Climate Disasters Hurt the Poor the Most. Here’s What We Can Do About It.

We need to analyze what puts disadvantaged communities at risk and engage marginalized people in disaster planning.

The following article originally appeared in Governing:

Image wikipedia Migrant Mother (Florence Owens Thompson), taken by Dorthea Lange in 1936

Last year, Americans endured an unrelenting series of climate calamities: hurricanes in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean; wildfires and mudslides in California; drought in the Dakotas; flooding in the Midwest. Those disasters caused more than 360 deaths and more than $300 billion in losses.

And there is more where that came from. As the planet warms, climate-related disasters are becoming the new normal. Over the past five years, Americans experienced at least 10 major disasters a year-double the average number of such events since 1980.

News accounts sometimes portray disasters as great levelers, affecting rich and poor alike. But the reality is that it is the least fortunate who bear the greatest social, economic, health and environmental costs. Three months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in September, for example, roughly half of the island's population remained without power. The flooding in Houston caused by Hurricane Harvey had a disproportionate impact on low-income communities and communities of color. And in fire-torn California communities, many poor and elderly residents were displaced and made homeless.

Why do the poor and marginalized take the brunt of climate impacts? There is, of course, discrimination against and indifference to the fate of communities that lack political power, as in Puerto Rico. And, as in Houston, low-income people and people of color are more likely to live in or near a floodplain, in industrial areas that spread pollution when they flood, and in neighborhoods with substandard infrastructure. In California and elsewhere, the poor are more likely to live in rental housing, may not be able to afford insurance, and often hold jobs that don't tolerate unexpected absences from work. In short, the poor are less able to insulate themselves from harm.

This is true of not only of individuals but of communities at all scales. A study published last year in the journal Science documented that the poorest one-third of U.S. counties sustain greater economic hardship than their wealthier counterparts from hurricanes, rising seas and higher temperatures. By disproportionately affecting the poorest people and communities, climate disasters deepen poverty and widen inequality. How can we prevent that from happening? As we plan for a changing climate, equity must be a top priority. That is the goal of the "climate justice" movement, a diverse coalition of national, regional and grassroots organizations.

Climate justice holds that poor and marginalized people, who bear the least responsibility for contributing to the causes of climate change, should not bear the greatest burden from its impacts. Ensuring that climate risks do not disproportionately harm those who are already vulnerable demands a deep analysis of what puts some communities at risk, including racial and socioeconomic disparities. A useful resource for that analysis is the federal government's Social Vulnerability Index, which looks at factors such as poverty and mobility to assess vulnerability at the census-tract level.

It is also essential to make sure that marginalized people have a voice and a seat at the table. A community group in New York City called WE ACT for Environmental Justice, for example, has initiated a climate resilience planning process led by neighborhood residents. In a series of public meetings over six months, the residents drew on their own knowledge and vision to produce the Northern Manhattan Climate Action Plan, which calls for community-controlled renewable energy, emergency preparedness, social hubs and participatory governance.

Other communities are effectively integrating equity into climate adaptation. In Baltimore, for example, the city's Office of Sustainability has cultivated the art of engaging at-risk communities in disaster planning. City staff make it easy for residents to attend meetings by providing free transportation, food and child care. And at those meetings, staff do more listening than talking. Kristin Baja, Baltimore's former climate and resilience planner, calls this approach "sharing power." One outcome of this initiative is a network of "resilience hubs" throughout the city that provide shelter, backup electricity and access to fresh water and food during emergencies.

As we brace for more frequent and devastating storms, wildfires and heat waves, it is also crucial to address the roots of the climate crisis. That means an all-hands-on-deck effort to slow the advance of climate change. If greenhouse gas emissions remain on their current trajectory, the earth could warm by up to 9 degrees Fahrenheit the end of this century, with sea-level rise of up to 8 feet. In that scenario, vulnerability will not be confined to those at society's margins; it will engulf all of us. Today, we have the power to bend the curve of that trajectory and move toward a sustainable, equitable future for all.

For more on the subject of environmental justice and climate change, see "Rising to the Challenge, Together," a recent report prepared for the Kresge Foundation.

Real Estate Investors Finally Consider Climate Risks

Image credit: Climate Central N. Lamm

2017 was quite a year for extreme events. Shocks and stresses from 16 events that each triggered over $1 billion in damages and took their toll on lives and livelihoods in the United States alone.  And it wasn’t just hurricanes, although Hurricanes Irma, Harvey and Maria played their part (with damages of $161 billion, $102 billion and $45 Billion respectively).  Many other climate- and weather-related disasters hit the U.S., including hail and ice, heat and wind, and inland flooding.

Many experts predicted this was likely – and I don’t mean the climate scientists.  The Global Risk Perception Report – the latest of which came out last week – has for the last five years included the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation on its list of the five global risks in terms of impact. It bases its list on survey data from about 1,000 World Economic Forum advisors worldwide. Other risks in that set also are climate-related such as water crises, major natural disasters and extreme weather events.

Plus, the stakes are high for the real estate industry. The UNFCCC 2016 Biennial review of climate finance notes that $35 trillion in real estate assets will be at risk in 2070 if we make no changes to our current carbon emission trajectory. That figure represents about half of today’s global assets under management in any industry sector.

But how do these risks relate to the U.S.? The shocks of powerful storms can destroy many of those assets, as the devastation from this year’s climate disasters reminds us. Longer-term changes in temperature can cause other shifts. Even from where I sit in the middle of the country in Chicago, we are in the midst of a shift to a climate that will look more like New Orleans by the end of the century.

So, there are both orderly shifts and shocking disasters occurring because of our changing climate, and I think one question we want to ask is: What does that mean for our shift as investors?  Will it be orderly or will it be a flight?

We can’t say we haven’t been warned. This analysis from Zillow shows that if we have sea level rise of six feet – predicted by the end of the century along much of the U.S. coast – we lose houses worth roughly $900 billion in value. And this applies just for coastal properties. It doesn’t include other risks such as inland flooding and fire that also loom. It also doesn’t value the PTSD, injuries, loss of life, loss of community and livelihoods that these figures suggest.

These data came to mind as I was preparing to speak at this week’s National Association of Real Estate Investment Managers Sustainability and investment Summit, whose tagline is “License to Think in Public.”

One of the most thought-provoking data I shared:  U.S. counties facing the greatest risk from natural disasters have the highest and quickest rising home values.   Counties with the very high risk from these disasters have seen a 55 percent appreciation in their already very costly homes in the last 5 years.

