Cities adapting to changing climate, but more changes coming

Nov 7, 2013

Credit courtesy: USEPA

It used to be environmentalists did not want to talk about adapting to climate change. They were concerned adapting to the changes meant dodging the big job of reducing greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change.

That thinking is changing.

“The reality is we’re already experiencing climate change. We’re seeing it in our workplaces, in our environment now and it’s going to get worse. No matter what we do in terms of mitigation, we’ve got built in so much climate change that we have to prepare for it," said Don Scavia, Director of the Graham Sustainability Institute at the University of Michigan.

Scavia says sometimes adaptations to climate change at the local level can actually be helpful in reducing CO2 at the same time.

Heat island effects in cities is a big problem. One of the adaptation strategies is putting in more green space, putting in more trees. Well, that’s also mitigation because it also keeps getting CO2 out of the atmosphere, so they’re not completely separate,” Scavia said.

Beth Gibbons at the Great Lakes Adaptation Assessment for Cities, a program within the Graham Sustainability Institute, works with middle-sized cities to adapt to climate change.

There is some push back among some politicians about climate change predictions and computer models, but she says that’s not as much of a problem as you’d think.

"What's interesting is that we find that we don't even need to talk about 'what ifs' because we can talk about 'what ares,'" Gibbons explained.

Flooding in Grand Rapids.
Flooding in Grand Rapids.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

An example of that is in areas that are prone to flooding during heavy rains. Some are now flooding more often. The Great Lakes region is starting to see more precipitation with the change in the climate.

“And we can say, ‘Let’s look at the difference in your precipitation patterns from 1951 to 1980 and ’80 to 2010,’ and we start to realize is what they are currently using as standards are no longer relevant for the climate experience that is happening now,” Gibbons said.

That is because there are more intense rain events now.

And cities such as Flint, Ann Arbor, Dayton, Ohio and others are working to respond to climate changes such as more precipitation.

But the Graham Institute's Don Scavia says adaptation to climate change only goes so far.

"People are starting to look at what do we have to do to adapt to this new climate while we're still trying to prevent the catastrophic new climate coming at us."

The experts say reducing the emissions from burning fossil fuels is the only way to stop climate change from getting much, much worse.