How Are Communities Adapting to Climate Change?

Restoration Continues At NYC's Rockaway Beach 10 Months After Hurricane Sandy

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Key Takeaways

  • Responses to climate change vary widely around the country.
  • States like Indiana are tracking climate change vulnerability on a city and county level, allowing local governments to create action plans.
  • The weather-resistant infrastructure necessary to protect against the effects of climate change is pricey, creating equity issues.

From flash flooding across Southern states to unprecedented heat in the Pacific Northwest, recent extreme weather events are undeniable evidence of climate change. This spring, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said climate crisis will likely continue to affect human health and the environment.

Adaption is the key to surviving climate change, experts say. Some communities in the United States are leading the charge with the help of universities, think tanks, and startups.

“We can’t wait any longer on climate change,” Gabriel Filippelli, PhD, executive director of the Environmental Resilience Institute (ERI) at Indiana University, tells Verywell. “Every year we stall, we’re like three years farther behind. Climate change is now being truly and accurately linked to some of these big disasters and that is waking people up."

Finding Solutions to Climate Change Vulnerabilities

Although climate change will affect everyone, Filippelli explains, vulnerabilities vary from region to region and even community to community.

"The way you deal with extreme heat or drought is obviously very different from how you deal with coastal protection versus how you deal with flooding, sometimes sewage discharges,” Fillipelli says. “So you can pick apart the climate gradients and start understanding a little bit more what is the relative risk of some of these events.”

The ERI created the Hoosier Resilience Index, an online tool that provides publicly available climate change vulnerability data for every city and county in Indiana. “For Indiana, the relative risk tends to be higher in the north part of the state for flooding and stormwater discharge and water quality,” Fillipelli says, adding that the southern part of the state is more concerned with heat stress.

Local governments can take the index assessment survey, which evaluates their preparedness for three critical Midwest climate change impacts: extreme heat, increased precipitation, and likelihood of flooding. 

The ERI has an entire arm dedicated to exploring and providing climate change solutions. An Indiana community, upon learning about its vulnerabilities, can access case studies of how municipalities across the Midwest have tackled similar problems. When cities need help adapting, the ERI team can provide assistance via their sustainability staff and “externs.” 

“We actually place advanced-level students into cities and towns around Indiana to help them with climate resilience planning,” Fillipelli says. Externs can help with compiling a greenhouse gas emissions inventory or building a climate action plan, for example.

The ERI and the Hoosier Resilience Index are largely focused on the state of Indiana, but Fillipelli's team has plans for expansion, especially across the Midwest region.

Adapting to Climate Change Equitably

Climate change—and adapting to it—also involves issues of equity for communities and for the nation at large. 

Weather-resilient neighborhoods are bound to see an increase in property prices and rents, which may displace low-income households. Climate gentrification is already happening among coastal cities like Miami and New York, where properties in higher elevations have been rising in value.

“We all bear the burden of climate change, but low-income and marginalized communities with fewer adaptation resources are disproportionately affected,” Allie Thompson, project lead at The Climate Service, tells Verywell. “Climate change exacerbates factors that influence equity—such as accessibility, transportation, homelessness, and chronic conditions.” 

Experts argue that investors and developers have a responsibility to not leave communities behind. Prioritizing equity, along with sustainability, benefits the country as a whole. 

“The uneven distribution of clean energy projects across the country means that the environmental and health impact of flipping on the lights are starkly different depending on where you live in the country,” Laura Zapata, CEO and co-founder of Clearloop, tells Verywell. 

Zapata says Clearloop aims to shift the focus of corporate investments in renewable energy to regions of the country that have carbon-intense electricity production, or “dirty grids.” Doing so can achieve faster and bigger emissions reductions, generate jobs in clean energy, and spur investment in parts of the country that need it, she adds.

“Ironically, the Sun Belt of the United States has some of the lowest penetration of solar energy capacity,” Zapata says. “We’re focusing our initial efforts in the Southeast, an abundantly sunny region that hasn’t yet realized its full solar potential and that could help greatly reduce American carbon emissions.”

With contributions from small startups and Fortune 500 companies, Clearloop will break ground on a project in Jackson, Tennessee, later this summer. The company is in conversation with a technical college to develop a clean energy workforce program, which can help contribute to cleaning up the grid for the next 40 years.

By Jennifer Chesak
Jennifer Chesak is a medical journalist, editor, and fact-checker with bylines in several national publications. She earned her Master of Science in journalism from Northwestern University's Medill School. Her coverage focuses on COVID-19, chronic health issues, women’s medical rights, and the scientific evidence around health and wellness trends.