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February 03, 2010

Climate change and the West

    Given the "41st vote" of Massachusetts senator-elect Scott Brown, it seems unlikey major federal climate legislation is going to happen any time soon. Yet many remain who wish to find ways to adapt to, and mitigate, the impacts of global warming. A recent report has some timely advice for local government officials -- take steps in land use planning, linking development and transportation and energy efficiency, that are appealing because they save money. The fact that the measures also address climate change is best left as an unheralded bonus.
    The report, Planning for Climate Change in the West, by Rebecca Carter and Susan Culp, acknowledges the critical role of local planners in confronting challenges posed by climate change. It also addresses the region’s many political, cultural, demographic, and geographic factors that can be barriers to innovation and effectiveness. Big policy goals need to be tailored to local realities, says Armando Carbonell, senior fellow and chairman of the Department of Planning and Urban Form at the Lincoln Institute. “State and federal initiatives are important," he says, "but mitigation and adaptation will only happen if implemented on the ground, locally.”
    Co-author Culp, project manager of Western Lands and Communities, a joint venture of the Sonoran Institute and the Lincoln Institute, adds: “Western planners are emphasizing sustainability or economic efficiency, rather than climate change, in their decisions to manage water supplies, reduce energy consumption, increase transportation efficiency, and protect open space.” She cited a survey of nearly 50 government staff and elected officials in the Intermountain West indicating local skepticism that climate change was a problem in many communities. According to the research, a significant number of residents in these communities are unconvinced that climate change is human-caused and they perceive the issue as global and remote.
    Planning for Climate Change in the West is the latest Policy Focus Report from the Lincoln Institute. It was released today at the New Partners for Smart Growth conference in Seattle, an annual symposium on sustainability and land use that runs Feb. 4-6 and includes presentations by Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson, and Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. The report is available at the exhibition booth of the Lincoln Institute and Sonoran Institute and can be downloaded free here.
    The Intermountain West, primarily arid landscapes that include all or a portion of 11 states west of the Rocky Mountains, is a good case study when it comes to dealing with climate change on a local or regional basis. The West is in a unique position -- climate change impacts are expected to wreak particular havoc on the region, yet it remains difficult to pursue many mitigation or adaptation strategies for political and cultural reasons.
    The West has been shaped by dramatic fluctuations in its water and energy resources, land use patterns, economy, and a climate known for its extremes. In the decades ahead, the hydrology of the region will become even drier, leading to drought, heat waves, diminished mountain snowpack, earlier snowmelt, catastrophic wildfires, and disruptions to natural processes and wildlife habitat. Faced with the challenge of both adapting to these impacts, and contributing to mitigation through the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, planners in western communities should adopt the policy language of cost-effectiveness, the report says. An array of smart growth strategies, with an emphasis on land use and transportation policies, double as climate solutions leading to more resilient communities: building codes and standards, compact mixed-use development, transportation alternatives, distributed and renewable energy, water resource consumption and planning, preservation of open space and agriculture, and mitigation of wildfire impacts. To integrate climate-oriented policies into land use and development agendas, the report encourages planners to: 
    * Mobilize the political will.  Focus on sustainability, economic and energy efficiency, and the co-benefits of local actions, rather than politically controversial policies and goals.
    * Recognize local action and citizen participation.  Coordinate state and local activities to address climate change, and use public education about climate change impacts to foster citizen participation and buy-in for local programs.
    * Establish peer community networks on a regional scale.  Develop peer learning networks with guidance from state climate action plans and regional initiatives to help smaller communities learn from each other.
    * Identify resources and a variety of options.  Refer to state climate action plans region-wide for a variety of strategies and ideas that communities can select and apply to their own needs and circumstances.
    * Adapt climate science to local planning needs.  Seek out current information and tools in reports, Web sites, and other resources that can help planners translate available climate science for local use, and develop a baseline level of GHGs as a first step in measuring climate strategies and results.
    The report concludes that local planners in the Intermountain West face both the challenge and the opportunity to ensure a sustainable future for the region, where the need to respond to potential climate change impacts is particularly urgent. The authors present a regional context and reliable data, case studies, and planner-recommended guidelines for western communities to spur local actions that can minimize those threats.
    Rebecca Carter is a foreign service environment officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development being posted to Indonesia. She was formerly the adaptation manager for ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, USA, and climate change analyst for the Sonoran Institute. Susan Culp is a project manager at the Sonoran Institute, responsible for managing research and policy analysis projects associated with Western Lands and Communities, a joint venture with the Lincoln Institute.

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