The U.S. finally received the much-anticipated Multihazard Mitigation Council’s latest cost benefit analysis, illustrating that, on average, every dollar invested in disaster mitigation pays back $6.

The investors at NAREIM, representing over $1 trillion of assets under management, think it should, and some even think it will. What they need: project-level natural hazard data that includes climate change projections. This is something the climate resilience field is working on, with a variety of firms jockeying to be first with the roll out of their proprietary software.

In the meantime, as my fellow panelist Chris Smy, Global Practice Lead at Marsh Inc., noted, the stakes are high as insurance companies, by and large, do not price their policies according to the longer-term climate risks, and developers persist in going where the money is, which is along the coast.

Yet Darob Malek-Madani with National Real Estate Investors showed that some investors are taking notice. His firm finished a study that convinced them to no longer invest in Miami. Except for the financial situation of the state and city, he said, they might even prioritize Chicago.

Jack Davis – RE Tech Advisors and a resilience leader with Urban Land Institute – reminded us that the stakes go well beyond real estate. As the New York Times reported last year, gross domestic product, especially in the Southern states, is predicted to record losses of 10-20 percent of GDP, hitting the poorest residents hardest.

I thought that when real estate investors bring equity questions to the table, we can perhaps sense a shift underway. Certainly, the investment community at large is more vocal about the risks than in the past, though silent on the equity questions. The Financial Stability Board’s Taskforce on Climate Change-related Financial Disclosure (FSB-TCFD),led by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney and Michael Bloomberg, is developing climate-related financial risk disclosure commitments for companies. The big guys, though, are not waiting for that guidance to disclose. My library is filling with articles that say what BlackRock demonstrates: Their investment stewardship features climate risk disclosure as a key priority.

While my climate resilience colleagues often ask where we can find financing for climate resilience, this group of investment managers brought a fresh spin to the money question: How can we avoid future investments in risky properties? Both questions are valuable, and it’s great to see some in the real estate industry “thinking in public” about how to make this market transformation happen.

This post originally appeared on Triple Pundit:

2018 New Years Resolutions!

This post first appeared in

My collaborator Kim Lundgren recently asked me what I thought it would take to accelerate adaptation - here are my thoughts, resolutions for a busy 2018!

I envision a world with more lives saved & livelihoods enhanced in the face of climate change disruption. Here are three resolutions to ensure I am contributing to a resilient future in 2018 and beyond.

  1. Grow the adaptation Field: More leaders need to have the resources to embrace adaptation in their fields. The National Climate Assessment, released in November, reminds us it will be none too soon. So in 2018, I resolve to work with the American Society of Adaptation Professionals and university partners to help professionalize the practice through the creation of an adaptation training program.
  2.  Measure resilience: The Global Adaptation and Resilience Investment Investor Guide released at the One Planet Summit in Paris in December reminds us of the need to make the financial case for adaptation. So in 2018, I resolve to advance assessments and tools that assess and disclose climate risk and measure progress toward resilience.
  3.   Jump start equity: Decision-makers need to make climate action fair. CBS Money reported in December that 'Climate gentrification' could add value to elevation in real estate while in the article the Hip Hop Caucus points out the stakes are high since 'People's lives, their livelihoods and their culture' are at stake. So in 2018, I resolve to ensure that all projects I work on address climate challenges through adaptation that enhances equity and social cohesion. 

Wherever we sit, we must become relentless questioners of the status quo, asking the climate question that New York’s Adam Freed and I drummed up as city practitioners in the 2010s: 'Are the enduring structures we build able to withstand—and mitigate—climate change?' To make it easier for cities to ask and answer the climate question, I’ve made my city adaptation assessment tool open source. It’s a complement to the KLA Community Dashboard.  Check it out!

10 Tips for a National Infrastructure Bank that Furthers Resilience Investments

This blog originally appeared at the National Council for Science & Environment:

We know the majority of infrastructure systems in the US are both maxing out to meet changing demands and aging. Changing weather patterns further complicate these challenges with flooding, extreme heat, freeze-thaw pattern changes, and fires -married with more built form development – placing infrastructure under increased pressure and making it susceptible to catastrophic failures.  To further strength, safety, security and thriving for our communities, America’s future requires infrastructure that is resilient to these changes.

When we say resilient Infrastructure, what do we mean?

Resilient infrastructure:

  • Withstands and responds to natural and manmade shocks and stresses.
  • Uses redundant and predictive design to plan for possible failures.
  • Produces multiple benefits to maximize value for citizens and natural and human communities.


We know that past and current inadequate investments in infrastructure systems put U.S. communities at risk. Based on the physical condition and needed investments for improvement, The American Society of Civil Engineers grades existing US infrastructure a D+.[i]

At the same time, ASCE estimate that 54 percent of America’s infrastructure needs for the next decade are unfunded, a $1.1 trillion shortfall.[ii] Where will we find the funds to fill the gap?

The Federal Government is a major funding source for infrastructure investments – a quarter of 2014’s $416 billion investments, for example.[iii]Currently, there is political interest in investing in infrastructure. President Trump has called for an infrastructure package of up to $1 trillion[iv]including assets from a National Infrastructure Bank.

To meet our generation’s challenges, such a bank will need to spur infrastructure rehabilitation, creating resilient infrastructure to modernize our strained systems.

How do infrastructure banks leverage private and public dollars?

Federal funds can capitalize an infrastructure bank, that then lends to state and local governments at below market rates. These loan funds can be used to attract private capital or to provide loan guarantees or credit enhancements. Infrastructure service revenues repay the loans, recapitalizing the bank to fund other projects.


Here are 10 tips to ensure that a National Infrastructure Bank finances resilient infrastructure:

  1. Invite advice from financial services experts, including institutional investors, insurance and credit rating agencies, to maximize market stabilization and growth.
  2. Privilege the redevelopment of existing infrastructure before financing new infrastructure in undeveloped areas.
  3. Require designs to account for changed future conditions, including climate change projections.
  4. Stipulate that projects must reduce federal financial exposure for flood insurance claims under the National Flood Insurance Program[v] and disaster recovery under the Stafford Act.
  5. Include criteria related to positive impacts on economic, environmental and social benefits.
  6. Prioritize projects that deliver multiple benefits.
  7. Leverage successful federal funding programs, allowing NIB financing to combine with funds from State Revolving, Transportation Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act and Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act funds.
  8. Include financial products that encourage private investment at various project stages.
  9. Allow special agencies and authorities to borrow to reduce existing government credit rating risk.
  10. Act now! The challenges before us are growing more urgent[vi] and now is the time to protect this and future generations of Americans.

