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Photo Source: Peter McBride. Colorado River.

Since the 1880’s, scientists have been taking measurements of the Earth’s surface temperature at thousands of locations. The analysis of this data shows that the Earth’s average temperature has increased by more than 1.4° over the past 100 years, with much of this increase experienced in the past 35 years, and it is evident that the temperature is continuing to rise. These rising temperatures may seem minimal; however, even small increases can have significant impacts on ecosystems, weather patterns, and the health and safety of residents in a community.

With a year full of devastating wildfires and drought, Western communities are feeling the effects of rising temperatures. Heat waves are becoming more frequent, winters are now shorter and milder, snow and ice cover are decreasing, and many plant and animal species are moving to cooler or higher altitudes to escape the warmer weather. During the summer of 2012, wildfires spread through the Western states, caused by prolonged arid and hot conditions. According to Climate Central’s 2012 report The “Age of Western Wildfires” wildfires burn twice as much land area each year as they did 40 years ago with a burn season two and half months longer than 40 years ago. Even one season of drought can have dramatic repercussions: higher basic food prices, putting considerable strain on vulnerable populations including the elderly and financially disadvantaged. Climate impacts, such as wildfire and drought, costs cities a lot of money to respond and rebuild after these events. With so many effects felt at the community scale, local governments have a strong role to play in planning for intensifying climate changes.

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Photo Source: Logan Brumm. Wildfire near Flagstaff, AZ.

Local governments are on the front lines of managing the impacts associated with natural hazards. As temperatures rise, increased drought, flooding, and extreme heat and weather events will become more frequent straining water resources and infrastructure, putting lives and property at risk. Boulder County, CO and Flagstaff, AZ are two communities examining how a changing climate will impact their region and residents in an attempt to find ways to prevent the severity of these impacts. By assessing risks and vulnerabilities, cities can point to specific actions that will help prepare for the damaging impacts of climate change in the West.

Boulder County, CO: Climate Change Preparedness Plan

In October 2012, Boulder County Commissioners adopted the Boulder County Climate Change Preparedness Plan (C2P2) to help local residents and communities prepare for changing environmental conditions. The plan, developed with the help of Stratus Consulting of Boulder, focuses on several key sectors: water supply, emergency management, public health, and agriculture and natural resources. The plan identifies the predicted impacts of climate change, explores the implications of these changes in the context of resource management institutions, and outlines opportunities for adaptation planning efforts.

To create a plan unique to Boulder County conditions, the team hired a consultant, Stratus Consulting, who provided scientific expertise to downscale global climate models to the Boulder County region. Chapter two of the C2P2 provides a state-of-the-science overview of projected climate change along the Colorado Front Range and Boulder County in particular. Although there is still significant uncertainty about the magnitude of various potential future changes in the climate system, especially due to the diverse landscapes and habitats ranging from the high-elevation prairie to the Continental Divide, planners can benefit from an understanding of what is and what is not known about how increased GHG emissions could affect the climate in this region and how those changes in climate can impact their specific human and natural systems.

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Photo Source: Jessica Feis. Snow melts in Colorado.

County planners were fortunate to have the unwavering support of the County Commissioners as the planning process moved forward. Boulder County conducted a broad outreach effort beginning a year prior to the completion of the C2P2 to encourage input from different perspectives. Because a variety of viewpoints were represented at public meetings, the planning team was able to address concerns that included the fear of eminent domain being used to secure water rights and doubt that the planning process was a county-led effort. Instead of bulldozing through the opposition, the planning team worked with concerned factions to assuage their fears and utilize the input received during these meetings. In the appendix of the plan, comments and responses were recorded, including the feedback collected through surveys, emails, and public meetings. Staff responses accompany the community comments in the C2P2's appendix. Boulder County is now in the process of prioritizing the recommendations from the plan and creating a budget.

Flagstaff, AZ: Resiliency and Preparedness Study

As climate and related extreme weather conditions change, Flagstaff is beginning to innovate in independent and original ways to prepare. In September 2012 Flagstaff drafted the City of Flagstaff Resiliency and Preparedness Study focuses on understanding how the city can reduce its vulnerability and build local resilience to climate variability and climate related disasters.

The Resiliency and Preparedness Study identified the level of vulnerability, the degree of risk and the potential impacts of 115 of the City's critical operations that are already impacted by weather. The study also acknowledged areas where the City lacks capacity to adapt and the potential impacts if no action is taken. Completed by a team of City staff and regional partners, the Study recommends an overarching policy aimed to increase protection and resilience within government operations to hazards including fire, severe winter storms, drought, and floods.

The Flagstaff City Council has adopted a policy to help prepare for the impacts of climate change, which includes:

  • Build, sustain and leverage partnerships.
  • Identify vulnerable populations.
  • Institutionalize resiliency into City decisions.
  • Incorporate into infrastructure development needs.
  • Prioritize proactive education.
  • Develop criteria for City planning efforts.
  • Allocate municipal resources necessary to adapt.

Next steps will include integrating the areas of vulnerability and risk the study identified and work to implement policies to address these vulnerabilities within each City department.

Communities are feeling the heat of a changing climate. Boulder County and Flagstaff are just two examples of numerous local governments who are preparing for climate-related events, particuarly after the destruction of Hurricane Sandy and the past summer wildfires, drought and record temperatures. One lesson can be learned through examples like Boulder County and Flagstaff. Collaboration is key to creating resilient and sustainable communities. Local governments must be leaders in bringing together city departments and varying community interests to face extreme climate-related events.

To learn more about Boulder County and Flagstaff plans and updates on implementation, sign up for a free webinar on December 5th. Space is limited. Reserve your Webinar seat now at: https://www4.gotomeeting.com/register/453998615

Successful Communities Online Toolkit information exchange (SCOTie) case studies:
Flagstaff, AZ Resiliency and Preparedness Study

Boulder County, CO Climate Change Preparedness Plan (C2P2)

Developed by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy and the Sonoran Institute, SCOTie is a user-friendly clearinghouse of smart growth and successful policies from western communities. Follow updates on Twitter @SCOTieToolkit.