Adaptation in North America: What’s happening and what needs to happen, with Beth Gibbons
Much of the focus surrounding climate action is on mitigation: how do we reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and avoid catastrophic climate change in the coming decades?
But the reality is the climate is already changing – and will continue to change even under the most optimistic mitigation scenarios. So what is being done to adapt and prepare for these changes?
Beth Gibbons, Executive Director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, joined Climate Now to discuss how – and whether – North American cities are adapting to a changing climate, and what still needs to happen to ensure people and places are protected.
Executive Director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals
Executive Director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals
Beth Gibbons is the Executive Director of the American Society of Adaptation Professionals. She is an expert in sustainable development and climate adaptation, having previously directed the University of Michigan’s Climate Center and managed NOAA’s Great Lakes Regional Integrated Sciences and Assessments Center.
Climate Now Host
Climate Now Host
James Lawler: I’m James Lawler, and you are listening to Climate Now.
While much of our content at Climate Now addresses the technologies and policies that can help prevent catastrophic global warming, today’s episode is focused on how we can adapt to the changes that are already happening or are likely to happen.
To help us better understand how communities are preparing for a changing climate, we spoke with Beth Gibbons, the President of the American Society for Adaptation Professionals, or ASAP. Beth has worked for decades to integrate climate information into municipal decisions in the US and Canada and was able to give us insight into how cities can successfully adapt.
Beth, can you tell us a little about your background and your work at ASAP?
[00:00:44] Beth Gibbons: Yeah. So my background comes from a Jill of all trades kind of experience. I’ve worked as an urban planner. I’ve worked in community development. I’ve worked in the international context and now in the domestic context for the last about 15 years. So I had been working in international development and kind of came into the field of climate adaptation through the gateway of working with cities. And so I was really interested in understanding how cities were starting to incorporate future climate information into their planning and decision-making. And so I worked with the University of Michigan on that. First, running a project for the University of Michigan and the Kresge foundation, working with cities in the US and Canada, seeing how could climate information be more usable and useful for municipalities.
And then I started working for a NOAA program across the Great Lakes Region. And there we were thinking about integration of climate into all different sectors. So from recreation to municipalities to farming. And I also was working for the University of Michigan, still coordinating University of Michigan’s climate programs across all of their disciplines.
The opportunity to come over to ASAP started about six years ago. And I came here because I saw it as a way of kind of pulling together my experience in community development, my experience in network building, in what was just really obvious a need in trying to create a home for climate adaptation as a profession to grow, to improve, to thrive. And I loved the mission of ASAP, which was really about bringing people together to be learning together, and to be advancing the field.
[00:02:26] James Lawler: So what is ASAP?
Beth Gibbons: It’s the American Society of Adaptation Professionals and ASAP is dedicated to connecting and supporting climate adaptation professionals to advance innovation and equity in their work.
James Lawler: Got it. And so what would be some examples of like people who would be members of ASAP?
Beth Gibbons: We have members who occupy federal agencies. We have members who work at the local, community and city level. We have members who are working for large engineering and construction firms. We have members who work with corporations, thinking about TCFD, thinking about disclosure and risk.
And we have members who are running their own small boutique consulting firms. And so it’s like really across the board. We have folks who come, oh, and then from academic institutions as well, students and also faculty, and they come into ASAP and the idea is really that they may be working on very different projects, but they’re trying to solve pretty similar challenges, which is what is the best way to do this work? And so you can get somebody who’s working at, in EPA at the federal level, with somebody who’s in a city like Duluth talking about what does it, what does Duluth really need from EPA and EPA saying, you know, this is what I need to be asked for. And so it’s creating this network where folks can actually advance the work holistically because they’re able to talk across sectors and across scales about what they really need.
James Lawler: That’s awesome. And that’s really clear. Thanks for that example.
Beth Gibbons: Yeah.
[00:03:52] James Lawler: So, if you could just define adaptation, and I know that some people, like we tend to hear the terms adaptation, mitigation, and resilience often in very close proximity to one another.
