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CHAPTER 2: Climate Change Adaptation And Municipal Decision Making

Planning for climate change impacts

No single approach to climate change adaptation is appropriate for all communities. Each municipality has to contend with unique geography and specific climate-change issues. Legal systems, laws, institutions and cultural traditions differ by region. The resources that a community can dedicate to adaptation planning also vary substantially. Large metropolitan areas may have many planners and policy-makers dedicating at least some of their time directly to adaptation-related issues, whereas a remote hamlet likely will not have any planners. Approaches should build on the communities’ land use and capital infrastructure plans and be adjusted to the realities of the local situation.

The adaptation actions presently taken by communities across Canada are diverse. Most climate change adaptation actions are embedded in a municipality’s existing plans and strategies. In some communities, municipal staff and community partners have developed plans, policies, regulations or programs specifically for climate-change adaptation. These plans may target one adaptation issue/measure or be wide-ranging by tackling numerous climate issues, cross-cutting various departments and even external organizations. Such planning can target private citizens, including home and business owners, or be focused on a municipality’s internal operations and infrastructure.

Key ingredients for successful adaptation planning

Understanding vulnerability

Assessing vulnerability is an integral part of most adaptation planning processes. Vulnerability to climate change is the degree to which a system is susceptible to, and unable to cope with, adverse effects of climate change, including climate variability and extremes. Understanding a municipality’s climate vulnerability provides a basis for establishing priorities.

A photo of a busy street in Toronto


Mainstreaming adaptation into existing processes, policies and mechanisms

Adaptation can often be effectively integrated into existing processes, policies and mechanisms. Rather than developing new plans and strategies, it may be logistically easier and more financially prudent for municipalities to build long-term climate factors into a wide array of municipal operations and services, including infrastructure decisions, capital plans, land use plans and disaster emergency management frameworks.

Analysis starts with an assessment of a municipality’s vulnerability to the current climate, informed by knowledge of how climate events have impacted the community in the past, the actions that were taken in response to those impacts and how successful those actions were (NRCan 2004). The next phase of analysis examines how climate risks are likely to change in future; these risks are informed by projections of future climate as well as social and economic conditions. Stakeholder input is critical at all stages of a vulnerability assessment.

Managing risk

Adaptation can be seen simply as a way to manage the risks presented by a changing climate. Climate-related risks can be treated similarly to other risks (i.e. financial, political, demographic and engineering) municipalities face. Many municipal decision-makers are familiar with risk management, which is a practical and credible approach to selecting the best course of action in uncertain situations. Risk management helps decision-makers determine, understand, analyze and communicate about risks.

Vulnerability assessments are a common element of risk management approaches. They help identify and classify potential risks to municipal policies, programs, infrastructure and other assets. The process for selecting a community’s adaptation plans and measures may be formal or ad hoc. The advantages of a formal approach are its ability to provide clear and structured rationales and to accommodate the uncertainties that are inherent in projections of future climate, social and economic conditions.

For every climate impact, there is a range of possible responses that vary in time, complexity and cost. Many of these options fit into the following broad categories (from Pew Center 2009):

  • no-regrets: actions that provide benefits regardless of impacts incurred from climate change
  • profit/opportunity:
  • win-win: actions that reduce vulnerability to climate change while also contributing to other economic, social or environmental goals (including reduction of greenhouse gas emissions)
  • low-regret: measures that have relatively low costs and yield high benefits
  • avoiding unsustainable investments: measures that limit or prevent new investment in areas already at high climate risk and where climate change is likely to exacerbate the impacts
  • averting catastrophic risk: policies or actions taken to avoid unacceptably high losses as a result of climate events
forest with pine beetle infestation

Photo courtesy of Natural Resources Canada


Climate change scenarios

Climate change scenarios are one tool that can help raise awareness of climate change risks and, in some cases, help plan to address specific impacts. They present the differences between historic climate conditions and plausible future climate conditions. The scenarios complement projections of socioeconomic changes that many communities routinely use as part of long-term planning processes (see Appendix A). The following are key sources of scenario information in Canada:

Identifying synergies and overcoming conflict

Adaptation is closely linked with sustainable development. Policies, plans and investments that span more than two decades may not be sustainable if the changing climate is not factored into their development. Understanding the links between climate change actions and sustainability goals helps municipalities make their adaptation actions more effective by strategically allocating resources to achieve multiple outcomes.

