Climate Change Planning Presents New Physical, Social, and Economic Challenges

Last Updated:  June 10, 2024

Many local government officials and activists now regard climate change planning as a new imperative. On this page we describe how your city government could and should address this challenge.

At the same time, we believe that any town will find some degree of voter resistance to the topic. Granted, in very progressive towns, the opposition may be silent, but probably it will still be there. Bold leadership, both within the local government and among non-profit neighborhood and community groups, will be needed. Any mention of climate change planning leads to discussion of uncomfortable subjects such as:

  • Increasing local infrastructure costs
  • The possible need to address equitable relocation of residents and businesses
  • The likely political clout of residential and commercial interests located in high property value waterfronts vulnerable to sea level rise and regular flooding
  • Changes in the food supply
  • How to deal with climate change skeptics and their political allies
  • Why disadvantaged populations often are located in nature's way in the first place, and how community development practices are both part of the problem and part of the solution, and
  • The distribution of the associated financial burdens among local, state, and federal interests.
North American river far out of its banksLocal climate change planning can help reduce the increasingly common sight of rivers far out of their banks. Flooding causes major property damage and threatens ecosystems and human life.

Obviously areas where rising sea level can be observed readily and where damage already is apparent may feel a greater urgency than other communities where folks who aren't reading the data discount perceived change as just part of  unpredictable day to day weather.

However, climate (meaning the broad patterns of the weather, not the daily changes) impacts our water systems, plant and animal life, building integrity, the necessity of and expense for certain public infrastructure items, lifespan of streets and bridges, economic viability, agricultural patterns and food systems, public health, and the safekeeping of important cultural landmarks and artifacts. 

So we think every city should evaluate the scope and nature of its need for climate change planning, and every town, village, and rural county should join with nearby locations to discuss what the data are showing for your particular geography.

17 Questions Your City Should Ask Itself During Climate Change Planning

  • Where do you need to discourage or prohibit new development in places most likely to be inappropriate due to climate evolution? Is your zoning code adequate to do so? If not, what changes are needed? How will you deal with any newly created nonconforming uses?
  • Are there some predictable extreme weather challenges that your building code or property maintenance code cannot help you meet?
  • Who and what do you need to relocate? Do you choose to engage in a passive strategy whereby the relocation occurs through people and businesses moving voluntarily over time, or should you be more proactive? What financial assistance will you provide, and how will that be funded? How can you care for social networks as people and businesses move? Does your zoning accommodate enough housing and business locations that are affordable to those who will need to relocate? 
  • What utilities will need to be relocated? Do you have water, sewer, electrical, natural gas, or fiber optic lines that are in the path of rising sea levels or other predictable hazards?
  • Do you have any areas of concentrated poverty that will become more prone to damage from flooding, sea level rise, wildfires, and storm damage to residences, streets, and other infrastructure? If so, how can your climate change planning be integrated with broader policies and programs to increase social equity?
  • Is your community doing its part to reduce vehicle miles traveled (a key mitigation strategy)? Do your codes and practices reward cul de sacs, wide roads, high speeds, highly segregated land uses requiring most people to drive to each destination, and other layouts and behaviors that lead to more fuel use? Does your pattern of permitting or even passively encouraging urban sprawl lend itself to more driving than necessary? Do you have an adequate supply of affordable housing in locations offering a low transportation cost?
  • How will you integrate climate change planning with your comprehensive plan?
  • What existing businesses and agriculture are likely to become untenable in your location in the future? What do these trends imply for your labor force, economic base, and land use patterns?
  • What existing beaches, seawalls, and streets are likely to be damaged by stronger, more frequent storms?
  • Might your water supply or water purification plants be endangered?
  • Are your green infrastructure, stormwater conveyances, and detention facilities ready for larger storms? If not, what improvements could you make now?
  • Do you have landscape, lawn, or tree preservation requirements that will become impractical in the near future?
  • Are you assessing your community's tree canopy and its response to warmer, dryer, wetter, or windier conditions? When you prepare landscape plans for parks and public buildings, are drought tolerant species being selected?
  • Are you prepared for land subsidence that may occur as a result of changing underground water supplies? Are your emergency responders and public works department ready to deal with greater potential for landslides or collapse of bridge embankments?
  • Are there businesses and residences that will want air conditioning that do not have it now? If so, how will your utilities adapt? How will the need for assistance with utility bills for lower-income households increase? How can you better prepare for electrical blackouts due to a greater frequency of severe storms?
  • Are you educating your citizens now about what planetary warming may mean for the future of their households and your city? Since many residents will be more concerned about longer streaks of hotter days than your city is accustomed to, what is your heat wave plan?
  • What partnerships will we have to build to address your most obvious threats? Will you need to engage with other communities in watershed planning or river corridor analysis? Will you need to partner with levee districts, water management districts, or nearby municipalities? Are your current organizational structures adequate for the task, or will you need a new formal coalition? How can community organizations partner with other neighborhood associations or CDCs to advance your own plan for equitable development, redevelopment, or relocation as needed?

