The Practice of Assessments Working Group: Weaving a stronger fabric of climate assessments
Despite their importance and visibility, efforts like the National Climate Assessment (NCA) and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) assessments can never replace the need for parallel efforts centered on cities, states, and regions. To understand this better, the Independent Advisory Committee on Applied Climate Assessment (IAC) consulted with over 100 organizations across the United States in late 2018 to identify valuable attributes of climate assessments. The IAC discovered that nearly every attribute of effective climate assessments varies from one context to the next, with the differences presenting important implications for climate action. We are a group of governmental and non-governmental professionals who directly manage various city and state climate assessments. Together, we are forming the Practice of Assessments Working Group (PAWG), and our main goal is to coordinate climate assessments between and across different scales of governance to support just, equitable climate action. Here, we explain how the context for climate assessment can vary and why we think it matters.
Decision-makers use climate assessments to support forward-looking policies and programs. As examples, the State of New York has developed Flood Risk Management Guidance incorporating future conditions for infrastructure development, both along the coasts and inland, and the City of New York just issued the fourth version of its’ Climate Resiliency Design Guidelines that helps integrate future sea level rise into design elevations for large and small infrastructure projects out to the 2080s. The exact height of flooding over that timeframe varies across New York State’s coastline. The height of floods in the Bronx can be a few inches to a foot different than the tip of Montauk on Long Island. These small variations must be taken into account by engineers on a project-by-project basis. Given the complexity of the settings, the City and State of New York each have their own climate assessment efforts. Nevertheless, coherent regional trends in sea level rise, developed through coordinated assessment efforts, can help avoid delaying billions of dollars of infrastructure upgrades over discrepancies of a few inches. Just as some other regions have done (e.g. SE Florida Climate Compact), the City and State of New York are working together to coordinate their climate projections.
The impetus for coordination does not stop with physical climate science. Practitioners also view assessments as signaling the need for transformative action. Climate assessments have made clear the impacts of a changing climate, including, among other things, more frequent and more severe floods, droughts, and heat waves. However, while climate adaptation requires significant societal change, the process will be as important as the pace of societal change. Well before climate change became an identified problem, inequity in race, class, and gender plagued economic development and urban planning processes. Climate change is not the only problem to be solved in re-envisioning our society.
That is one reason why the IAC recognized that the climate assessment processes need to be inclusive, diverse, and just. Here again, towns, cities, states and the federal government need to be coordinated in how to involve and empower communities to participate in climate assessments. Concerns from leaders in a particular community that has been historically excluded and disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards may not be explicitly addressed in the National Climate Assessment, given its focus on regional to national data and trends. However, the NCA process strives to be broadly inclusive, and consequently those regional and national trends rely on accurate representations of social, economic, and environmental conditions in local contexts. That same community might be a central focal point for a city or state climate assessment because it might stand out as particularly vulnerable or less adaptive. The change in social and environmental focus between scales creates an imperative for the people who manage each climate assessment to not only generate information in the local context, but to ensure that participation by communities results in respectful consideration of their time, knowledge, and concerns.
Importantly, there is an increasingly defined set of skills, knowledge, and abilities required to manage a climate assessment process (i.e. a community of practice). To the extent that climate assessments support action that is just and equitable, the role of assessment manager at any governance scale should not be a side job, and a key responsibility of the assessment manager should be cooperating between and across similar efforts at different scales.
We formed PAWG to coordinate assessment efforts. For our first step, we are writing a compendium of management practices that various cities and states have learned through their work. We are asking for input from potential members of that community like you via this survey.
The compendium is just a first step to building a network or fabric of effective assessment processes across the United States, which would further support SCAN’s cause. If the Biden Administration heeds calls from its own incoming officials for pre-disaster resilience planning, climate assessments are certain to play an important role in those planning processes, and the compendium can be a resource for an incoming wave of new efforts. Beyond refining practices, we also want to create a forum where the aforementioned coordination and cooperation happens. We are reinforcing and restating a longstanding principle from the National Research Council’s “Informing Effective Decisions In A Changing Climate” report: the process is as important as the product.
Adam Parris, New York City Mayor’s Office of Resiliency
Jeff Dukes, Purdue Climate Change Research Center
Fred Lipschultz, Universities Space Research Association
Richard Moss, Science for Climate Action Network
Amanda Stevens, New York State Energy Research and Development Authority
Anne Waple, Science for Climate Action Network
Melissa Widhalm, Purdue Climate Change Research Center
 Not including the Great Lakes.