How to Navigate Politics While Planning Climate Resilience – THE DIRT

Resilient Houston plan / City of Houston

Whether you live in a red, blue, or purple state, the impacts of climate change are real. The number of natural disasters that have caused a billion or more in damages has only increased. Since 2015, there have been 100 of them, said Marissa Aho, Chief Resilience Officer for Washington State Department of Natural Resources, during a session at the American Planning Association (APA)’s National Planning Conference in San Diego. “Last year, weather-related disasters caused $145 billion in damages.”

While more Americans are aware of the solutions and envisaged climate change they are being impacted, planners, landscape architects, and other designers continue to face a host of challenges with communities. In some places, the words “climate change” can’t even be said for fear of turning off the communities meant to be helped. Aho said many planners and designers need “resilience therapy on how to navigate political issues.” But beyond red, blue, or purple distinctions, the key is to avoid politics all together and focus on how to build local resilience.

Prior to joining the Washington state government, Aho was Chief Resilience Officer in the City of Houston. She said while being a red state, there is a considerable amount of climate resilience planning happening in Texas, and El Paso, Dallas, Houston, and Austin all have Chief Resilience Officers.

In 2019, the Texas state legislature created the Texas Infrastructure Resilience Fund, which directed billions to flood management. And in 2020, the City of Houston created its Resilient Houston plan; controversially, with a $1.8 million grant from oil giant shell. The plan was created out of a “community-driven process and includes 65 actions,” Aho said. The goal of the plan was to ensure “resilience at all scales — because if one scale is not resilient, than none of them are.”

In Washington State, Aho has been working on a watershed adaptation plan, a “tree to sea plan for landscape scale restoration and salmon recovery,” which also has an interactive dashboard. Washington State has been in the news for its severe climate impacts, including wildfires, protection, and heatwaves. The state is now trying to “tie climate change planning into everything, so it’s integrated.”

Wildfire in Yakima County, Washington /, lightsasafeather

Anna Friedman, with the Resilient Cities Catalyst, said primarily red states like Florida are also increasing their focus on climate resilience, with a state-wide resilience grant program that has given out more than $400 million in grants. There’s a state-level Chief Resilience Officer, and “every country and city has one, too.” Her organization partnered with the City of Tampa to create a resilience plan with 58 initiatives, and a significant equity focus.

To get around the politics of climate action, Friedman advised focusing on issues at the neighborhood level, workshops, and using a community-driven process. “Climate change is a trigger word in some communities. It’s important to find out what people need in their neighborhood and meet people where they are.”

But she added that there are new opportunities. COVID-19 has also made more communities realize that “equity and climate are connected.” More communities now know what “cascading impacts of vulnerability and resilience feels like.” Friedman thinks anyone planning climate solutions “needs to leverage this key moment.”

Jacksonville, Florida, on the Atlantic Ocean, is embedded in a “web of water,” said Anne Coglianese, Chief Resilience Officer for the city. The largest city governed by a Republican Mayor, Jacksonville faces extreme flood risks. In addition to the ocean, “there are 54 tributaries of the St. John’s River” that flow through the city. Extreme heat is also a danger, and the city is undertaking an urban heat study as part of a resilience strategy that is now in development. “Any politician in Florida is aware of the financial risks of climate change.”

Map of Jacksonville, Florida / GISGeography

Coglianese noted that Louisiana, another red state, developed the Louisiana Coastal Masterplan in 2017, which includes 124 projects to be completed over a 50-year period. The state plans to spend $50 billion on resilience and build 800 square miles of land in order to combat continued coastal erosion and save an estimated $150 billion in climate change-related damages. “There was universal bipartisan support for the plan,” she said.

Land loss in coastal Louisiana, 1932-2013, NOAA / Public domain

And just a few months ago, the state government announced it was developing the first climate action plan in the Gulf South. The goal is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 through deep cuts in oil and gas infrastructure emissions. A 23 member task force, which includes oil and gas and environmental justice representatives, unanimously approved the plan.

Throughout the session, the speakers used Mentimeter to poll the hundreds of session attendees in real time about how they are approaching climate action in their communities.

Asked about the relationship between equity and climate change, 52 percent of the audience stated that “equity is at the core of climate change planning,” while 24 percent stated that “climate change is at the core of equity planning,” and another 24 percent argued that equity and climate are separate issues. For Friedman, this means that “77 percent find that climate and equity are interconnected; we can’t disentangle the two.”

Aho argued that given underserved communities have “underlying vulnerabilities,” they are impacted by “climate change in the most severe way.” The question is: “Who can rebound faster?” Coglianese added that “everyone may face the same storm, but not everyone is in the same boat; some are in a yacht, and some are in a row boat.”

Another poll to the audience asked: how often planners are encountering politics when planning for climate change. 55 percent of the audience said “more frequently,” 36 percent said “about the same,” while 9 percent said “less frequently.”

Aho argued that this is a sign that the “country is polarized around national issues” like climate change. The solution is to “keep it local, which is less polarizing. Keep politics out of the conversation.”

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