Joyce Coffee is the president of Climate Resilience Consulting working with leaders to create strategies that protect and enhance markets and livelihoods through resilience to climate change.

[i] 2017 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, American Society of Civil Engineers, March 2017,

[ii] Failure to Act, Closing the Infrastructure Investment Gap for America’s Economic Future May 2016

[iii] Congressional Budget Office Spending on Infrastructure and Investment, March 2017

[iv] The Trump administration announced a priority of reinvesting in American infrastructure and it is anticipated the legislation will be offered in 2017. Senator Schumer and other Democrats have also proposed an infrastructure investment plan and banking structure –

[v] 100 Resilient Cities, Strengthening the National Flood Insurance Program

[vi] U.S. Global Change Research Program November 2017 Executive Summary: Climate Science Special Report: Fourth National Climate Assessment (NCA4), Volume I


‘Net to Me’ – Why developers aren’t the answer to better risk-related land use decisions

I recently became a member of the Urban Land Institute, inspired by its excellent set of case studies Returns on Resilience: The Business Case and driven by a question I thought their real estate-related members might answer:  Why are developers still betting on Miami and Malibu.


The irascible John McNellis, author of the ULI book “Making it in Real Estate” and president of McNellis Partners LLC, provided a great answer: “Dude.” 


As he described the pros and cons and highs and lows of deal-making, he relayed the woes of a colleague who unloaded a Malibu development before it was ripe based on terms from his financiers. The developer was frustrated, McNelis said, “since you know, Malibu could gain more and more value like the pyramids at Giza.” 


At the Q&A, I saw my chance to address this whip smart development industry player:


“Sir, you mentioned the potential for really long-term value growth in Malibu properties.  But in our lifetime and surely that of our children, that property actually will be under water- due to sea level rise.  Why do thoughtful developers continue to invest in Miami and Malibu even as the physical risks from climate change mount and the imposition on the property owners in harm’s way, as well as the U.S. taxpayer, grows apace?”


His response, in effect: I knew a guy whose property had flooded numerous times and I said to him, “Dude, why don’t you raise It 10 feet or something.’  He continued: “It is a shame….that we use public insurance for beach properties where we know they’re going to be flooded.  We should give them one bite at this apple. If it floods once, here is the money. But then no more, no more insurance.”


It’s great he knew what I was talking about, and his answer was interesting: Essentially, elevate property to accommodate the rising tide and change our National Flood Insurance Program to one-and-done. But that it was so easy. 


He ended his formal remarks with a helpful reminder that successful developers always calculate the NTM, “Net to Me.”  Ten deals can deliver for instance a basket of five gains, three break-evens and two losses. But the key is to always ask in any deal mix not what will be the profit, but what will be the “Net to Me.”  That’s true of most partnerships, mine included, but it doesn’t stack up for climate resilience.


Even as the memories of this season’s three hurricanes and devastating fires persist, neither climate change nor extreme weather were mentioned once from the mainstage on ULI’s Fall meeting’s first day.  Granted, the ULI magazine editor closed her letter to the conference edition with condolences, and a discussion session about urban reliance was well attended.  Still I have an initial answer to my question:  Developers are not (yet) paying much heed to climate risk….


As we poured out of the session, I converged with several in the audience who were shaking their heads at my question and saying, “It’s not going to happen – development will go where the money is.”  I wondered, “If beach property could not get mortgages because the insurance industry wouldn’t insure coastal storm risks any more, would that do it?”  They just laughed, looking out the window at LA’s skyscrapers built perilously close to the San Andreas fault and challenging each other to guess how much profit each floor could generate.

Midwest Welcomes Climate Change Migrations North

For the third straight year, Illinois lost more residents in 2016 than any other state. But could climate change alter that trend? Chicagoans are talking about how much better the Midwest region seems since Hurricanes Harvey and Irma left such a devastating swath from Texas to the Atlantic coast.

A friend’s parents are reconsidering leaving Chicago to retire to Florida, a neighbor’s family in Houston talked about moving the family hub north as they camped out in his Detroit guest room after Hurricane Harvey struck Houston and Chicago's Paseo Boricua is bustling with friends and family who have made their way to the mainland since Maria. So, is a reverse migration to the Midwest out of the question?

Not at all. Even before these recent destructive storms, experts were contemplating that climate change could benefit the Chicago metro region. A March (2017) memo from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning staff to CMAP committees includes this possibility related to the region’s “On to 2050 Plan.” It said:

Potential economic opportunities may arise [in the Chicago metro region] from population growth and increased reinvestment, as residents and industries from areas more severely impacted by climate change impacts move to the region.

And our increasingly balmy winters may themselves reflect a changing climate. Research conducted by respected climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe, PhD., Chicago’s average temperatures have increased 2.6 degrees Fahrenheit since 1980, with the largest increases of almost 4 degrees occurring in winter.

With Midwest cities seeking ways to attract and retain top talent, grow their tax base, infill the city and retain big-city vibrancy, city and state leaders may want to make more of the area’s relative climate resilience. Especially since Americans already are on the move because of climate change.

Federal Emergency Management Administration data shows that in the past 17 years, over 1,000 communities in 40 cities have experienced managed retreat, largely due to flooding, permafrost melt and other climate-related changes. This managed retreat is a better option than forced flight. Over 20 percent of those who fled New Orleans and that region because of Hurricane Katrina never returned.

Of course, the Midwest isn’t free from changing climate conditions. Higher average temperatures that spark periods of extreme heat, heavy downpours and flooding will affect infrastructure, health, agriculture, forestry, transportation and air and water quality. But these are risks we can prepare for and mitigate against.

Important strides already have begun. Take air quality, which extreme heat makes worse and which Grist, a newsroom focusing on environment, contends is Illinois’ biggest climate worry. In the past several years, three factors have improved air quality in the state, maintains Respiratory Health Association’s Brian P. Urbaszewski, director of Environmental Health Programs:

  1. Major coal-fired power plants such as Fisk, Crawford, Joliet and Romeoville have been shut down. Some that remain, such as Cauveen, have added the latest technology scrubbers, reducing air pollutant loads by up to 99 percent.
  2. Federal rules on heavy duty on-road diesel engines require that any model year beyond 2007 meet particulate matter standards that are 90 percent tighter than before. The rule means that recent diesel trucks and buses emit one-tenth the soot than a 2005 model.
  3. Illinois’ Future Energy Jobs Act will increase cleaner energy, especially wind power, while requiring that utilities such as ComEd and Amren decrease electricity demand.

