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Solimar Research

The Smart Growth Method Of Climate Change Adaptation

Apr 16, 2008
The principles of smart growth should also be used as the principles of adapting land use patterns to climate change.

That's what Ron Sims, executive of King County, Washington, said in so many words while speaking April 12 at forum on climate change and cities.

If we're going to be serious about adapting to climate change — and Sims contends we must be  — then we have to change our land use patterns, he said. With its almost total reliance on single-occupancy vehicles, suburban sprawl is not acceptable. Rather, density, mixed-uses and transit are key because they require less energy consumption for daily life and conserve natural areas needed for soaking up carbon and managing resources. Fortunately, the smart growth approach also produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than suburbia does.

"As a nation, we have not planned for global warming," Sims said. "There isn't a national policy at all on adaptation. … We are devoid of one at our peril."

There may be no elected official in the country more passionate about the need to adapt to climate change than Sims, who is in his third term as the leader of King County. During his presentation, Sims said that both reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preparing for climate change are crucial.

The King County climate plan adopted in 2007 contains a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. One way of cutting emissions is greatly increasing public transit, which has historically been lacking in the Seattle area. Transit is a priority for Sims.

The other side of the coin — adaptation to climate change — is one that many people are missing, Sims contends. But Sims, whose county lies between Puget Sound and the Cascade Mountains, has made adaptation a cornerstone policy. So when scientists predicted that the typical snow level will rise by 1,000 feet in elevation, that torrential rainstorms will hit the region, and that sea level will rise, Sims and other officials went to work rebuilding levees to withstand far bigger floods than the region has seen previously.

Sims summarized the King County adaptation strategy as preserve the forest, improve the transit system, and better manage water resources.

Land use is a key component of adaptation, according to the King County climate plan, which calls for weaving climate change information into regular updates of the county's comprehensive plan and future capital improvement plans.

Sims was speaking at the two-day journalists forum on climate change and cities sponsored by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, and the Harvard University Graduate School of Design. Sims is not the only one talking about adaptation to climate change these days. As Bill Fulton reported yesterday, speakers at recent California Air Resources Board and Boalt Hall Law School conferences said that adaptation is an area where planners and policymakers can make a difference.

Following Sims at the Massachusetts event was James Levitt, who is in charge of conservation innovation at Harvard Forest. Levitt said that the discussion of adaptive management of conservation lands is only beginning. And, he suggested, it is beginning very late, as there is an immediate crisis.

Levitt cited a Scripps Institute study released earlier this year that said there is a 50% chance Lake Mead will go dry by 2021. Lake Mead, of course, is the primary water supply for Las Vegas, and also provides water to Arizona and Southern California. We all know how long it takes to develop new water supplies.

Levitt also told the story of the pine beetle. The pest has decimated forests in the West and, in less than a decade, has killed about half of the pine trees in British Columbia, according to Levitt. Yet, the U.S. Forest Service has no comprehensive strategy for dealing with the pine beetle, said Levitt, who pointed the finger directly at the Bush administration.

A tax on carbon emissions and a cap-and-trade system are critical for raising funds to adapt conservation programs to a changing environment, Levitt argued.

Levitt's presentation got me thinking about the habitat conservation plans and natural communities conservation plans that are so common in California. The plans are intended to designate and preserve habitat for rare plants and animals for 50 to 75 years. But if Levitt is right and environmental conditions really are changing almost before our eyes, the plans may not be worth the dead trees on which they are printed because changing weather patterns and the arrival of invasive species will doom the very plants and animals we're trying to save.

– Paul Shigley