After you have just a few conversations about the above questions, you may have a clue as to whether your likely impacts will be severe enough to warrant a separate climate action plan, or whether you should weave climate into your already fairly long list of considerations in each and every type of city and neighborhood plan you prepare.

You also may be able to take advantage of a new U.S. government website if you are located here. We especially want you to look at the Concerned Citizens section of the website. If you have the patience or the technical expertise, you will find abundant data and mapping tools to help you explore predictions about climate impacts in your area.

Next let's look at how other cities respond.

Local Governments and Community Organizations Take Four Approaches to Climate Change

Depending partly on location, local governments and civic groups have taken these four different approaches to current climate issues:

  • Ignoring it and hoping it will go away or proves unfounded
  • Promoting local enthusiasm for global mitigation (reduction of greenhouse gases)
  • Adaptation (recognition of the certainty of global warming and adopting programs and practices to deal with that perceived certainty)
  • A resilience emphasis (rolling the climate change issue into a broad-based local plan or initiative to make sure that a city can bounce back from a wide variety of possible threats)

We think each of the three latter approaches has merit, and in this page we will analyze how community members, activists, community organizations, and local governments might go about incorporating the best features of each.

The balance among the approaches will vary widely, based on differing climate risk assessments. Some villages, towns, and cities will see much more severe impacts than others, just as some areas are already much more likely to experience hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, snowstorms, flooding, and storm surge than others. Some economies will be seriously disrupted as farmers must seek alternative crops, beachfront tourist businesses must retreat, or Main Streets must be relocated to higher ground. 

As you can see, we do not think it makes sense to ignore the threat. You can consult this summary of worldwide climate data in map and chart form.

Yes, it is possible that scientists can be wrong. After all, science is the process of formulating and testing hypotheses to approximate the truth more closely. And predictive science is more likely to be wrong than empirical science. But we don't think it is wise to ignore the broad agreement among scientists of many backgrounds and persuasions that there is a strong trend toward global warming. It's really not worth arguing about whether we will see this as only a blip on the chart in 100 years, since none of us expect to be functioning adults then. Meanwhile, our communities may suffer and change drastically for the worse. So let's get busy.

The Mitigation Approach to the Climate Issue and How It Works at the Local Level

When public awareness of global warming began to increase in the early parts of the millennium, many of the local governments that did respond began with the assumption that if they accentuated their projects and policies to reduce fossil fuel consumption, the worst of the climate trends could be stalled. 