Could you define each of those terms?
Beth Gibbons: Yeah. So climate adaptation and mitigation are opposite sides of the same coin. So I think about all of this as the body of climate work and on the mitigation side is where you’re working to reduce your carbon emission, or more and more we’re starting to talk about how do we capture and sequester existing carbon in the atmosphere.
So it’s really about, what we’re putting out into the atmosphere, minimizing and managing. Adaptation is about adapting to the changes which are already with us from carbon which has gone out into the atmosphere. So understanding that the climate has already changed and we have already locked in changes, which will continue, and we need to be incorporating that new information into our planning and decision making.
When we bring resilience in, I think it’s one of the most difficult words to define in this space because resilience, as an idea, has existed inside and also outside of climate conversations, but resilience is really, some of the best definitions I’ve heard are ways that we can ensure communities are prepared to not bounce back, but to bounce forward. So they’re more resilient and prepared, in the face of an oncoming climate acute event, to recover more quickly and in a way that will be more just and equitable. I’ve also heard climate resilience defined from a social lens, which is saying that when you bring in climate change adaptation, climate mitigation and social justice, you get to resilience.
And so I think that resilience is one of the less consensus defined terms in the space that we’re operating in. For me, when I think about resilience, it can mean many, many things to many, many people. If we want it to talk about climate resilience, then it has to include that climate adaptation definition which is, are you thinking about the changing conditions which are with us and will continue to be with us? Otherwise you may be becoming resilient to other factors, but you are not becoming resilient to climate change.
[00:06:11] James Lawler: Interesting. What’s the geographic focus of ASAP?
Beth Gibbons: ASAP covers North America. So we’re a North American network. The majority of our members are in the US but we also have members throughout Canada and the Caribbean.
James Lawler: Okay. And when you, look at sort of American cities or North American cities, what percentage of North American cities do you, and perhaps, you know, more broadly like North American infrastructure the North American sort of built environment, what percentage do you think is, sort of, sufficiently attuned to the importance of climate adaptation and resilience?
Beth Gibbons: I’m just gonna make up a number on this, but I would say less than five. Less than 5% are sufficiently attuned. There’s a really great report that came out from CDP this year that looked at the number of cities in the US that have adaptation plans.
James Lawler: And the CDP is the Carbon Disclosure Project, a non-profit that measures and reports on cities and governments efforts – or lack thereof – to build a sustainable economy. Ok, so, and what did they find?
[00:07:27] Beth Gibbons: They actually found that across their North American cities, which are 195, and 169 cities in the United States, 60% of those have adaptation plans. And you kind of zoom out from those cities that would be counted in CDP are generally much larger cities, places which have the kind of capacity to complete the reporting guidelines, the will to do that reporting.
And we know that we have, about 3000 cities in the US that are between 10,000 and 500,000 population. So, it’s really hard to get a handle on exactly how many of those have adaptation plans. That is a request that we have out right now to the federal government, is not just doing this quadrennial assessment of climate change, but actually a quadrennial assessment of climate adaptation planning.
So, you know, long story short is I think that we’re under prepared and the reporting that we do have available like the CDP report, while it’s very helpful, is an incomplete look at how ready municipalities are across the country.
[00:08:40] James Lawler: Just to sort of help people who are not in this field understand, what does good look like when it comes to adaptation planning for municipalities?
Beth Gibbons: So good would look like you are updating your flood map. So I think that we all have been learning this lesson more and more and more lately. FEMA flood maps are insufficient in explaining to us and telling us what our actual flood risk is. There’s a way that we can update those maps. We can use current and potentially even future precipitation or rain information, in the development of these maps. So that’d be a first step, a good step in adaptation planning: update your flood map. A really important step for many municipalities along the same kind of precipitation story is, is your stormwater system prepared for the size storms that you’re going to be receiving?
