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Nature is Getting Meaner: Why Climate Change Capacity Building is the New Challenge for Local Managers and Administrators

A note for our readers: the views reflected by the authors do not reflect the views of ASPA.

By Sara Hughes and C. Andrew Miller

nature juneNature is getting meaner. This, in essence, is how communities are now experiencing climate change. Because we feel the impacts of storms, floods, drought and wildfire at the local level, responding to climate change will be one of the most important challenges faced by public managers, administrators and nonprofits. Experience and research tell us that a key to successful climate change response and adaptation is proactive and inclusive capacity building. This requires that we recognize both natural systems and community as vital resources, and work to protect and build them – a new twist on some old ideas. Protecting and using these resources will in turn require information sharing and coordination across and between departments, sectors and disciplines. These are challenging tasks in any organization, but a growing number of public sector successes provide examples from which we can learn. In addition, there are opportunities to connect communities with regionally-based federal agencies to build the community-based knowledge and capacity needed to develop effective climate change responses:

  • Department of Agriculture (USDA).
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).
  • National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
  • U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

The recently released National Climate Assessment demonstrates that climate change is happening now and will get worse. This means more and stronger heat waves, storms, floods, droughts, fires and rising sea levels in other words, a significantly meaner nature. While we often believe climate change is distant and global, these impacts will be – and are being – experienced suddenly and locally. Preparing and responding to these impacts will fall upon the desks and shoulders of local managers and decision makers. As the National Climate Assessment points out, adaptation responses are still in their early stages, but most adaptation is occurring at local and regional levels. While such actions are promising, communities clearly need more support to effectively develop and implement adaptation responses. To help, the President’s Climate Action Plan emphasizes federal support for local, grassroots strategies to prepare for climate change.

A Different Take on Resources

This grassroots effort is focused on building the capacity of local managers and administrators to cultivate and mobilize community and natural systems in response to climate change. Because climate change will affect us broadly, adaptation requires deploying a similarly broad suite of resources. Although we often see the limitations of our organizational resources (funding, expertise and facilities), we can do more to capitalize on the services provided by natural systems – such as floodplains, wetlands and greenways – as vital resources in climate change adaptation. A local manager’s ability to protect and build these resources is critical to effective climate adaptation. Communities have historically understood that working with the environment, not against it, provides the greatest advantages.

Taking full advantage of the services provided by natural systems will require coordination across and between departments, sectors and disciplines. Decisions across the range of community responsibilities –building codes, water and energy systems, land use and emergency response – interact to determine the ultimate effectiveness of local climate change response. Some examples of successful coordination include Los Angeles’s award-winning Integrated Resources Plan, developed jointly by the Department of Water and Power and the Department of Sanitation, and King County, Washington’s interdepartmental Global Warming Team created by the county executive.

Community is the second resource that must be cultivated in pursuit of local adaptation capacity building. Managers and administrators know the value of working with, not just within, the community. This means being inclusive in decision-making, reaching out to stakeholders, seeking consensus on visible problems and investing in engagement. Doing this effectively for climate change adaptation requires information that is often not available within the community. Here, connections to NOAA Regional Climate Centers, USDA Regional Climate Hubs, DOI Climate Science Centers or EPA Regional Offices can help community managers and administrators find the information on climate change and responses they need to keep their communities informed.

Old Ideas for a New Problem

Public administrators know that this community building strategy is, in some ways, a new take on old ideas. Even as the public sector has embraced specialization and outcome-focused organizations, traditional community building and engagement efforts and resource management strategies that generate multiple benefits may be what ultimately help communities respond to climate change.

The new twist is that the future holds many uncertainties. Climate change inevitably brings surprises. Decision making processes that are robust will incorporate diverse perspectives and continual re-evaluation of the effectiveness of actions. Working across the community’s governing organizations and coordinating between sectors and disciplines requires personnel flexibility, cross-training and continual learning. This may be new for many managers and communities. However, the changes bring the benefits of more responsive, connected organizations and workers.

These efforts will not be simple or easy. Budgets are tight, people are busy and demands are high. Perspectives and goals differ within various parts of a single organization, and communicating with other organizations can add to the confusion. The good news is that there is a growing commitment by federal, state and local agencies and organizations to provide assistance and guidance to those on the front lines of climate change adaptation. Although there will be considerable “learning by doing,” there is a growing body of experience and growing commitment to draw upon.


Authors: Sara Hughes and C. Andrew Miller work at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development. Miller can be reached at .

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