I was fortunate to spend last week in Madison, Wisconsin among the nation’s leading climate adaptation professionals. These are not the Elon Musks and Richard Bransons of the sustainability world. These are the folks that don’t particularly care that you know their name. They are pragmatic optimists that are deeply aware of the suffering that communities are strolling into (some with eyes squeezed shut) and aspire to lessen it. They are working nose-down every day to grapple with their own grief, fear, frustration and uncertainty to find ways to protect each other and thrive under a new normal. These professionals have different suggestions for how to move forward, but they share a common purpose and the kind of integrity that can only be achieved by a gritty commitment to what must be done, suspended by a radical belief in the power of good ideas and collaboration. Personally, I feel better knowing they have all gone back to their respective communities across the US to diligently push ahead in whatever ways possible. The good news is there are huge opportunities for communities across the country to arm themselves with better information, infrastructure, coping skills, partnerships, etc. Below I outline my main take-aways from the National Adaptation Forum (NAF).
People not weather
Those that have been doing this work for a while understand that the consequences of climate change will not just be sad stories of arctic animals or even more frequent extreme weather reports. Climate change will touch nearly all the ways of life that support human wellbeing as we know it; both afar and in the future, and at home and right now. Some changes are creeping in slowly in ways many will fail to attribute to climate change like increasing food prices or rising cases of mosquito or tick-borne illnesses. Others will hit communities over the head with a dose of climate reality in the form of devastating storms or wildfires that force people out of their homes and businesses. Some will be harmed. Some will be lucky enough to relocate. Others will be considered refugees and will leave behind rights and cultural heritage. These experiences will feel varying levels of uncomfortable, painful, traumatic, and scary.
These same professionals also understand that the work to adapt and build resilience will happen through real people acting to strengthen their communities. The strategies necessary to protect human wellbeing range from ensuring natural systems remain intact, to reinforcing our built systems, to right-sizing our health and emergencies systems, to preparing people to cope with trauma and care for their neighbors.
The obstacles to moving quickly are rooted in people too. I was overcome with the volume of stories attendees brought with them about why it has been difficult to move forward. Almost all of these stories are about people. Leaders that won’t lead. Champions that lack authority. Organizations that won’t work together. Advocates that struggle to maintain endurance. There are efforts within the industry, especially within the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, to build connections to support the personal resilience of individuals in the trenches of this work.
Summoning a positive focus
One of my favorite take-aways came from leading-edge adaptation professionals that seem to be taking cues from positive psychology, Buckminster Fuller, and even the law of attraction, to carve out new pathways towards the sustainable and adapted future we desire. Rather than spending time and energy getting bogged down on the risks and obstacles, these folks are summoning us all to get very intentional and clear about envisioning what an adapted future looks like. This notion is so simple, yet is still blowing my mind a week later as I imagine what adapted conditions would really look like in the communities I’ve called home. That kind of clarity requires a new way of thinking. These practitioners call on us to be willing to hold the tension of uncertainty enough to question mainstream beliefs about how to achieve adaptation and to instead foster paths of less resistance.
When focusing on the intended end-state, some adaptation professionals save time otherwise spent demanding a commitment to the language of climate change, and instead take practical leaps ahead on areas of common-ground among stakeholders where buy-in, adaptive capacity, and investment already exists (e.g. emergency management, general planning, health improvement plans). In fact there is an emerging term for a concept called “plan alignment” which describes the work of places like California that are connecting the complex ecosystem of existing planning frameworks to more efficiently build statewide resilience.
Local values, knowledge, and authentic engagement
Many communities are looking for expertise from the outside to help them adapt, which is a great way to move ahead more quickly. But there is a growing recognition among adaptation professionals that the most important form of expertise will come from the community itself. Professionals advocating a community driven approach talk about “values-based” decision-making, which places an appropriately high level of emphasis on listening to what community assets (values, resources, etc) a community wishes to protect most from the threats of climate change. If a practitioner tries to implement a one-size-fits-all approach to a community, he or she may very well lead a community to invest its limited resources in ways that are not aligned with the communities biggest concerns or highest priorities. For example, a community may only look at the climate models, determine flooding is the biggest exposure risk (based on projected economic costs) and throw millions into retaining walls and drainage systems. Meanwhile, their community may have actually said educational opportunities was its highest priority, and little consideration was given to how to build long-term educational resilience.
