Transformative adaptation to climate change in the United States: trends and perspectives


Climate disasters are on the increase, with devastating effects on communities, built infrastructure and ecosystems. Between 2015 and 2020, the United States experienced an average of 14 disasters per year that cost at least $ 1 billion, compared to 6.5 such events per year between 1980 and 2019. The COVID-19 pandemic and the The resulting socioeconomic crisis has laid bare the United States. ” Systemic vulnerabilities and difficulties in launching large-scale, coordinated, fair and effective responses to external shocks, leading to short-term disruptions and protracted crises. These same challenges are hampering society’s adaptation to climate change, which is already being felt in communities nationwide as the number of disasters, their geographic scope and intensity increase. The current financial downturn is reducing resources for short-term resilience planning, further exposing cities to the next hazard and leading to vicious cycles of fiscal and environmental shocks. More than ever, preparing for and adapting to climate impacts requires a coherent, cohesive and collective response across localities, sectors of society and scales of governance.


In this review, we distill three major trends within federal government, industry and civil society that are shaping the way local communities adapt to extreme weather events and other impacts of climate change. First, inconsistent federal leadership on climate adaptation has done little to address the drivers of climate injustice and uneven development. The Obama administration has launched various policies to incorporate climate considerations into federal properties and investments that the Trump administration has canceled. But even the Obama administration has narrowly defined adaptation as resilience to disasters, investments in infrastructure and national security concerns rather than addressing vulnerabilities, such as social, land and income inequalities. . To this day, the Biden administration appears to be simply reestablishing the coping approaches of the Obama era.

Second, the design, engineering, and legal professions are considering systemic changes to building codes and standards that could force federal and state governments to address climate risks. Financial sector decisions about how to assess creditworthiness, where to issue mortgages, and when to increase or cancel insurance have the power to depress mortgage markets and municipal revenues, and increase the costs of investing in businesses. infrastructure. Currently, decisions made in these areas reflect the concerns of professionals and boards of directors about industry risk and liability rather than outcomes focused on justice and community well-being.

Third, local and academic advocates are increasingly calling on leaders to correct the development of environmental exclusion and exploitation and to avoid using climate resilience to rehash racialized capitalist development. The groups emphasize the need for an ethic of care, to restore the relationship of urban and rural communities to land ownership and stewardship, and to deepen democratic engagement.

The growing divergence in how public, private and civil society actors respond to climate impacts contributes to inappropriate investments in climate-blind infrastructure, justice-blind reforms in the financial and professional sectors and ultimately account, to a greater vulnerability of society to climate impacts.


A change in presidential leadership alone will not alter the politics, power dynamics, and paradigms that shape America’s adaptation. Large-scale changes such as investments in infrastructure and managed retirement can preserve the status quo, unless reforms alter underlying social relations and power dynamics and center a different set of values ​​and beliefs. on humans and human-nature relationships. If public, private and civil society actors are to proactively and deliberately embrace the transformation imperative, they must address the material, relational and normative factors that hold current systems in place. Ambitious civil society and private sector leadership are calling on the federal government to respond with bold, integrated and holistic policies. Community movement strategies for building coalitions, including those that transcend urban-rural divisions, show how to build a political movement for right adaptation. Private sector financial instrument reforms identify where community organizations and the federal government need to lobby for fair and equitable adaptation. Despite substantial contestation, the differences also point to opportunities to better engage and learn from each other to move towards more transformative adaptation. We conclude with examples of possible directions for transformative practice and research to support these efforts.

Large local jurisdictions, like Oakland, and small neighborhoods around San Francisco Bay, California, are struggling to advance urgent and fair adaptation action.

Leadership, coordination, capacity, regulatory alignment and adequate funding are needed for coherent, coherent and collective preparedness and response. COVID-19 amplifies these needs and demonstrates the risks of complex crises.


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About Teresa G. Wilson

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