Typical efforts to lower the emission of greenhouse gases, which we applaud, include the following examples:

  • Encouraging energy conservation in city facilities and fleets, and conversion of those that use more intense fossil fuels, such as coal and gasoline, to perceived lower impact energy sources including natural gas and then electric vehicles, solar installations, wind power,  planning how to decommission coal-fired plants generating electricity, and a passive solar mentality when new facilities are constructed.
  • Helping residents conserve gasoline through adjusting traffic control methods, including the embrace of roundabouts, sensor-based traffic signals, blinking traffic signals late in the evening, substitution of stop signs for signals in lower traffic locations, and so forth.

We could make a long list for you, but that would derail this page. The emphasis is on decreasing greenhouse gases through known and now comfortable technologies and action steps, some of which cities had long been pursuing for both fiscal and environmental reasons.

Some local governments and regional consortia we are familiar with have investigated ways to encourage more transit-oriented development, introduce measures to control urban sprawl and thus reduce driving and the destruction of trees and plantings that serve as carbon sinks, and promote and require greater housing density when new developments are approved.

However, this way forward is often politically difficult, as mayors and city councils struggle with resident reaction to unpopular moves. To experience this for yourself in a fun way, you might want to try a net-zero game devised by the clever folks at the Bloomberg.

The evolution of climate change planning and action at the local government level then moved toward a recognition that this problem is bigger than we are ever going to stem through our local public and private actions, so instead of and in addition to mitigation, we are going to have to become realistic about appropriate actions in view of the likelihood that our own mitigation efforts will not be universally adopted and may prove insufficient anyway.

Adaptation as a Response to Climate Variation

Adaptation approaches emphasize that nature is going to win, that worldwide behavior and not just ours will determine our future, and that in addition to addressing the root causes of fossil fuel use, we will have to take some medium-term actions to protect our own community.

The advantage of this type of thinking is that it brings along more pragmatic people who believe we should adopt a local action plan that recognizes that national and international action won't be enough to prevent important local negative impacts.  

However, the disadvantages of a municipal adaptation approach to climate change planning become immediately apparent once concrete proposals start to be discussed.

For example, in areas bordered by oceans, gulfs, bays, and rivers, what is called "retreat" of buildings and facilities from close proximity to the sea or river bank is a first and obvious step.

But this immediately raises some very loud voices. Living with a waterfront view usually comes at a cost, and many of those who value their beach cottage or high-rise condo will fight vigorously to maintain the status quo if the flooding impacts that they personally have experienced are minor.

In historically flood-prone neighborhoods, the residents are disproportionately poor and disadvantaged, and advocates for these neighborhoods typically will sound a loud alarm if you talk about forced relocation. The poor and minorities who have few other choices of affordable housing are not prepared to weather an increased frequency and magnitude of storms, due to sometimes mediocre or low quality of housing construction and maintenance, lack of funds to deal with a disaster and the minor or major life changes that it leaves in its wake, and limited options to relocate due both to systemic racism and lack of housing equity.

You can see that who is forced to relocate and why, who pays for the relocation and subsequent demolition of housing and conversion to usable green space, and where new residences can be constructed will be major public policy discussions and potential sources of conflict in your community.  

Equity issues within a metropolitan area or a state are very likely to arise. As the seaside city or suburb reduces the amount of land available for urban uses, what other cities and suburbs will compensate it for loss of tax base? What other suburbs or towns are equipped to expand without aggravating the very urban sprawl that led to the rise in greenhouse emissions in the first place? How are the financial rewards and burdens to be allocated within the metro area? These too are thorny questions.

In the U.S., it is possible that a new funding stream for threatened tribal lands from the Department of Interior will pioneer federal involvement in relocation. For an in-depth look at some of the issues, try to access this New York Times article giving examples of tribes facing the climate emergency in northwestern Washington state. 

Similarly, when your city wants to adopt new hurricane or earthquake construction standards, in many cases, this will not go smoothly. A segment of the public will be irate about increasing housing costs. Indeed, even if the public is solidly behind you, you will have to deal with the fallout of these rising housing prices.

All of this strongly suggests that while climate adaptation initially makes cities feel more in control than a mitigation effort that has failed so far to stem global warming, the political, physical, social, and practical difficulties of adaptation will cause plenty of conflict within cities and among cities.

