New tool for municipal climate change adaptation
“Climate change adaptation has many layers of complexity but can also be quite straightforward. It is about making all decisions point in the right direction,” says Christine Wamsler who conducts research on sustainable urban development at Lund University focused on climate change adaptation.
Climate change adaptation aims to assist society in adapting to changing conditions, in both the short and long term, for instance to a warmer and wetter climate where extreme weather events such as heat waves and flooding are becoming more common.
Wamsler and her colleagues have studied cities around the world to identify success factors for climate change adaptation at the local level.
“Successful adaptation requires, for instance, clearly defined responsibilities and funding. If these are lacking, adaptation can end up being the responsibility of no one specific, and might never progress beyond the planning stage,” says Wamsler.
Climate change adaptation in four Swedish municipalities
In a study that was presented in the scientific journal Global Environmental Change at the end of last year, Wamsler and her research team studied climate change adaptation in four Swedish municipalities – Malmö, Lomma, Helsingborg and Kristianstad. A similar study, carried out in eight German municipalities, was published this year in the journal Ecology and Society.
“They have all been affected by flooding in recent years, which has pushed climate change adaptation further up the agenda. Despite this, our research showed discrepancies in current approaches and that there has been a lack of a general overview. For example, a municipality might have an adaptation plan, but it is not followed. Or the person in charge of climate change adaptation might not receive sufficient internal support to perform their task. Based on the analysis of such local experiences, the new tool was developed.”
Systematic work across administrative boundaries
“While there are other guidelines for climate change adaptation, the advantage of this tool is its simplicity and the provision of a holistic, complete overview. The tool aids municipalities in identifying their strengths and weaknesses and defining objectives and pathways to foster climate change adaptation,” says Wamsler.
“Sustainable institutional change requires a systematic method, which ensures that climate change adaptation informs every decision. Different municipal departments often have different and possibly contradictory objectives. Even if one of the departments bears formal responsibility for climate change adaptation, all the departments need to work on this in a coordinated manner. Otherwise, there is a major risk that in the long run no one will take responsibility for climate change adaptation in the municipalities,” says Wamsler.
More than flagship projects
Climate change adaptation focuses on how we can best develop our cities and how vulnerable they are to climatic variability and extreme weather events. “Are there enough green spaces, ponds etc. to deal with water during heavy rains? Are there green areas or public facilities (for example libraries) where people can cool off during extreme heat? Is there a need to construct flood barriers for protection against flooding, or is it necessary to ban building in areas prone to flooding? Is there a back-up system in case critical infrastructure or power supply fails due to extreme weather? And so on.”
“The occurrence and impact of an extreme event does not depend solely, for instance, on how heavy the rainfall or how strong the wind is, but on how we have developed our cities. Municipalities tend to invest in climate change adaptation by only supporting a few flagship projects instead of making it a feature of all municipal work,” says Wamsler.
Difficult to secure long-term funding
All the municipalities covered by the studies confirmed that they faced problems in securing long-term funding. Climate change adaptation does not fit well into the municipalities’ traditional way of operating.
Several municipal departments need to be involved, and adaptation often competes for funding with more urgent short-term needs, such as housing, schools and health care. It may then be difficult to prioritise investments that can prevent damage as far as twenty or thirty years into the future.
“All municipalities have their own specific geographical conditions that affect their vulnerability to climate variability and extreme weather. No two municipal organisations are identical, and the risks therefore manifest themselves in different ways. The tool that I have developed can help municipalities reflect on what they are currently doing, where they want to get to, and what areas need additional attention. Furthermore, it is essential that the investments made can also benefit other objectives, such as creating an attractive urban environment that fosters people’s wellbeing,” says Wamsler.
“A common misconception is that climate change adaptation is a one-off operation in the municipality. I see climate change adaptation as an ongoing process in which you constantly have to learn from the changes that are made. Another important aspect in this context is the need to better involve citizens in work on climate change adaptation”, Wamsler concludes.
Text: Nina Nordh