Achieving decisions based on local values and knowledge boils down to authentic engagement, which often goes by the wayside in places where adaptation budgets are limited. In my work, I could not have predicted a community’s values without having asked. While it is more common to recognizes the importance of engaging local values and knowledge in tribal communities and other communities that have a strong cultural presence, in truth, every community has unique preferences and values and it is up to the practitioner to facilitate a process to illuminate them and weave them meaningfully into the planning process.
Information aggregation and interoperability
One area I’m particularly passionate about is how to systematically aggregate information for communities to help them more easily arrive at values-based decisions, so they can move to action faster. Communities can spend years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process of analyzing vulnerabilities and adaptation strategies. This is what it often takes to wade through the confusing maze of databases in search of applicable metrics at the right geospatial or temporal scales, turn that into something visual that can communicate importance to community members, and then mine for relevant best practices. In one session, I heard there were over 30,000 databases that provide a piece of a community’s climate impact story!
While it is essential to have an understanding of the likely scenarios of the most severe climate impacts and a comprehensive review of possible ways to adapt to them, there are ways to accelerate this process. Organizations, including Prosper Sustainably, are working at state, regional and national levels to compile the best data and organize it ways that communities can use so they don’t each have to reinvent the wheel. In fact, there was an interactive session on this topic at NAF. Leading organizations are taking the best findings in research and literature and designing tools that can guide communities through the process of evaluating their vulnerabilities, strengths and options (you can see some of my favorite data sources here), thereby dramatically cutting down the workload for each individual community. These organizations are even working together to share information and attempt to achieve greater interoperability (meaning systems that can work together) for the benefit of users. I asked one representative of a federal agency whether anyone is compiling a national wish-list of knowledge gaps that we still need researchers and data developers to fill, as this could help focus investment on areas of greatest need. The answer was not yet, which sounds like an opportunity to me.
In recent years, I’ve seen conferences do a better job positioning people of color, and especially representatives of tribal nations, closer to center stage. I was truly pleased to witness that indigenous representatives not only had a dominant presence through NAF’s “Tribal Track” this year, but had a quality of presence that I’m not sure I’ve experienced elsewhere. The participation of tribes wasn’t just a token keynote speaker, or series of sessions on environmental justice, or equal weighting of sessions or posters led by indigenous representatives, or greater representation on intersectional panels, though there was plenty of that. What I witnessed was a deep respect for tribal communities as a place of invaluable wisdom when it comes to resilience and adaptation, a recognition of the errors of western civilization that failed them and ultimately everyone, and an interest in learning from both traditional and innovative approaches being led by tribes. For example, I was pleased to support the Pala Band of Mission Indians in this session on climate change and health adaptation through my role in the national Tribal Climate Health Project.
I’m embarrassed to admit this conference was my first encounter with the term “Just Communities.” The term represents a movement that seeks to advance justice by building leadership, fostering change, and dismantling all forms of prejudice, discrimination, and oppression. These concepts are of course not new to me, but seeing them in the light of climate change was thought-provoking. Speakers on this topic suggest that the same systems that created prejudice, discrimination and oppression are those that led to climate change, and that the impacts of climate change can exacerbate these conditions. However, these inspiring speakers also suggest that climate change can lead to a shift from an extractive economies to a more regenerative economy where all people are connected, respected, and valued. The idea that we could take the unique opportunity presented by climate change to rebuild more inclusive social and economic systems is the single most uplifting take-away I left Madison with. I particularly enjoyed hearing from Rahwa Ghirmatzion at PUSH Buffalo who discussed the progress her organization is making using a just transition framework improve health and housing in Buffalo, New York.
As Prosper Sustainably continues to hit the streets in various communities, our goal is to continue sharing strategies, ideas and insights with those of you working to help hometowns prosper, sustainably. We invite you to join us us on Facebook, Youtube, and Linkedin. If you know colleagues that would appreciate a dose of inspiration, we would appreciate if you would share this with them!
Written by Angie Hacker, Vice President and Senior Consultant, Prosper Sustainably
I’m Angie. I’m a mom and sustainability consultant. I love communities and have been serving them for nearly 20 years, implementing solutions that protect the places that people call home. My family and I are now exploring communities around the world, meeting hometown heroes and thought leaders, and we are convinced. Solutions exist. In data, in technology, in policy, in plans, in projects, and in programs. They are a part of the tale future generations will tell about how we chose a thriving future. Let’s find them together. Let’s move faster and smarter. Let’s prosper, sustainably.