In addition, the Midwest possess pro-job, pro-innovation and pro-community choices to solve more. For instance:

  1. To continue to improve air quality, lawmakers and leaders can encourage the shift to higher fuel efficiency and battery powered private and public vehicles, including public buses.
  2. To improve stormwater management, the region can bring back the sponge function of the land by increasing the use of permeable paving, green roofs, tree planting, development of bioswales and disconnection of downspouts to prevent the overfilling of sewers.
  3. To decrease risk of illness from extreme heat, local governments can expand public awareness campaigns and emergency response plans that focus on communities with less air conditioning or with access to department stores and other cool places.
  4. To protect the agricultural industry from drought, farmers can enhance the soil, invest in water-efficient irrigation and seed varieties and consider what crops will flourish here as the climate changes.

Let’s start branding the Midwest as safe, secure and stable places from climate risk, making climate resilience a key feature of our pitch to young people, commercial enterprises and retirees.

Some Midwest cities such as Milwaukee already are grasping the potential rewards. Milwaukee is selling its water (from the same beautiful lake we get ours) as “the freshwater capital of the world,” cites former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, and has attracted over 200 water technology businesses in the region.

Coastal communities do not have many choices. Midwest cities do. One is to promote their resiliency while working diligently to improve it so they can be a welcoming host to climate migrants – and their bright minds, diverse backgrounds and tax dollars. As Mayor Emmanuel Prepares to host the North America Climate Summit, welcoming mayors from coasts and fire zones, he and his midwest peers demonstrate great climate resilience.

This article originally appeared on Triple Pundit titled "Midwest Braces for Climate Migrations North

Big Questions about Potential Big Climate Fixes or Fiascos: Geoengineering

I’m at Climate Week in New York participating in the Green Bank Network, Sustainable Investment Forum, American Security Project and Moody's briefings. Each is centering on major innovation, swift uptake and deep penetration primarily relating to energy efficiency and renewables. They’re the same themes of every Climate Week I’ve attended in the last five years – and I’m bored. I’m seeking the most strategic contributions about how to accelerate, spread, scale up and deepen climate action, beyond a gentle linear uptake of greenhouse gas mitigation that is not nearly profound enough.  

So, I wonder: What would excite me to take away about climate action at Climate Week, thus exercising my brain to determine if we are making the profound changes required. Today, I’m thinking beyond the apparent limits of the corporate, government and nonprofit leaders presenting here to a global adaptation: geoengineering. It’s the deliberate modification of a planet's environment by adding or subtracting a resource or energy input on a massive scale. 

I’m continually intrigued by Harvard physicist and entrepreneur David Keith, who researches one particular geoengineering technique, A piece this month includes this abstract: Solar geoengineering is no substitute for cutting emissions, but could nevertheless help reduce the atmospheric carbon burden. In the extreme, if solar geoengineering were used to hold radiative forcing constant under RCP8.5, the carbon burden may be reduced by ~100 GTC, equivalent to 12–26% of twenty-first-century emissions at a cost of under US$0.5 per tCO2.

The American Geophysical Union is seeking public comment about geoengineering. Just this week, the Washington Times and the Indian Express investigated geoengineering in major articles. I examine these to investigate the pros and cons of industrial scale technologies for capturing carbon dioxide from the air. While geoengineering as cloud seeding becomes almost mainstream in efforts to protect mega outdoor events like the Olympics or to break droughts, it seems only a matter of time before we apply geoengineering on a bigger scale. Thus, I ask:

  • Who gets to test this big idea?
  • What is the size of the pilot, and is it on a local, regional, national or global scale?
  • When do we start the experiment? Now, before the oceans acidify and the glaciers melt irreversibly (in this millennium)?
  • Can we control these experiments? Who is to say a storm or drought that occurs after them experiments isn’t due to some other force? How will we know that consequences reflect geoengineering?
  • Who pays? Some claim the costs are declining, but can international bodies set priorities for the funds, and should they be the bank?
  • How shall we feel when a country or sector at extreme risk from climate change takes matters into its own hands?
  • Who should be the winners and the losers? Is it better or worst that we cannot necessarily predict the outcome? Do emerging economies get a break, or do the poor remain at greatest risk?

Many of my friends, leaders in climate solutions, shake their heads in disgust when I mention geoengineering. But if we in the climate leadership community are not investigating it, we will find ourselves behind others - government, corporate or others, who are. I encourage all of us to ask these questions and more!

This op-ed is based on a piece I wrote five years ago.

Time to Raise Water Rates

While hurricanes Harvey and Irma deluge floods of biblical proportions, 21.7 million Americans – 11 percent of the country – were living under drought conditions on August 1.  And drought conditions are expected to worsen. In fact, in Montana and North Dakota an unprecedented drought is crippling farms and forests.

The impact is dramatic. Not only does drought increase demand from water systems, it decreases snowpack, harming long-term water supplies. It sparks fires as forests and grasslands dry out. It influences the amount of food we grow – and, therefore, food prices.

Still, the issue isn’t simply climate change. Our water systems are under extreme stress from lack of investment to maintain them. It helps explain why the American Society of Civil Engineers rates the country’s drinking water infrastructure a D. It calculates that our aging and underperforming infrastructure serves as a drag on the U.S. economy – costing each American family $3,400 a year.

The right rate is good for the market

Usage rates will continue to be the primary revenue source for water systems. Consequently, utilities should be generating higher rates that cover their costs now and anticipate future water stress.  And while it may seem counterintuitive then for utilities to push for water conservation, it helps keep rates lower in the long run. For instance,  research shows that residents in Tucson, Ariz., pay water and wastewater rates at least 11.7 percent lower than if they hadn’t conserved water the past 30 years.

Getting customers used to higher water rates should be relatively easy, even if people are getting tired of escalating user fees, in general.  The average price of water in the U.S. is about $1.50 for 1,000 gallons. At that price, a gallon costs less than a penny. That compares with bottled water costs that average $1.22 a gallon and electricity at about 12 cents per kilowatt-hour. (The typical U.S. household uses about 908 kWh of electricity monthly.)

Water as a competitive advantage

What’s strange is that only three of the 10 most expensive urban water rate structures are in drought-stricken areas, and they’re in San Diego, Goleta and Monterrey, Calif. On the other hand, Milwaukee, considered by former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to be the “freshwater capital of the world,” has accumulated over 200 water technology businesses in the region, academic programs and economic development organizations all dedicated to advancing freshwater technologies. In the process, it has taken a comprehensive cluster-development approach to water.

