. Chicago is "showing fantastic results from their climate action plan and acting on the results."

Shaughnessy addressed the barriers to climate change adaptation. If impacts are going to be dealt with at the local level (your city services departments will be responding to climate related damage), how can cities be proactive?

"The cost of inaction is higher that the cost of action, even if selling that can be difficult."

Barriers include: Denial and disbelief-could be the biggest issue at the local level. The problem of scale (disbelief that a couple of degrees rise can have any difference. But it can, especially to fish in cold water lakes, or run off into rivers and lakes). Issue fatigue is a common problem as resources becomes more scarce. And the 'after I'm dead or elected problem' with policy makers only focusing on a four-year cycle. And a barrier is most people want to know what are the specific impacts in 'their backyard' (hard to predict at that scale). Also, many city officials claim 'my hands are tied by (fill in the blank)'; cost is oft-cited.

How do you get through these?

  • Invest in outreach, education and training (show people what is going on in these systems). How do you explain the science in a way that motivates people to act.
  • Build internal capacity for dealing with climate change (i.e. a communication strategy that improves connection to research communities; tap into those resources. This will help find and interpret the data.).
  • Climate change has transitioned from being a 'green' discussion to a political. We need to shift or reframe the discussion into an emergency preparedness/risk management, to get beyond a right-left political debate. Risk management means looking at the economic impacts and avoiding risk (insurance claims are probably the main driver in Miami Dade).
  • How do you start building collaboration with communities for pilot projects?
  • Find an additional resource - today is a good example to find opportunities to engage with the experts in this field in Northeast Ohio.
  • Consider the 'no regrets' strategies which are, "more defensible because they're already good for the community." Find other communities around the country that are already doing this, who has carved a path? If people have enough information, they still may not change their behavior (like smoking cigarrettes).
  • A lot of social science research points to if you arm people with information you have to arm them equally with what they can do about it.
  • Try to remain positive. Yes, the impacts can be severe, but be open minded; know with whom you are communicating (be specific, if it's a business audience, the way you discuss this is different than how you discuss it with your friends).

An example of good community engagement can be found in Elkford, a 25-year old mining town in British Columbia, Canada elected to develop a climate mitigation and adaptation plan. They realized the community plan won't attract miners if its just a meeting, so they got creative with engagement. For two days in the town's shopping mall, set up flip charts do gauge community sentiment (a sticky dot exercise; got 60 participants). Did a door-to-door survey, kitchen table conversations, announced in community newsletter -- there isn't a one-size-fits-all strategy; you can do a mom-and-pop version of community engagement and still be successful.

What do you tell communities who are skeptical about climate science? If you know that will kill the conversation, you could focus on storms, flooding and concerns on where that's heading. Communication trainings can help navigate this issue in community conversations.

Can this problem be solved from the ground up or the top down? "I think some of overarching policies need to happen at the top, but the meat of the work needs to happen from the ground level. Link it to public safety and health. Maybe don't go in talking about the environment. Talk about jobs and the economy - we heard today about links it to that, it takes the politics off the table. It's challenging. It takes a lot of trail and error, but in my own experience as soon as politics comes into play it's over."

How do we deal with the gap on climate and environment in education? "I don't think we do enough to link climate and the policy response in government (civics) class."

Shaughnessy shared tools available for local planning efforts

• Kellie Rotuno, director of engineering and construction at the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District started by describing the District's analysis of its lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions in its plan to eliminate billions of combined sewer overflows ($1.2 billion investment - a $4/gal in grey infrastructure. The District proposed to capture 44 million more gallons with green infrastructure, and then analyze the impact it could have to make the case for removing huge storage tanks from the equation). "When you use green, it works across the range of storms," she said. "Green (infrastructure) doesn't stop working like a tank does. A tank fills up where green keeps working."

Rotuno also talked about the stormwater program. "If a parking lot owner wants to repave their lot in a green way, we can bring money to the table (find out what they're willing to spend and, assuming they're getting (a high) level of control from that green infrastructure we can help fund it."

