A view high above Bayshore Blvd. in Tampa shows coastal flooding, 5 August 2015. Photo: Donn Scott Jr. / ABC Action News

By Brittany Patterson
18 November 2015

(ClimateWire) – Portland, Oregon, gets it -- adapting to climate change, that is.

Local decisionmakers in the liberal city, with a bustling population of just over 600,000 people, reported very high levels of concern about climate change and advanced adaptation plans, according to an analysis undertaken by researchers at George Washington University (GW).

Published this month in the journal Global Environmental Change, the six-city case study looked at the levels and types of climate planning in Portland; Boston; Los Angeles; Tucson, Ariz.; Raleigh, N.C.; and Tampa, Fla. At the bottom of the list fell Tampa. Despite having a high climate risk -- with thousands of people below sea level and the increased possibility of being hit by a hurricane -- the city of about 350,000 has very little in the way of adaptation plans.

The researchers wanted to look deeply at social factors representing obstacles and catalysts for adaptation planning, said Sabrina McCormick, associate professor of environmental and occupational health at GW's Milken Institute School of Public Health and a co-author of the study.

Strong political will among local officials to act on climate change was the most important factor that affected a city's ability to plan, they found.

"We really need to be thinking about adaptation not just as a technical issue but as a social issue," said McCormick. "When we're telling ourselves, 'If we could just advance our technology around renewable energy or build a flood wall, that would solve our problems,' but in fact none of those things ever gets developed unless we have the political will to develop them and public pressure to push for them and institutions that can push for their development and expansion." […]

"We found, in cities where local leaders are open to feedback from constituents and open to discussions about climate change, that local organizations and advocates as well as local opinion really made a difference," McCormick said.

In Los Angeles, which ranked third in the study, officials expressed concern over natural disasters like wildfire, drought and earthquakes, which prompted them to take action. In Tampa, where more than 125,000 residents live below sea level and are in jeopardy of being affected by a hurricane, the fact that one had not occurred in nearly a century served as evidence that hurricanes were normal, despite modeling that indicates a storm surge would be deadly.

The study found that officials in Florida remain largely unconcerned about climate change, many denying the science. Nongovernmental organizations that would advocate for action felt stymied because there was little political openness on the subject.

"Interviewees in Tampa overwhelmingly claimed that, mainly due to lack of political buy-in regarding climate change, their city remains one of the most vulnerable and least prepared cities in the country," the authors wrote. [more]

Politicization of climate change hinders adaptation in cities – report


ABSTRACT: Climate change and extreme weather events are expected to increase in frequency and intensity in the United States. The social factors that drive cities to adapt to and/or prepare for these impacts are largely unknown. Sixty-five qualitative interviews were conducted with multi-sectoral decision-makers to assess factors driving adaptation in six cities across the United States: Tucson, Arizona; Tampa, Florida; Raleigh, North Carolina; Boston, Massachusetts; Portland, Oregon; and Los Angeles, California. We find that there are three type of factors that affect adaptation: (1) swing—characteristics of or events within localities that can lead toward or away from action; (2) inhibitors—ways of thinking and framing climate change available to decision-makers that slow, but do not necessarily stop change; and (3) resource catalysts—types of information and moral grounding that provide a rationale for change. These factors often intersect such that swing factors are only influential in cities with some political acceptance of climate change. In cities where public acceptance of climate change is slowly shifting, resource catalysts are more influential. This is the first qualitative study of climate change adaptation in American cities.

Highlights

  • Swing factors affect climate change adaptation. They include characteristics of or events within localities that can lead toward or away from action.
  • Inhibitors, or ways of thinking and framing climate change available to decision-makers, slow, but do not necessarily stop change.
  • Resource catalysts – types of information and moral grounding – provide a rationale ad therefore motivate adaptation planning.

American adaptation: Social factors affecting new developments to address climate change

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