After Hurricane Harvey: reflecting on climate adaptation planning


The opportunity in climate adaptation planning

The flood waters coursing down the streets of Houston have brought grief; they’ve motivated heroic acts; and they’ve challenged us to question how we can collectively prevent similar future devastation. Counties and cities nationwide are developing climate adaptation plans to address the extreme weather that climate change will bring in its wake. And yet, while municipalities calculate where the water will go; how back-up generators will keep the power on; and who will report to whom when a Hurricane Harvey-type storm hits, limiting the planning process to this realm of emergency management drastically undercuts the potential of this planning process—and in truth, limits our understanding of the problem.

Acute shocks are not created purely by meteorological forces and vulnerable built environments, but social and political inequalities that dictate who is exposed to climate risk and who has the resources to respond. The problem may start with water in people’s homes; it is amplified when people don’t have access to a grocery store, or to health care, or the means to pay for a hotel. It is common to hear that climate change will have the greatest impact on our most “vulnerable populations,” those who are affected by poverty, poor health, and racial and other social injustice. Yet in this realm, we fail to emphasize that planning and policy decisions that were made decades and even centuries ago (as well as today) continue to enhance inequality, and thereby this vulnerability. Without addressing why communities are vulnerable, new programs and policies to limit this vulnerability will ultimately have truncated impact.

By understanding acute as well as chronic stresses; by addressing preparedness, response, recovery, as well as mitigation strategies; by developing City policy as well as passing the reins to community-driven programs and decision-making, a climate adaptation plan can take on substantially greater value. With this optimism for what a climate adaptation planning process could hold, here are three thoughts for capturing this opportunity:

1. Consider the scale; design for system change. Acute hazards have cascading impacts across social, ecological, and economic systems. Floods from Hurricane Harvey, for example, caused power outages that knocked out refrigeration for volatile organic peroxides at a nearby chemical plant, which then exploded overnight, threatening the health of community members, causing police officers to be hospitalized, and adding to petrochemical shortages rippling through the supply chain. Although this particular plant sat outside Houston’s borders, Houston’s communities of color are shown to have higher exposure to chemical plants with frequent leakage. Families and individuals without personal vehicles have more trouble evacuating; those without health insurance have limited access to care; those who are paid hourly wages lose substantial income by the forced time off. By engaging communities in the climate adaptation planning process, we can create a better collective understanding of the widespread and cascading nature of potential hazards. We can better prepare for the immediate aftermath, as well as pinpoint areas that need system change in order to mitigate the impact of the hazard for the years to follow.

2. Consider the emotional toll; build mental health and preparedness. Extreme weather events destroy physical infrastructure and harm human health; they also intensify the need for social support, and take a toll on the human psyche. NPR shared an anecdote on how some Houston residents turned down evacuation support initially—not wanting to leave their homes—but called back after dark when it was admittedly more dangerous to be rescued. The flooding was frightening, and so too was losing the place one calls home. We all need emotional and mental preparation, as well as emotional and mental recovery. There is a tendency to avoid this conversation ahead of time to avoid instilling fear, but we are underestimating our own strength, and denying ourselves the opportunity to engage in how our changing environments and changing neighborhoods may affect us. By engaging communities in the climate adaptation planning process, we can build our collective and individual mental and emotional capacity to keep ourselves and our communities healthy.

3. Consider how to “bounce forward;” plan before for what comes after. When academics first applied ecological resilience theory to urban systems, many argued that communities didn’t need to bounce back, but bounce forward. In other words, truly resilient places should rebuild better than what existed prior to a climate hazard. Yet very few climate adaptation plans set a vision for how those changes will be made—that is, we never define what we are bouncing towards. Climate adaptation planning can be a tool to start laying the groundwork; it can be a process by which to define ideals (the City of Somerville, for example, uses thriving, equitable, carbon neutral, and resilient) and to hold our rebuilding efforts accountable in the days, months, and years of reconstruction. It can also be a process that not only asks for community input in that visioning process, but passes the reins—including both financial resources and the power to make decisions—to community-driven programs and organizations who can lead the rebuilding effort. By engaging communities in defining the goals and deciding the course around relief efforts and new infrastructure, climate adaptation planning can be a tool to enhance socially just processes, meet ecological imperatives, drive forward community values, and build the resources and capacity internally within a community to make decisions and create change.

The value of such a planning process extends infinitely beyond these decisions. And yet, climate adaptation planning as a tool itself will only be as effective as we make it. This is about enhancing resilience, not emergency management. It is about addressing systemic infrastructure failure as well as systemic injustice; it is about bolstering our built environment as well as our collective emotional health; and it is about charting a course to a healthier place to live. Let’s hold ourselves accountable to the breadth, scope, and collaboration necessary to make climate adaptation planning not only a document of intended outcomes, but a new process for designing our collective future.


Holly Jacobson, Linnean Solutions