Yet we are convinced that cities with one or more hazard areas or situations must begin now to discuss and resolve politically tricky questions about how to reduce future financial and logistical burdens. These deliberations will be at the heart of climate change planning.

If you are in the position of urging your city government to get busy on adaptation measures, be aware that a resource for them is the American Society of Adaptation Professionals or the BASE project in the European Union.

The Resilience Framework as a Response to Climate Change

Some cities have chosen to fold climate change planning into a broader resiliency planning effort. (For those who are wondering what this means, see our page about what resiliency planning is.)

The resilient communities notion is that whatever the major challenge, which could be civil unrest, major earthquake, hurricane, power supply interruption, or epidemic, a city needs to have identified in advance the structures, procedures, and resources it can use to bounce back.

Resiliency implies forethought and redundant economic, health, housing, and emergency response systems. We really like this approach, since it recognizes that there are many potential crises that could face a city and that crisis response bears some similarities regardless of the problem involved.

We think this is occurring in part as a response to the political difficulties and moral uncertainties of the other two approaches. In part, Rockefeller Foundation leadership in helping cities identify challenges to their resiliency deserves the credit.

Another aspect of the rise of the resiliency framework in climate change planning is the belief that wrapping a difficult issue into a topic where there is more consensus, such as emergency relief, sometimes softens a controversy.  Here we should note that at other times, the more controversial aspect of a plan or program, such as climate change, might just serve as a lightning rod attracting almost all of the discussion of the overall resiliency plan.

Ultimately you will have to decide whether the resiliency planning frame will be suitable for your community. Those communities at highest climate risk may want to sharpen the focus on those particular issues, without entanglements with larger questions of resiliency until critical programs to address climate issues are underway.

Conflicting Needs You Will Encounter as You Explore Climate

When you engage in this work at the community level, you will identify possible conflicts between climate change and other priorities. But this is absolutely nothing new for the planning and community development field. We are often looking for the appropriate balance among varying concerns.

We just need to start factoring climate implications into our land use plans, zoning decisions, development approvals, economic development initiatives, and capital improvements plans. We need to pay attention to how rising sea levels and increasing severity and incidence of storms may hasten the decline of certain neighborhoods. We need to challenge previously published flood maps, explore how new or stricter building codes could lower storm damage, and examine how a warmer climate could make our habitat preservation, stormwater management, drinking water supply, and beachfront development initiatives look short-sighted.

It's time for your community to engage actively in climate change planning if our current trajectory would alter your physical development patterns and therefore the social structures of vulnerable groups. Will higher ground see rapid appreciation of real estate values, and if so, what will that mean for housing density and type? Will entire blocks or neighborhoods become major headaches when official flood maps do not alert people to increased flood hazards?

Failure to come to grips with some of these questions now, while there is still time for some communities to act, will only lead to greater expense and frustration later. Postponing difficult conversations usually leads to accelerated conflict as issues are amplified during emergencies.

If your impacts are predicted to be less severe, you still need to add climate to your comprehensive plan contents and think carefully about various scenarios. In fact, you can include several ranges of severity in your plan, just as you might have a high, medium, and low population projection.

To help with all of this, look to examples from other cities. The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has published an online manual, Beyond the Basics, about mitigating all forms of hazards. It includes links to local examples of hazard mitigation plans, some of which deal with climate change extensively.

Learn More About Possible Climate Change Planning Topics

Climate change planning is indeed a cross-cutting issue that may take on many different shapes depending on each community's unique risks. For example, some communities will face a gentrification risk, but others will find that their first thoughts on climate adaption will only aggravate concentrated poverty. Below are just a few of the possible pages of this website that will be relevant to the physical, social, and economic challenges facing many communities.

  1. Making a Good Community
  2.  ›
  3. Community Planning
  4.  › Climate Change Planning

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