A lot of storm systems are not. I live in Southeast Michigan and here in Southeast Michigan, the increase in rain over the last 50 years has been 45%. So we have 45% more precipitation now than we did 50 years ago. You can basically assume that unless your municipality is working actively to address that, that storm system is insufficient for capturing the rain. So, you know, that kind of, assessment is really important.
Other things that are really important that are more like soft skills, where do people go in the time of a crisis? Where are they naturally gathering? Their churches, their libraries, community centers, maybe it’s a community member’s house. A city should know where people are gathering and doing everything they can to direct resources to that place. This is a model that is commonly getting called resilience hubs now. And the essence of the resilience hub is that it goes beyond just a heating center, but a place that would also then have battery backup. So you’re going to have energy, even through a disaster. You’re going to have community ownership, some place that people already feel comfortable, where they’re already likely to gather. And so they come to that place, not just in the time of an acute disaster, but also before, during and after so that they meet, they build community cohesion, they get to know their neighbors. Maybe you do some skills, some life training, some emergency planning. And so it becomes a whole center. So like that’s a nice example, like the resilience hub, in the way that a city should be trying to find this information out and then really support people to meet where they already are, rather than forcing them. Okay, go over here. Like, oh, you want to meet at this church? No, actually go over here and meet at this, you know, at this other building. That’s never gonna work. So you have this kind of hard, you know, pipes and engineering, but then also those soft skills that say listening to the people and putting resources where they already are and where they need them.
James Lawler: And does ASAP have sort of a, I would imagine there’s some degree of like, templatization in terms of: you should be thinking about like, these hundred things. Does ASAP provide that as kind of a resource in any way, or handbooks for how cities should be thinking about…?
[00:11:50] Beth Gibbons: We don’t provide a lot of specific templates, although there are good templates which are available. What we provide are the processes that you should be going through. So what are the kinds of questions that you should be asking? What are the ways that you take advantage of windows of opportunity.
How do you think about convening community groups so that you’re placing the power of decision making into the hands of the members of the community who are impacted, either already or would be impacted first and worst by climate change? So we provide a lot of like how to, not the what of to do.
And that’s really because we are this North American network and a lot of climate adaptation work is really about what’s happening in a local area because we don’t have that authority to say, this is what you need to be doing in Des Moines versus Raleigh Durham versus Salem. You know, we can help our members to find those kinds of regional-specific action items to plug into the processes that we recommend.
[00:13:02] James Lawler: Got it. And that’s a great actually segue to one of our next questions, which is, we know that this adaptation is happening though it’s happening at perhaps a woefully small scale at the moment. I wonder if you could give some examples of ways in which people are adapting or cities are adapting.
What does that look like, you know, beyond some of the more general descriptions? Like maybe some specific examples of how various cities perhaps are, you know, and other organizations are adapting.
Beth Gibbons: Yeah. So I think a really great example comes from Buffalo, New York, where they’ve experienced an increase in rain and an increase in flooding. They’ve been part of a process that’s a network of communities under what’s called the Resilient Infrastructure for Sustainable Communities effort. And they’re, they’ve launched the largest environmental impact bond, in the country.
And this environmental impact bond is going to allow the Buffalo sewer authority to be able, to get investors, to help them to prepare areas of the city to be basically rainwater sinks. So how can they ensure that they have green infrastructure throughout the city that will capture rainwater? And the more rainwater they’re able to divert from their stormwater system, they then will be able to pay back their investors.
James Lawler: I’m sorry, how does that work? Like they’re catching. How do they pay? Where’s the revenue coming from?
[00:14:34] Beth Gibbons: Right. So you can essentially monetize anything. In the case… El Salvador is using Bitcoin as their official currency, right? So we can monetize anything and you can monetize keeping storm water out of your stormwater system. So by creating capacity through green infrastructure, you can basically make a bet that says, we believe that we can build green infrastructure that will keep this water out of the system. And if we’re successful in doing that, then that rainwater capture is going to be monetized to be paid back to the investors. Because you’re reducing the impact, right. You’re reducing the use of the system.
