Toward Climate Resilience: A Framework and Principles for Science-Based Adaptation

The Union of Concerned Scientists present a climate resilience framework with 15 principles that decisionmakers can use to inform their climate resilience planning and actions.  The 15 principles are divided into three categories: science-based decisionmaking, equitable outcomes, and common-sense approaches.  The 15 principles described by the report are summarized below.

Science-based decisionmaking

  1. Decisions should be based upon the best-available science on future climate conditions.  
  2. Decisionmakers should use "systems thinking," which acknowledges the interconnections between sectors and impacts.  Using systems thinking requires decisionmakers to understand how changes in one sector or implemented by one agency can affect or trigger changes in other sectors.  Systems thinking can also help decisionmakers identify the co-benefits of different approaches. For example, green infrastructure approaches can not only help a city manage storm water and improve water quality, but it can also provide invaluable co-benefits by reducing urban heat islands, improving air quality and public health, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and creating recreational space and habitat.
  3. Planning should match the scale and scope of the projected change by, for example, taking a regional or landscape approach to planning.  This will help decisionmakers optimize solutions and reduce negative consequences for neighboring communities.
  4. Policies and decisions should be robust and perform well under different climate scenarios to account for uncertainty in the climate science.   The report provides the example of planning for the Colorado River Basin where drought projections looked at a range of future stream flow scenarios to assess water supplies and needs.
  5. Decisions should be flexible and amendable if a course change is required based upon revised scientific assessment.  The report provides the example of the Louisiana Coastal Master Plan that is modified to account for new information about sea-level rise and land loss. 

Equitable outcomes

  1. The costs of responding to climate change and the benefits of resilience-building initiatives should be equitably distributed.  The report acknowledges that poor and working class communities face disproportionate risks from climate change and they tend to contribute less to the problem of producing carbon emissions.  It also notes that public policies, like allocating public resources using benefit-cost analyses reduces public investments in lower income communities, which will exacerbate risks in these communities.
  2. Communities should be directly engaged in adaptation decisions and resilience initiatives.  The report provides the example of the Rebuild by Design competition hosted by HUD where community engagement was hailed a producing more viable projects. 
  3. Resilience initiatives should seek to minimize harm.  As an example, the report notes that relocation efforts should not impose more harm on communities that are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.  Buyouts can decrease home values for those who stay because of vacant lands and disinvestment in services.  Important values such as cultural heritage and social cohesion can be lost.
  4. Resilience initiatives should empower local residents.  Local experts can be trained to use and convey climate information and adaption options for the community.  Local experts will also have a better understanding of the community's history and specific needs. 
  5. Resilience decisionmaking should maximize transparency, accountability, and follow-through.  Community trust is an integral part of success and to ensure success decisions must be embraced by the community and the community must trust state and local officials to implement the promised actions.

Common-sense approaches

  1. Policymakers should ensure that decisions do not lead to maladaptive results or make a community less prepared for impacts.  For example, the report notes that some adaptation strategies may be maladaptive if they increase emissions or disproportionately burden at-risk communities.
  2. Decisions should consider the costs of inaction. The report notes that inaction will only increase the resilience gap over time and make adaptation more costly.
  3. Adaptation should focus on what people care about, like historic sites, cultural resources, iconic animals and plants, iconic habitats and landscapes.  The report notes that these assets transcend value and their loss cannot be fully quantified. 
  4. Planning and decisions should reflect a long-term vision.  A vision of how decisions today will affect later generations can guide better investments.
  5. Decisions should appreciate the limits of adaptation and understand that our ability to adapt depends on mitigation efforts.  

This framework is designed for decisionmakers at all levels of government that are developing strategies for building infrastructure, conserving and managing public lands, regulating land uses and development, as well as making other public sector decisions that will affect the long-term resilience of communities.


Publication Date: July 13, 2016

Authors or Affiliated Users:

  • Erika Spanger-Siegfried
  • Jason Funk
  • Rachel Cleetus
  • Melissa Deas
  • Juliet Christian-Smith

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Resource Types:

  • Planning guides

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