New CPR Report Proposes Strategies for Climate Change Adaptation in the Puget Sound

by Yee Huang

June 10, 2011

The scope of climate change impacts is expected to be extraordinary, touching every ecosystem on the planet and affecting human interactions with the natural and built environment. From increased surface and water temperatures to sea level rise and more frequent extreme weather events, climate change promises vast and profound alterations to our world. Indeed, scientists predict continued climate change impacts regardless of any present or future mitigation efforts due to the long-lived nature of greenhouse gases emitted over the last century. 

The need to adapt to this new future is crucial. Adaptation may take a variety of forms, from implementing certain natural resources management strategies to applying principles of water law to mimic the natural water cycle. The goal of adaptation efforts is to lessen the magnitude of these impacts on humans and the natural environment through proactive and planned actions. The longer we wait to adopt a framework and laws for adapting to climate change, the more costly and painful the process will become.

Today CPR releases a new report, Climate Change and the Puget Sound: Building the Legal Framework for Adaptation, which identifies both foundational principles and specific strategies for climate change adaptation across the Puget Sound Basin. The projected impacts themselves of climate change in the region were well studied in a landmark 2009 report by the state-commissioned Climate Impacts Group. Our report analyzes adaptation options within the existing legal and regulatory framework in Washington. Recognizing the economic and political realities may not lead to new legislation, the recommendations in the report focus on how existing laws can be applied and made more robust to include climate change adaptation. For example, Washington and communities and Tribes within the Puget Sound should adopt policies that:

  • Increase ecosystem and human resilience. Resilience is the ability of a natural ecosystem or a human community to absorb changes or disruptions and continue to function in the same basic ways. Ensuring that wetlands are resilient in the face of climate change impacts means removing existing water quality stressors or habitat degradation as much as possible through strict enforcement of the Clean Water Act.
  • Achieve principled flexibility. One commonly cited obstacle to adaptation is the uncertainty of how climate change impacts will manifest locally or over what timeline, despite the scientific consensus on certain global trends. CPR’s report recommends incorporating principled flexibility to address this uncertainty and to act while projected impacts are refined. Principled flexibility gives natural resources managers or land use planners discretion to achieve goals but circumscribes that discretion by providing public accountability for the failure to enact adaptation measures. Thus, laws could include triggering mechanisms or benchmarks, scenario planning, and periodic review or revision of adaptation actions.
  • Prioritize social equity. Climate change impacts are likely to highlight existing social and economic fractures by disproportionately affecting vulnerable groups such as racial minorities and low-income populations. These groups are at higher risk because the combination of their exposure and vulnerability renders them less resilient and less likely to have the resources to adapt to climate impacts. As CPR Member Scholar Rob Verchick writes, “Catastrophe is bad for everyone. But it is especially bad for the weak and disenfranchised.” Washington should adopt adaptation policies that recognize these underlying disparities, promote distributional fairness, and do not infringe on existing treaty obligations with tribes. 
  • Plan for disasters.  Climate change impacts will cause both gradual and episodic disasters, so disaster planning is a key adaptation strategy.  As communities in Washington formulate and revise disaster plans, they should make these plans “adaptation aware” by including projections of future risk, basic information about the community structure, and a post-disaster vision for a resilient, more adaptive built and natural environment. 

Adapting to climate change impacts in the Puget Sound Basin will require an innovative and sustained approach that recognizes the many connections between and among human interactions and ecosystems. Much as the impacts will affect broad swaths of natural resources and communities, the response, too, must be integrated, holistic, and multi-disciplinary. Climate change will challenge the legal status quo, forcing policymakers to rethink existing tools and how they may apply to previously unknown problems. 

Facing tough policy questions now and laying the foundation for responding to climate impacts, both gradual and catastrophic, is one of the best adaptation strategies that Washington and communities in the Puget Sound Basin can take to ensure environmentally protective and socially equitable adaptation to climate change.

Today’s report was written by CPR Member Scholars Robert L. Glicksman, Catherine O’Neill, William L. Andreen, Robin Kundis Craig, Victor Flatt, William Funk, Dale Goble, Alice Kaswan, Robert R.M. Verchick, and me.

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