James Lawler: I see. So who’s paying you. Who’s paying for that service? Is it the municipality pays a fee because they don’t have to then invest in making a new sewage system, is that the idea or…?
Beth Gibbons: In the case of Buffalo, it’s the Buffalo sewer authority versus the municipality.
James Lawler: They pay? I see, got it. Okay.
Beth Gibbons: Right.
James Lawler: Got it. Cause, cause otherwise they’re effectively avoiding the cost of rebuilding their sewage system because of this green infrastructure?
Beth Gibbons: Right.
James Lawler: Oh, okay. Got it. Cool.
[00:15:49] Beth Gibbons: Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s a little wonky maybe, but I mean, I think a lot of this work kind of comes down to how do we think about new ways to fund the work as well as do the work? So it’s not just knowing like that green infrastructure is important. It’s knowing how are you actually going to loosen the dollars to be able to do the installation, to make it real.
James Lawler: Interesting. Wow. Any other examples?
[00:16:15] Beth Gibbons: Yeah. So another example that I really like talking about is in Broward county, Florida. And so Broward county is one of the four counties of Southeast Florida. And the folks down there have been doing really terrific regional climate planning for a decade now. And that work came about because the four Southeast Florida counties were going to their state legislators and to the national legislators and saying, we need resources, we need support, but they were using different sea-level rise projections, and so they were basically being dismissed because they weren’t getting a consistency of data. So the four counties, when they first began working together, it was really with the goal of having consistent data across the planning region so that they could speak in, you know, a common voice to demand resources. Since then the Southeast Florida compact has gone on to be one of the most high functioning regional governance models in the country. Really galvanized by climate change. But in Broward County in 2020, they released a new, resilience plan. And in it, they were able to pass without any controversy from developers or from residents or from their counsel, an increase in their sea level rise projection of 16 inches. They increased their precipitation data information by 20% and they increased what were called their resilience priorities zones. So these are areas within the county that have special restrictions put on them because of the anticipated impacts of climate change.
They increased the area that was covered by 183%. I tell the story and I think that the numbers of it are really meaningful and impactful, and mostly what it tells me is they were able to pass it because they’ve been bringing the whole community along on this journey, which is to say your plan for climate change today, because they’ve passed a plan in 2012. This was an update just eight years later. And they’re able to say, we’re on an iterative path that the climate is changing. The climate is not just changed. We are not, you know, now in a new static state of change, we are changing. And they have been able to communicate that effectively to put in front of their council, this really kind of radical increase in what they’re expecting the impacts to be, and have it wholly supported. because the developers, the city council, the residents all want to have a common baseline that they can be operating from.
And they’re successful with that. So I love Broward County, Broward’s story, because it both is what you can do with good data, but it’s also what you can do with communication and really helping people to understand the iterative nature of the work that’s happening.
[00:19:05] James Lawler: Interesting. So what made them successful at this? What was, what are sort of the, why were they good at this do you think?
Beth Gibbons: Well, I think that they’re good at it because they’ve come at this with an idea that everybody has stake in the game. And so it’s easy to have climate conversations that, it’s easy to have conversations in the US right now that have good guys and bad guys. Right? And their leadership, specifically Jennifer Herardo, who is their chief resilience officer, she’s been there for a long time, she has deep relationships, and she’s not afraid to work with developers, to work with the private sector, to work with the cities within the county. So like, she’ll work with everyone and understand that there’s a benefit for all of those different stakeholders to have a standard set of data that they’re operating under and a standard code that the county is setting.
And I think that for us, a lot of it just, I said this already, but across the US I just think in so much of our, our lives, like we’re looking to have a good guy and a bad guy, and to have an enemy and to, and to paint them as such. And I think in Broward, they’ve really been able to be successful and Southeast Florida as a whole has been able to be successful, because they look for collaborators and partnerships that, you know, are seeking the same end, which is: let’s have better information about the future that we’re heading towards and have a plan here that’s going to work so that people can, in some degree, stay in the places that they love.
James Lawler: So that’s interesting they were able to get this kind of consensus.