Municipal decision-makers also need to be aware of the possible conflicts that can arise when choosing adaptation measures. For example, a sea wall may protect coastal properties from extreme storm damage, but it can also have an adverse affect on the health of the costal ecosystem (e.g. disturbing sensitive fish- and bird-breeding grounds) and have negative impacts on erosion or sedimentation elsewhere on the coast. Discussion is an important means of resolving conflict and arriving at community consensus. Many Canadian communities that have successfully implemented adaptation plans and measures have held public consultations to openly discuss costs, benefits, strengths and weaknesses of various options, and to give the public an important say in deciding the best way to proceed.

Awareness, leadership and partnerships

Awareness of the potential impacts of climate change on communities and of the value of taking early action to reduce negative impacts is critical. Because adaptation often involves proactive investment to prevent future damage, awareness is needed among the public and decision-makers.

Moving from awareness to action frequently requires strong leadership. Foresight, determination and patience are needed to instigate municipal adaptation work and see it through to implementation stages. In many cases, it takes one or more champions (inside or outside the local government) to keep adaptation initiatives alive in the face of the many competing priorities that municipalities face. Communities that have shown initiative and success in climate change mitigation programs and measures may be able to efficiently leverage this leadership to accelerate adaptation efforts.

Also, interdisciplinary partnerships and collaboration can be useful when addressing the complex challenges of climate change. When planning for climate change, particularly in the vulnerability assessment stage, policy-makers and planners will need to draw on external specialists. These partnerships with climate change specialists are particularly important because municipalities will have to clearly explain complex issues to a public faced with many competing priorities.

The case studies in Chapter 3 illustrate the approaches that Canadian communities have taken to build awareness and partnerships, and the actions that resulted.

Adaptation tools and guide books

Various tools exist that can help municipalities integrate climate change adaptation into new and existing plans. These include:

  • guide books (electronic or hard copies) that include key decision-making steps common to many adaptation plans and strategies
  • risk management processes for selecting the best course of action in situations where uncertainties are significant
  • case studies that provide examples of how communities are confronting specific climate challenges

Some important Canadian sources of information are listed below. Additional information and tools can be accessed at the Web sites listed in Appendix B.

Adapting to Climate Change: A Risk-based Guide for Local Governments (Black et al., 2010)

This guide, based on risk-management guidelines from the Canadian Standards Association, uses a simple, practical approach for identifying risks, ranking them and selecting the best way to reduce those risks. Versions of the guide exist for British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and northern Canada, while a generic guide with region-specific annexes will be available in 2011.

Please email for a copy.

Changing Climate, Changing Communities: Municipal Climate Adaptation Guide and Workbook (ICLEI Canada)

This guide provides a Canadian-based frame-work that helps local governments develop an adaptation plan that addresses the most significant climate risks and opportunities for their community. The five-milestone approach to adaptation planning is 1) initiate, 2) research, 3) plan, 4) implement and 5) monitor. The accompanying workbook includes practical tools and exercises to support practitioners during the planning process.

A Guide for Quebec Municipalities for Developing a Climate Change Adaptation Plan (Ouranos)

Élaborer un plan d’adaptation aux changements climatiques : Guide destiné au milieu municipal québécois
This French-language guide uses five steps to help municipalities identify climate risks, set adaptation priorities and implement effective adaptation strategies. (PDF, 6.2 Mb)

Municipal Resources for Adapting to Climate Change (Federation of Canadian Municipalities)

This publication features seven municipalities that are considering adaptation in their communities. Scientific resources and planning tools that have been used by other municipalities are also included.

Infrastructure Climate Risk Protocol (Engineers Canada)

This protocol is intended for users who own, operate or design physical infrastructure. It provides a five-step procedure to assess the vulnerability of infrastructure to climate change from an engineering perspective. The protocol helps users systematically evaluate risks from climatic changes on all components of infrastructure.

Climate Change Adaptation Framework Manual (Ministry of Sustainable Resource Development, Alberta)

This manual helps organizations anticipate and prepare for the economic and ecological impacts of climate change in a comprehensive and consistent manner.

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