Water rate structures can enable all of us to enjoy cheap, ample access to clean water while preventing the water hogs from being too piggy. Resources such as Financing Sustainable Water strive to demonstrate how to balance multiple objectives like long-term fiscal health, efficiency, affordability, etc.

Given that resilience includes good governance, decreased risks from climate change, improved public utility service delivery and enhanced economies, it seems smart to put water rate increases in place now to mitigate both climate stress and the persistent and ongoing aging of our infrastructure.

Image Sources: World Map

This post originally appeared on Triple Pundit:

Hurricane Harvey – a Tragic Yet Teachable Moment

Like Houston and its neighbors, many municipal governments are painfully aware they are at risk when an extreme storm hits. The devastation from Hurricane Harvey is of biblical proportions, and we mourn the loss of lives and livelihoods that it has caused. Still, there are valuable takeaways from it, and here are 10 that we should take to our city departments and city councils immediately:

  1. Coordinate federal, state, and local planning, building and rebuilding requirements and review them to prepare for such a disastrous storm. This should help speed up assistance for property owners seeking post-disaster assistance.
  2. Establish building restrictions and setbacks through zoning codes that consider a once-in-500-year weather-related catastrophe occurring. These changes will only affect future structures, but they will help protect a community for future generations. Also, set property owners’ expectations for the future value of their property, potentially including a “savings” clause so that a setback won’t remove all value from current lot owners.
  3. Prohibit private coastal armoring at the development-permit-process stage.
  4. Educate the public about the risks associated with coastal living and the ways in which building restrictions address those risks.
  5. Establish a policy about repetitive loss, limiting the number of times a building may be severely damaged by coastal events before it must be demolished.
  6. Put plans in place for a buyout program that would go into effect soon after a disaster for residents most affected by a flood or other weather-related disaster.

Speaking of buyouts, here are four actions that can be taken in Houston and other cities to help their flood-ravaged residents:

  1. Move quickly. As families are weighing their options and trying to find normalcy for the short and long haul, buyout programs are most successful when initiated immediately after a natural disaster
  2. Determine where you want development to occur and assist homeowners in relocating to those areas
  3. Identify those areas that have experienced repeated loss and prioritize the homes there for buy out. Also, consider where continuous areas of land can be returned to their “sponge” function with buyouts of contiguous properties turned into dry-until-rain floodplains. Make these areas multifunctional (e.g., parks, bike paths) to provide community amenities.
  4. Raise awareness about the benefits and costs of remaining in vulnerable areas, clarifying the benefits of acquisition. Be transparent and work with trusted nonprofits and community groups – listening first and then speaking in a unified voice to raise this awareness.

In addition, create a standard formula to determine property values that are fair and avoid costly and time-consuming negotiations.

Thanks to the “Managed Coastal Retreat Handbook” from the Columbia Center for Climate Change Law for many of these ideas.

This post originally appeared at Triple Pundit:

Image credit: The National Guard


Summer Reflections: Top Trends in Resilience

Summer is a great time to reflect on my field. Here are five resilience trends that repeatedly enter my client work.

1. Leaders’ sustainability concerns grow, especially about water

Based on a survey of over 1,000 “educated elites,” this year’s World Economic Forum Global Risks Report[i]  ranks extreme weather events, water crises , major natural disasters and the failure of climate change mitigation and adaptation among the top global risks in terms of impact – surpassed only by weapons of mass destruction.  

In the United States, floods[ii] are a growing risk in coastal and river-related environments as are communities supported by combined sewers. Local and state governments depend on the U.S. National Flood Insurance Program to help constituents with risk transfer.[iii] But that program is $23 billion in debt and must be reauthorized by Sept. 30.

Related local, county and state government concerns over water issues are reflected in recent resilience initiatives such as:  

·      National League of Cities: Resilient Water Management: Strengthening Communities & Growing Economies

·     International City/County Managers Association: Managing Disasters at the County Level: A Focus on Flooding

·     ICMA: County Water Systems: A focus on Developing Resilient Infrastructure

·     National Association of Counties: Naturally Resilient Communities online guide toolkit

Further, water and wastewater utilities foreseeing droughts as well as growing extreme precipitation and coastal storms near their capital assets, increasingly focus on resilience. These include activities that complement traditional infrastructure such as “green infrastructure” that uses landscaped areas to absorb and reuse water. For example, the Water Environment Federation[iv], and the American Water Works Association[v] possess resilience platforms for their utility manager members.

At the same time, governments are aware of their crumbling water infrastructure. In its biannual report card, the American Society of Civil Engineers gives a grade of D for water infrastructure and D+ for wastewater infrastructure.[vi] It should be noted that every dollar spent on resilience saves at least four dollars in future losses, estimates the Multihazard Mitigation Council.[vii]

2. Cities see resilience as a competitive advantage

Increasingly, cities embrace resilience. The U.S.-based Star Communities, which evaluates and certifies sustainable communities, and the Urban Sustainability Directors Network of 100-plus city sustainability leaders say no other issue commands as much attention as resilience. Also, two dozen of the 100 cities in the 100 Resilient Cities program pioneered by the Rockefeller Foundation are emphasizing resilience.

Why? Cities explain that resilience helps them to compete to attract more jobs and to be recognized as thriving, vibrant, and desirable places to live and do business.[viii]Politically, the ability to rebound quickly and successfully from shocks and stresses proves essential for a city to remain competitive, investable, and livable. Some cities, such as Milwaukee,[ix] promote their resilience as key levers for economic development and investment.

Indeed, municipal credit rating agencies are beginning to look at resilience-related risks in considering their ratings. For instance, they consider downgrades for communities at particular risk from rising sea levels, such as Norfolk, Va.[x] The agencies also are including climate adaptation in their suggested evaluations of green bonds.[xi]

Even the U.S. government’s withdrawal this spring from the climate change mitigation and adaptation-related “Paris Accord” allowed dozens of cities to publicly affirm their commitment to resilience goals.[xii]

3. Evidence grows of increasing U.S. natural disasters, environmental stressors

Over the past five years, Americans experienced at least 10 major disasters per year, each generating more than $1 billion in damages. That’s a doubling over the average number of such events from 1980-2016.[xiii] Global sea level since the early 1990s is rising at least at double the rates experienced in the previous century.[xiv] And the online real estate data firm Zillow calculates that 1.9 million U.S. homes are at risk (valued at $883 billion) from a six-foot rise in sea level.[xv]

Evidence of climate-driven changes is emerging across the U.S., including:  

·     Nuisance flooding during high and King Tides in Norfolk, Va.

