Adaptation to Climate Change in Policy: Dos and Don’ts

As proposed efforts to mitigate climate change in the United States are continually opposed by conservative voters and policymakers [1], proposals that instead look to shield our communities from the realities of a warming climate sound less like dystopic fiction and more like necessary avenues of action. As environmental columnist David Roberts wrote in 2014, “Both mitigation and adaption are necessary at this point. But for every day mitigation is delayed, the need for adaptation grows…” [2]


Environmental disasters are making headlines more often, and this pattern can be seen across the globe: at the time of writing, floods across the Midwest that may last months [3] are matched by ‘inland seas’ covering southern Africa in the wake of a tropical cyclone [4] and the intensity of the disasters in both areas has been linked to climate change. Adapting to global warming isn’t an attempt to embrace living on a warmer planet as an alternative to saving a cooler one – it’s becoming a necessity to survive. In response to natural disasters, some organizations and communities in the States have already started, with policies ranging from consumption limits [5] to reimagined urban planning [6] to broader sustainability plans [7]. The following is a look at a couple examples that have worked to make positive change, and a few that haven’t.


Do: Focus on the communities that are most vulnerable


In 2014, the EPA released a document describing the organization’s position on climate change adaptation [8]. While the document reflects a mindset about climate change that is no longer representative of the EPA’s current mission due to the shift in leadership ushered in by a new presidential administration, it provides valuable insight into the role of a governing body in approaching climate adaptation. The policy statement places an emphasis on the portion of the population that will experience the impacts of climate change first and most directly: the poor, elderly, and minority groups in this country. If the purpose of climate change adaptation is to minimize human suffering that result from climate-related issues, it is important to understand where efforts should be directed. Since poorer communities are often those least able to protect themselves from the impact of climate change, they often require the most outside support.


Don’t: Take advantage of those very communities


Over a decade ago, Hurricane Katrina devastated the Louisiana coastline. Many poor, primarily African American communities were disproportionally impacted compared to adjacent neighborhoods due to a history of purposefully biased urban planning and flood protection. In response, the city of New Orleans proposed several attempts at adaptation in order to limit the impact that a similar storm could have on the city in the future [9]. One involved replacing destroyed neighborhoods with green spaces: parks that would hopefully absorb more water and act as further barriers against hurricane foods. The problem lied in distribution. The planned ‘flood-absorbing’ spaces were nearly entirely in poor, Black neighborhoods while the richer neighborhoods nearby were being rebuilt. This particular plan received enough push-back by the community to be abandoned, but the ability of poorer communities to advocate for their cause is generally lower than that of neighboring communities dealing with the same issues [10]. Several other examples of inequitable adaptation plans can be found here: [11]


Do: Change the public mindset on personal responsibility and sustainability


Climate change doesn’t just manifest itself in sudden natural disasters. Regions that historically have been hot and dry, including much of the American Southwest, are experiencing more extreme conditions than they may be prepared to handle. Over much of the last decade, the state of California experienced the worst drought in recorded history [12]. During this time, the state government took several actions to address water shortages, from strict water restrictions to opening of dams and moratoriums on fishing to preserve fish populations in depleted watersheds.


Political capital for environmental regulation requires a populace that believes in change and is willing to sacrifice quality of life to maintain a sustainable community. When faced with an ecological disaster, this public will is easy to accumulate. But reacting to disasters as they arrive is dangerous, especially considering how much we already know now about the extent of climate change. The public must be willing to support restrictions that limit inefficiencies or actively disincentivize environmentally harmful actions– even if that means a lack of lawns, lighter showers, or drastically increased prices on beef.


Don’t: Ignore the biggest polluters (hint: it’s not just people who shower)


Even as California’s Governor Brown was restricting personal water usage across the state, the California agricultural sector was given no such constraints [13]. This garnered criticism –80% of California’s developed water supply is consumed by the agricultural industry. While consideration for the importance of agriculture to providing food and stimulating the economy is valid, the decision to ignore the state’s largest consumer of water was a result of lobbying, not analyses of food necessities and economic reliance [14].


The Sociological Need for Adaptation


Adaptation to climate change is often presented as an opposition to efforts of mitigation. From a purely economic standpoint, there’s truth to that comparison. The huge amount of effort spent on buoying an inherently unsustainable community (one that lives at sea level yet is powered by carbon emissions, for example) could be considered wasted. We’ve seen that such efforts are not always distributed equitably. But reality is more complicated. Drastic changes to our society are slow to occur, even in the face of as pressing an issue as climate change. When the effects of climate change are already visible, to ignore adaptation would be ignoring our country’s most vulnerable, and the sociopolitical implications of climate change are just as widely impacting as its environmental effects [15]. ‘An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,’ may be an applicable maxim to climate change, but both prevention and cure are important for a world that is already sick.




  1. Pew Research Center. The Politics of Climate.
  2. Roberts, David. Preventing climate change and adapting to it are not morally equivalent. Grist.
  3. Kelley, Tyler J. The Fight to Tame a Swelling River With Dams That May Be Outmatched by Climate Change. New York Times.
  4. Onishi, Norimitsu. Flooding in Mozambique From Cyclone Idai Made an ‘Inland Ocean,’ Stalling Rescues. New York Times.
  5. Reyes-Velarde, Alejandra. California will have water consumption limits for the first time after ‘landmark’ legislation passed. L. A. Times.
  6. Berg, Nate. Lots to lose: how cities around the world are eliminating car parks. The Guardian.
  7. Climate Action Plan. Baltimore Office of Sustainability.
  8. Policy Statement on Climate Change US Environmental Protection Agency.
  9. Bliss, Laura. When Climate Adaptation Plans Hurt the Urban Poor.
  10. Weeks, Daniel. Why Are the Poor and Minorities Less Likely to Vote? The Atlantic.
  11. Anguelovski, Isabelle, et al. Equity Impacts of Urban Land Use Planning for Climate Adaptation: Critical Perspectives from the Global North and South. Journal of Planning Education and Research.
  12. California Drought: 2011 – 2017. National Integrated Drought Information System.
  13. Sanchez, Ray. Low California snowpack ushers mandatory water restrictions.
  14. Holthaus, Eric. California Imposes First-Ever Mandatory Water Restrictions. They’re Not Nearly Enough.
  15. The Social Dimensions of Climate Change. World Health Organization.

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