What is that volume?

About an acre of the impervious surface has to be cut out, Rotuno says. Cities like Cleveland are forming stormwater task forces.

Are you going to be treating water with these volume captures? A ODNR staffer asked. Yes, it would be cleaned before released.

How do you provide for ongoing monitoring of green infrastructure projects? Every approved project will have a monitoring component that will be run by the Sewer District.

• Kirby Date, works at Cleveland State University in the Best Local Land Use Practices part of the Ohio Lake Erie Commision Balanced Growth Program. It is a dual-mission, she said, of water quality and economic development. "We want to look at ways to transition to economic, social and environmental systems. Focus on location of conservation - an entirely voluntary, incentive driven program. Focused on local government and its action. In 2009 expanded statewide. What it does - gets local governments together in a collaborative way resolving where development and conservation belong. Best local example is the Chagrin Watershed Partnership. Around the state four endorsed Balanced Growth Plans, including Chagrin, Rocky River, one in Lake County and the Cuyahoga River. Best local land use practices - what are the best actions local governments can take? Each one can decide its own land use. So, we're working on developing priorities, model zoning codes, and adopting them, checklists to evaluate codes for development best practices, developing an Ohio database of case studies. What are the best local land use practices - conservation development (a more flexible way of doing subdivisions - we still build exurban subdivisions?). What are the climate protections - more green space for infiltration and lower temperatures; can accommodate stormwater management on site. These tools will have a lot of direct impact and allow you to comply with EPA stormwater regulations. To locate stormwater management where it belongs - where should it go and not go.

• Amy Brennan, director of the Chagrin River Watershed Partners. Focus on helping communities lower their infrastructure costs. One of the pilot Balanced Growth projects. We didn't talk about climate change then, and I'll be reluctant to mention it to our member communities. We focus on what's going to happen, not why. That frames adaptation work. Supporting local zoning and planning. Works with exurban communities on what's already been developed and staying away from floodplains and rivers and let them do what they're supposed to do. We created a map of high priority conservation and development (it was widdled down by communities) it included steep slopes, flood plains and existing conservation easements. The priority develop areas followed existing highways and roads and any industrial parks. Some of our communities didn't have priority development areas, but they knew to stay away from steep slopes. Implementation of a good zoning and master plan is an adaptation of climate change. Communities like Eastlake have work to do on higher flood plain code - 2 feet above the standard. Parking code updates - do we need a code that is sized for the day after Thanksgiving - we help them ask, do we need that much parking. Riparian setback - bump it up from the state standard, have a higher standard. Our zoning codes drive development - all over the place. We've got to drive this distance, maintain all of that infrastructure...conservation zoning could make it less expensive to maintain all of that infrastructure for a city. In the future, want to explore conservation easements.

• Karen Knittle, a planner with Cleveland Heights, talked about the practical implications of Cleveland Heights 'sustainable zoning code' assessment. We are already a walkable community, in close proximity to employment centers, and we consider it in planning. About nine years ago we got money from EPA to deal with a parking lot that was flooding - we were advised to keep a green corridor open for abosorbing stormwater. At present they could suggest green infrastructure to businesses but no way of enforcing (the sustainable zoning recommendations could make it mandatory to incorporate it in a development or redevelopment.) For us to remain viable, we looked at zoning code, the best framework for change. The city paid Camiros, Inc., a consultant, $40,000 to examine city's current code and eliminate barriers to promote more green infrastructure and sustainable practices, and to craft standards and new, defensible code. Wanted to reduce impervious surface, promote local food and lower energy use in large scale development, residential and commercial districts, principal uses, parking structures. Could the city relax lot coverage requirements, adopt Complete Streets, allow for urban farming, renewable energy systems like micro-wind turbines (and should it be required by right), and guidelines for adaptive reuse, stormwater cisterns, parking lot design. The consultants preliminary recommendations are being reviewed.

Minimum requirements for landscaping - what are they? Call for species diversity, perhaps ones that are drought resistant.

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