·     Intense storms such as Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, worsened by warmer oceans and higher sea levels that created havoc in the Gulf and East coasts.  

·     Prolonged droughts and unusual seasonal patterns disrupting biological processes and agricultural production in the Midwest and California; and thousands of Americans suffering the effects of extreme heat, extended allergy seasons etc.[xvi]

Underscoring these trends, local predictive risk data increasingly is available from both consultants and government sources such as the National Climate Assessment[xvii], which includes downscaled projections and high-resolution spatial climate data.

4. Financing for resilience is an emerging investor category

Resilience has emerged as an investor category of interest in the U.S., even beyond impact investing for giant asset managers such as Blackrock[xviii] and investment advisors such as Mercer.[xix] Likely growth sectors are water, agriculture, healthcare, energy, coastal areas and financial services. 

As for government-specific investment options, they include:

·     Water efficiency products, desalination, reuse.

·     Drought-resistant seeds, drip irrigation, resilient food storage and organization.

·     Vaccines, resilient medical facilities for extreme weather events, worker cooling.

·     Combined heat and power, distributed generation.

·     Microgrids, backup power, energy storage.

·     Early warning systems, advanced weather modeling.

Select governments, primarily local, are investigating how to gain additional funding and financing for resilience projects, while also considering the integration of resilience into all of their investor decision-making. They are investigating risk assessment and insurance tools to help inform the market in their region as well as investor tools, such as green and catastrophe bonds. The District of Columbia’s green river project[xx] is a well-known resilience bond issue that received strong demand from investors.

5. Resilience goes beyond the environment: governance, policy, operations are key

At the core of most resilience work isn’t an environmental practice but strong governance and policy arrangements, from water management to urban planning. Significant focus rests with the intersectionality that resilience invites. Resilience’s comprehensive nature demands integrating multiple sectors, stakeholder needs, points of view, objectives and contexts within a system. This creates both tradeoffs and collateral benefits in planning, policymaking and project application. Since resilience is progressing from concept and planning to execution in some parts of the U.S., emphasis grows on developing well-functioning governments and forward-thinking policy to support resilience application.[xxi]

What resilience trends are you seeing in your work?








[viii] 2016 and 2017 Independent work for the 100 Resilient Cities project as well as for the Kresge Foundation’s Climate Adaptation Field Review.



[xi] S&P Global Ratings Direct Updated Proposal for a Green Bond Evaluation


[xiii] See the tracking of global and US insured losses from natural hazard events by the Insurance Information Institute at: For the US, NOAA currently tracks the number of extreme climatic events and their losses; see:

[xiv] Griggs, G., Arvai, J., Cayan, D., DeConto, R., Fox, J., Fricker, H.A., Kopp, R.E., Tebaldi, C., Whiteman, E.A. 2017. Rising Seas in California: An Update on Sea-Level Rise Science. Oakland, CA: California Ocean Science Trust.


[xvi] See the Third US National Climate Assessment for the most recent comprehensive assessment of these types of impacts: The Fourth Assessment is currently underway.







A Year after Paris Climate Agreement: Is Business Adapting?

A year ago, I noted that business was making adaptation progress. What a pleasure to report, as COP22 in Marrakesh closes up, that they have been true to their word and deed:

PepsiCo has exceeded their water sustainability goal

Mars is investing in climate risk management

Southpole Carbon is driving thought leadership on climate smart adaptation

National Adaptation Forum: Leaving Me with More Questions Than Answers – and That’s Good

This post was written for the Urban Resilience to Extremes Partnership:  

As with the best exchanges of ideas in higher education, the bi-annual National Adaptation Forum of the adaptation minded left me with more questions than answers. Four days, 100 people and over 60 sessions held the potential to solve my adaptation conundrums and unveil fresh areas to investigate. Here are five of the most challenging and exciting ideas gleaned from the three-day forum:

Managed Retreat

Anne Siders – social scientist, lawyer building adaptive governance solutions for climate change and a Stanford University Ph.D. candidate – cited Federal Emergency Management Administration data showing that over the past 17 years, over 1,000 communities in 40 cities have experienced managed retreat. See here

Now, in a general sense, MR is the deliberate setting back of the existing line of defense to obtain engineering and/or environmental advantages. More specifically, MR is the deliberate moving landward of the existing line of sea defense to obtain engineering or environmental advantages. It often refers to moving roads and utilities landward in the face of shore retreat.

So, the puzzler: Why are we not considering managed retreat for (to pick one of hundreds of communities that are candidates) Hollywood, Calif.?

Mental trauma and climate change

Joe Hostler, an Environmental Protection Specialist with the Yurok Tribe Environmental Program in Northwest California, revealed the multigenerational trauma among salmon fishers from the collapse of the Chinook and Coho salmon fisheries along the Klamath River. It promises misery for four fishing tribes along the river. Already a suicide crisis has emerged among young men bereft because they can’t provide for their families. This, of course, indicates that climate change, a contributor to the lack of salmon, can trigger mental health issues. 

The puzzler: What preventive measures must our public health systems adopt to prevent further suicides and mental health-related challenges?

Public health and climate change

Related to the mental health challenge, climate change is impacting public health – whether it’s concern that tropical diseases such as malaria and dengue to, say, Europe or North America or the impact of vanishing salmon on the lives of fishing tribes. This piece offered by Emily York, Climate & Health Program Lead at Oregon Health Authority, explores how health-related adaptation messages can inspire action.

The puzzler: How can the adaptation field piggyback on the general acceptability of public health advancing adaptation principles?

Water Risks

Raj Rajan, Ph.D., Ecolab’s RD&E vice president and Global Sustainability technical leader, offered a way to monetize water risks. And Trucost, the London company that estimates the hidden costs of companies’ unsustainable use of natural resources, has worked with industry to derive it. See here.

The puzzler: If major financial market influencers such as Trucost (now a part of Standard & Poor’s) are embracing ways to put a dollar value on risks to water, how can we increase the uptake in measures beyond carbon reduction for, say, green bond evaluation?

Adaptation and Build

Designers have many ways to conceive of adaptation in buildings and three different ways were presented. They included architects Perkins+Will’s RELi, presented by Senior Associate and architect Doug Pierce; Arup engineering consultants’ Weathershift, presented by Associate Principal Cole Roberts, and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED resilience credits.