[00:20:45] Beth Gibbons: I think also Southeast Florida has a very imminent threat.
James Lawler: Right.
Beth Gibbons: I think that the Southeast Florida story, and telling a local story for adaptation is so much easier than trying to tell a national story or a North American story, because climate impacts for a long time have not been able to be politicized away at the local level. And when people feel their beachfront slipping away, their basements flooding, their great aunt having some kind of heat related illness, like local politicians aren’t able to say that isn’t real. And I think that’s consistent all across the country. So we’ve seen much more action and proactive adaptation leadership in the local level than at the state or federal level. And Broward County Florida and Southeast Florida, certainly, you could argue that they’re like our Canary in the coal mine on climate change for the country.
So it’s not a surprise to me that they would take this leadership role.
[00:21:48] James Lawler: Yeah. So I want to get back to the percentage that you mentioned in terms of, you know, the number of places that in your mind are kind of sufficiently attuned, which has maybe a bad standard, but would you propose a different term for describing like maybe cities that are, sort of thinking about adaptation in a high-quality way, other than the one that I suggested.
Beth Gibbons: Yeah. So I mean, I think that probably the hardest word I had in there was ‘sufficiently’, because I think it’s pretty clear that we’re not sufficiently prepared for climate change impacts. However, I think that insufficiency is tied up in a number of other insufficiencies that have been in our system historically, which is essentially our under-investment in the public good in general. Some of that feels like it might be changing. It looks like we’re coming into an era with this Biden spending that we’re going to invest in infrastructure. We’re going to invest in social programs. And those dollars invested right will be adaptation dollars. Even whether they say resilience and adaptation at the front end of them or not.
If you’re building a bridge this year, you better be using current and future climate information.
James Lawler: Right. That’s a great point.
[00:23:07] Beth Gibbons: I don’t know who needs to hear that, like you had better. And so when I said 5% of places are sufficiently addressing, it’s not a dig on the hundreds of people that are doing climate adaptation work, probably thousands of people. They’re out there. They’re doing the work. They’re trying to put the plans in place. They have been woefully under-supported and woefully underfunded. And so I think that we have a lot of good ideas. We have a lot of strategies and we have some things that we’ve been testing.
And now we have this opportunity to really bring it to scale. And I think with funding, climate adaptation work will scale really quickly. Because every infrastructure project, every social project, every time we ask a question of what is the school going to do for us? We know one thing a school is going to likely do is provide transportation. It’s probably, it may be, a resilience center for us. It is likely going to be where some people gather during an event. So like every place kind of touches climate change now because we’re so in it. So once we started doing that, like social good, that public good investment that’s on the table now, I think we’re going to see a lot of climate adaptation and resilience work happen.
[00:24:22] James Lawler: And so do you feel as though the current infrastructure bill and reconciliation bill, do you feel like these are, you know, sufficient, kick-starts to, really sort of catalyzing a sea change in terms of how people are thinking about adaptation or is a lot more needed?
Beth Gibbons: Yeah. It’s a yes, and. I feel good about the resources that are flowing toward our general public needs. I feel okay about the resources that are being articulated as resilience or climate resilient resources. And we are going to need much more. I mean, we’ve fundamentally changed the way our global system works.
So if you are using a science, which is based on the globe being a functional calculator, which engineering really requires, then the way that you’ve engineered your systems up until now is outdated and potentially insufficient. Not necessarily insufficient. It’s certainly outdated. So you think about any of those infrastructure investments, which we’ve made over the course of our build out as you know, as countries, as places, and those all have to have come under consideration of whether or not they’re going to withstand the changing climate conditions that we’re in. And that says nothing about our agricultural systems, our water systems, our tree canopies. So we have a lot of work to do because we’re in it now. We’re in the change.
And I have to say that I think the last COP (UN Climate Conference of the Parties), there’s things from that which you can take heart in, but there were some very chilling messages that came from the 2021 IPCC report and the COP, which is that we’re missing our targets. We’re missing our mitigation targets by potentially larger measures than we even know.
