The Pacific Northwest just faced one of its most severe heat waves in history; wildfire season is getting longer and more destructive; and a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that there is a 60% chance of an above-normal hurricane season in the United States this year. These climate-related events will touch every part of the country, whether directly or indirectly, with significant implications for human health, supply chains, property, and infrastructure.
In this era of heightened climate-related risks, state and local governments depend on climate science and analytics to understand and anticipate potential threats. Gathering the data, however, is only the first step; the real value comes from translating that information into real-world actions for mitigating the risks.
Here are a few factors that can take climate change studies from data points to a roadmap for future resilience and mitigation strategies, and ultimately enable state and local governments to realize the full value of their research efforts.
Maintain a decision focus from the outset
The best way to ensure climate science produces actionable information is to maintain a decision focus from the outset. Simple as it may sound, results are too often relegated to an afterthought, or retrofitted to reports once they’re near completion. The best way to ensure the report has real-world value is to begin with a focus on translating data into tangible strategies.
Doing so requires a high degree of expertise and a strong understanding of how decisions are made on the ground. Knowing, for example, if data will be used to inform specific community or engineering problems should dictate how that data is collected and analyzed from the outset. That is why we use a decision-first approach that customizes climate analytics to the client’s decision-making context, as opposed to starting with climate projections and trying to match them to decisions.
Incorporating community considerations into climate science
Climate change is a global problem, but its effects are often community-specific. Understanding where climate-related hazards might strike on a map only tells part of the story. To provide relevant and actionable guidance, state and local governments need data that offers a granular outline of community characteristics. Understanding the impact of socioeconomic factors, cultural attitudes, and sensitivity differences within individual communities adds another lens to the data.
For example, the state of California delineates high fire threat districts on a map, but we take that data a step further by analyzing and overlaying that map with projections of future wildfire behavior. This provides a better understanding of not only where wildfire threats are today, but where those threats are projected to expand in the future, to which communities, and how wildfire risks might increase over time.
As another example, our vulnerability assessment for San Bernardino County projects an increase in extreme heat days, droughts, wildfires, air quality concerns, landslides, and flooding in the short and long term, but also brings that data into context. In the assessment, we provide regional breakdowns, provide approximate timelines, identify densely populated regions that will be most affected, outline the social implications, and highlight the needs of vulnerable populations. We also provide highly contextualized recommendations by region, specific to priority vulnerability sectors, as well as identifying critical assets that are at risk of exposure.
Understanding climate change risk is only the first step towards improving community resilience and threat mitigation; the next step is providing an implementation plan to address those vulnerabilities. Those plans should include a realistic cost projection and timeline, as well as potential challenges and concerns that might arise during implementation. Implementation plans can help state and local governments identify realistic opportunities to reduce their own emissions while adapting to the impacts of climate change. They can also help secure stakeholder buy-in throughout the process.
State and local governments need more than just facts; they also need guidance on what to do with that information. Such solutions could range from green infrastructure projects to resilience hubs, backup power strategies, evacuation routing, and emergency shutdown guidelines.
Informed by climate science and analytics information, implementation plans help communities anticipate future risks, and also see a clear path to solving the challenges they face from climate change.
Data-driven climate resilience assessments often lead to a realization that resilience enhancements are needed—for infrastructure, for community services, and to support community members in their own efforts. Some of these measures are expensive, while others can be implemented by making changes to existing programs with low cost. The key is to be clear about funding requirements and to be proactive about looking for funding opportunities.
Climate science and analytics information also has increased applicable value when it incorporates projected costs of mitigation efforts compared with the potential costs of inaction—in terms of dollars and human and social costs. Government budgets must include capital planning in climate studies in order for them to be truly actionable.
State and local governments understand the importance of community buy-in better than anyone. After all, their jobs depend on the support of their constituents. It is therefore vital that climate science and analytics information presents data in such a way that is easy to communicate to the broader community.
For example, we work closely with our government partners to provide clear top-line figures and statistics, as well as visual data such as maps and infographics, which can help communicate complicated information to everyday members of the community. This aspect of climate science and analytics can be as much of an art as it is a science.
It’s similarly important to provide information in multiple languages when necessary, such as offering reports and infographics for Spanish-speaking community members.
The effects of climate change are hard to ignore and, as time goes on, community members are increasingly demanding answers, and data, from their government leaders. Providing external-facing reports can help keep constituents informed and on-board with mitigation efforts funded by governments and celebrate the resilience-building measures across the community.
The unfortunate reality is that climate-fueled disasters are increasing in just about every part of the country, and every corner of the planet. The record-breaking heat wave in the Pacific Northwest is an urgent reminder of how seriously climate change impacts human health and infrastructure. It’s not enough for governments to undertake an analysis of the risk landscape; what they need right now is a clear plan for putting much-needed solutions into action.
At ICF, we pair our research capabilities with deep sectoral expertise and a decision-first framework to make information actionable. Doing so paves the way for a whole line of investments to increase climate resilience, from understanding vulnerability to implementation and communication of risks.