The puzzler: With these assets available, is it time to move to city ordinances to make resilient design required as standard?

I don’t intend to wait another two years for NAF 2019 to find answers to these questions. Through work with my clients, I have opportunities to work with practitioners and academics to create and encourage solutions. 

The Next Era of Market Finance for Resilience

This post initially appeared on Meeting of the Minds

Walking through my Midwestern neighborhood, I spy innovations that suggest we are up to the challenges that a changing climate triggers. I see storm sewers with “rain blockers” that delay rainwaters’ approach to them during and after big rains; “permeable alleys” that absorb water through pores in their concrete; and bioswales of plants and spongy soil that absorb water runoff from roofs and roads. And underground a mile or so away, deep tunnels take precipitation from heavy rains and snow melts to large distant reservoirs to prevent overflows of sewage and storm water.

It’s a cornucopia of innovation with the city as a lab. And it’s paid for with an equally creative mix of funds, from consent decree-induced storm water rate increases; legal settlements after utility failures; federal and agency grants and incentives; and philanthropic partnerships with nonprofit community organizations.

What will it cost?

As we enter an era of demands on cities sparked by climate change–induced shocks and stresses, ingenuity by cities is in high demand. Various estimates of adaptation/resiliency[1] funding needs exist. For instance, the United Nations Development Program projects that adaptation costs could range from $140 billion to $300 billion by 2030 – and between $280 billion and $500 billion by 2050 (source). In the U.S., the Union of Concerned Scientists, a source for cost estimates to remedy such risks, estimates that sea-level rises of 13-to-20 inches by 2100 would threaten privately insured coastal property valued at $4.7 trillion (source).

In addition, the Risky Business initiative notes that increases in temperature, heat waves and humidity will drive up demand for energy and require the equivalent of 200 new power plants nationwide that could cost up to $12 billion a year by 2100 (source). Plus, we already know how costly it can be to respond to climate change. Hurricane Sandy in 2012 cost New York $32 billion in damage and loss.[2] Earlier, thunderstorms, tornadoes and flooding in the summer of 2008 caused more than $18 billion in damage and 55 deaths nationwide, primarily in the Midwest.

Communities need funds to shore up their critical infrastructure assets, such as transportation infrastructure, wastewater treatment, telecommunications networks and electricity and gas supply. Funds are required for projects where resilience is a primary function to enhance a particular geography (e.g., a new sea wall) and to boost traditional mainstream projects’ resiliency attributes (e.g., elevating an existing bridge). Both primary function and resilience projects can bring big paybacks. Global reinsurer Zurich calculates that for every dollar spent on targeted flood-risk reduction measures, five dollars can be saved by avoiding and reducing losses.

Where will cities find the funding stream to support inventive resilience-related projects that strengthen the capacity of governments, communities, institutions and businesses to survive, adapt, and grow in the face of increased climate-driven shocks and stresses? Based both on my role in the Global Adaptation and Resilience Investment work group and on dozens of conversations with resiliency fund leaders, resilience initiatives, hazard mitigation experts and regional collaborations (primarily in support of the Regional Plan Association’s Regional Resilience project for the Fourth Regional Plan entitled “Establishing a Regional Resilience Trust Fund”), here are three elements to a fresh era of market finance.

Collateral Benefits

In many communities, those most at risk from climate impacts are poor or disenfranchised residents. Their greater risk can reflect such factors as lower insurance penetration, fewer savings, language-barriers, fewer funds to dedicate to maintenance, more unemployment, less access to information and more assets in lower-lying areas. When planners focus on improving infrastructure and social structures in more vulnerable communities, projects reap collateral benefits, known as “resilience dividends.” In these situations, a future disruption doesn’t become a disaster and shorter-term economic and social benefits are realized. The key lies in setting priorities for proposals that decrease economic vulnerability along with climate vulnerability.

For practitioners, three practical ways build these collateral benefits into projects:

  • Include government officials, project developers and citizens in project planning to create engagement and literal and figurative buy-in.
  • Promote breaking traditional departmental silos to identify funding that can be used collaboratively.
  • Emphasize system benefits over project benefits to promote projects that have positive impacts across both the targeted and surrounding communities.

Benefit Cost Analysis

Many city leaders already have a long-term mindset. They plan for their city’s wellbeing 20, 30 and 50 years into the future. But they need to develop it in their financiers by modeling long-term benefits and costs through assessments that go beyond a normal benefit cost analysis and include elements of equity, land use, safety and stability. Typically, basic project BCAs evaluate direct financial benefits (e.g., project revenues or decreased operational costs) and direct byproducts (e.g., labor days, taxes from business transaction revenue, etc.) Resilience-oriented BCAs also calculate impacts that are avoided in the future as well as current benefits, such as outdoor community amenities, job creation for project maintenance, changes in property values, changes in public health, value of land-based amenities and positive and negative impacts on lower income or minority populations.

Several models for long-term benefit cost analysis are emerging:

  • The International Financial Stability Board’s Task Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosures is finalizing a yearlong process to, among other things, create measures of climate risk.
  • Standard and Poor’s system for “Evaluating the Environmental Impact of Projects Aimed at Adapting to Climate Change.”
  • The National Disaster Resilience Competition, Department of Housing and Urban Development. (While this BCA is considered a good practice because it focuses on finance loss and return in terms of both future risks and future benefits and is a U.S. government source, its discount rate is likely too short for most projects because it doesn’t reflect the useful project life of 50-100 years).

Lessons from developing-country adaptation finance:

The largest sources of approved funding for adaptation projects globally are currently the Pilot Program for Climate Resilience (PPCR) of the World Bank’s Climate Investment Funds (CIF), the Least Developed Countries Fund (LDCF) administered by the Global Environmental Facility (GEF), the Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF) and the Adaptation Fund (AF). New funds are being established, including the $353 million Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Program (ASAP) under the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). The largest adaptation fund is expected to be the Green Climate Fund (GCF) at $1 billion/year by 2020, which will split its funding equally between mitigation and adaptation projects, with initial allocations starting in 2016.

There are existing market-finance groups. For instance, the P8 Group consists of 12 of the world’s leading pension funds collectively managing $3 trillion. P8’s aim is to create viable investment vehicles to simultaneously combat climate change and promote sustainable growth in developing countries. New entrants to the developing world adaptation finance marketplace include the Rockefeller Foundation/Asian Development Bank Urban Climate Change Resilience Partnership.

Just as development finance options do in emerging economies, in the US, in collaborations with market investors, cities can structure deals where they take the first loss position, with the mid debt taken up by a patient capital (such as pensions) and the senior debt by institutional investors.