And so we have got to be thinking about how will we take care to protect people and places as we live through a changing climate.
[00:26:44] James Lawler: Yeah. Do you think that we have yet to hit a sufficiently, kind of, horrible event? That we have yet to sort of catalyze? Cause, on the one hand we have like the science, right? Which is clear. And we have these alarm bells that are going off and they’ve been going off for some time. On the other hand we have, you know, a really, what feels like a very sluggish, slow response in many ways, in some ways maybe not, but in many ways it does.
And so like, why do you think that is? Is it because we, like humans, we value what’s in our pockets much more than we value the future? Is it because we just, we need an even bigger kick in the pants than the Australian wildfires, or, you know, the California fires or these, you know, big storms are causing, like why, why is it so slow in your mind?
[00:27:39] Beth Gibbons: There’s a couple of reasons that it’s slow. People have an optimism bias, so they believe that it’ll never happen, like the bad thing will never happen to me. That’s pretty proven, right, in psychology. People just don’t believe it’ll happen to me.
We also have, you know, here in the US, deep racism and injustice, which is protecting a lot of people from feeling the impact of climate change, but even those who feel the impact of climate change, the recovery from those impacts is completely inequitable. And so if you are a person who is low income or moderate income, the likelihood of your economic recovery, like you will be in a worse off economic position after a disaster. If you’re a high income person, you’re likely to be in a better economic position after a disaster. So, you know, we know that disasters exacerbate the existing economic inequality. So the way that we feel these effects is not commonly held.
And then, I think that until recently the impacts of climate change have been something that have been talked about on a longer time horizon than a lot of how our economic system functions. And again, here, I’m really talking about the US, in saying that our economic system uses a quarterly or annual system. So insurance prices plans on an annual basis. So it has to be able to incorporate what is the risk to an insurance portfolio year on year. It isn’t asking questions about what will happen at 5, 10 or 30 years. That’s starting to change. We’re seeing that push from like, the re-insurance is starting to get worried and asking how can we flatten the curve? Cause they can see those calls coming in for insurance to be paid out. But we see the same thing too in corporations, corporations report their earnings or loss on a quarterly basis. And it’s only been in the last couple of years, especially galvanized by TCFD the task force on climate financial disclosure, that corporations are beginning to be asked to disclose their physical climate risk. And I think that that’s going to make a really big difference as we start to see corporations talking about their physical risk, that is a conversation that’s going to become information that plays into national assets, state assets, local assets. And so we’re starting to see climate change kind of become accountable like it’s coming onto the accounting books. And unfortunately we are not very good at planning long term.
Climate mitigation has found a way to monetize sequestration, so you can count carbon and you can cost for carbon and you can have carbon offsets, but that –
James Lawler: Sort of. In theory.
Beth Gibbons: Yeah. I mean, this is what people will tell you, right? This is what they will say about it, but with adaptation we are often trying to measure an avoided loss and that avoided loss is really hard to monetize in any system. And we’re experiencing the same challenge.
[00:31:00] James Lawler: Is there anything that we really should’ve gotten to here or you feel like we covered most of the things?
Beth Gibbons: I mean, the one thing I would say, and I don’t know that I impressed this enough, is how really critical equitable and just adaptation work is in order for us to do this work well. So like, while we see a lot of investment on the table, we’ve had massive investment programs in the past, in the United States, that have not been sufficient for actually uprooting the racism and systemic racism that is part of our system. And so for these dollars to be effective in building adaptation the way that ASAP expects its members to operate and wants to see adaptation look in the world, there has to be a really concerted effort around this money being used in a transformative way.
[00:31:50] James Lawler: That was Beth Gibbons, the President of the American Society for Adaptation Professionals. If you’re interested in checking out our other podcasts, watching our videos, or signing up for the newsletter, visit us at ClimateNow.com And if you want to get in touch, email us at email@example.com or tweet at us @weareclimatenow. We hope you join us for our next conversation.