Potential Sources of Finance

Both collaboration and long term BCAs should not only entice the finance community, they should make it more politically feasible to ensure that existing budgets and funds – such as general obligation bonds and rate-payer revenue – can be used for resilience projects. While cities often are wary of increasing their general obligation bonds, credit raters are rational actors and more of them are mindful of resilience. Simply consider Standard &Poor’s recent reports on the impact of climate risk on sovereigns and corporations. In any case, these features should make financing with any mechanism easier.

Here are some other funding mechanisms to consider[3]:

  • Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) investments: Banks have shifted away from meeting their CRA goals with their general market share in low-value mortgages in the post-housing bust. The statute is flexible enough to allow investments for resilience that improve communities.
  • EPA Supplemental Environmental Projects (SEP): Organizations (more than 600 across the country) such as utilities that are fined for violating various environmental statutes should finance resiliency solutions process across the states and territories.
  • EPA Clean Water State Revolving Fund (CWSRF) and Drinking Water State Revolving Fund (DWSRF): for local and regional infrastructure agencies. 
  • FEMA Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP): Funds for projects that mitigate future hazards after a president declares a disaster area can receive such monies.
  • FEMA Disaster Deductible Program (DDP): A funding model under consideration by FEMA to promote risk-informed decision-making to build resilience and reduce the costs of future events. (N.B. open for public review until April, 2017)
  • Green Banks: With tools such as green bonds and property assessed clean energy (PACE) programs, Green Banks are well placed to pivot to adaptation if their legislated authority enables the change.
  • Green Bonds: Already funding resilience, Climate Bond Initiative (CBI) and others are working to introduce adaptation/resiliency components of all Green Bonds, and Standard & Poor’s has established a green bond rating system that includes resilience elements. 
  • HUD Section 108 Loan Guarantees: HUD’S existing borrowing authority.
  • HUD Community Development Block Grants (CDBG): Relatively flexible funding for community improvement that has a recent history of focus on resilience.
  • Patient Capital: Investors with longer-term perspectives, such as pension funds, where the expectation of market return enjoys a longer timeframe.
  • Philanthropy including existing funders Kresge Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation, and Climate Resilience Fund (CRF).
  • Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE): With reforms, it could become a Property Assessed Resiliency (PAR) program where debt and assets transferred with the property.
  • Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs): PPP projects require long-term commitment and appropriate allocation of risk and, thus, are a fit for some adaptation projects.
  • Social Impact Bonds: Investors with longer-term market returns who make payments when targeted social outcomes are achieved.
  • Special Climate Change Fund (SCCF): Designed to finance and execute activities, programs and measures that relate to climate change in generally higher income countries.
  • Taxes and Fees: Local governments can establish special resilience districts that assess taxes or fees. The California Earthquake Authority (CEA) is one model.


In today’s political climate, how can we pull this off? It is key to brand your resilience projects with a positive message (and offering solutions to a catastrophe). Your resilience projects promote safety, security and stability, and you can illuminate how they improve well-being of people, communities and property. Resilient infrastructure serves as a foundation less likely to crumble, flood, catch fire, be inundated, buckle or otherwise fail from the extremes of climate change. Herein lies a future that markets will depend on.

[1] In the most basic definitions, “adaptation” is when an entity evolves to address changing conditions, while “resiliency” is the ability to bounce back and become stronger in response to changes.

[2] Union of Concerned Scientists, Climate Change in the US, the Prohibitive Costs of Inaction The Star-Ledger New Jersey On-Line: “Cuomo: Sandy Cost NY, NYC $32b in Damage and Loss”

[3] Special Thanks to Nick Shufro with JulZach Resilience for collaborating to compile these resources.


Make Change through Hope not Fear

Sometimes, you chance upon a speaker whose message is so relevant, rich and rewarding that you feel the need to pass it on. So, let me tell you about Rebecca Henderson. She is the John and Natty McArthur University professor at Harvard with a joint appointment at its business school in the General Management and Strategy areas.  Rebecca explores how organizations respond to large-scale technological shifts, most recently in regard to the environment and energy. 

I met her in early April at a workshop at Harvard’s Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure, where I presented the business case for sustainable infrastructure. For her part, Rebecca gave participants a lightning-fast overview of her research about why change in corporations is hard.

Here are the highlights of how leaders generally respond to suggestions that their organizations become more sustainable. She cited four main responses – and they illuminate why organizational change is difficult.    

1.    Denial. It’s a leader’s first line of defense. Consider then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s comment when first spying the Apple iPhone: “There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance.” 

2.    Interested, but dismissive. “I’m going to make any money.”

3.    Not equipped to take your advice. “I don’t have the resources to make the change now.”

4.    Overloaded. “The business is too busy to take up change now.”

Still, Rebecca thinks that change as grand as a sustainability transition can happen. Here’s how she explains it:

1.    Deal with denial. Change through hope, not fear. Rather than approaching an organization with the contention it “will go bankrupt if you don’t do this,” which invokes a disagreeable “threat rigidity,” make your case from the standpoint of hope. The key is to get people away from their official view of the future, which they may see as a linear extrapolation from where they’ve been. 

Conduct a real-time scenario analysis with key decision-makers, asking them, “What are the major uncertainties that keep us up at night.” Create a two-by-two matrix of possible scenarios (renewables expensive/renewables cheap; regulators move/regulators don’t move, etc.) Ask participants how they want to place their bets. Put probabilities around the matrix. They are likely to see that the official future they worry about has less than a 50-50 chance.

This helps them think systematically about the official world. While the matrix and probabilities don’t say the official future is wrong, it does suggest you probably cannot see the future if you are stuck thinking it will be like the past.


2.    Make Money: Trigger innovative thinking. Find someone in the organization who has something to win if you convince them to lead the sustainability drive.  If you find an organizational home and someone you can make a real success, it could help trigger innovative thinking and action. There’s still a lot of low-hanging fruit in the sustainability world because people have not been looking for it.

 If we can optimize systems in different ways, we can see the system differently to identify new properties. We are likely to find there is money to be made. The secret corporate weapon is this: the most powerful ways to do new things is to really want to do them. And normally what you really want is more money.  So, the key is to align and keep a ruthless focus on the bottom line as a reason why sustainability is important.

3.    Equip to lead by de-shaming. Most people are ashamed to talk about sustainability in public because so many decisions are made at the margins. The key is to use the incredibly powerful moments of talking about change over a beer. This will drive change. Indeed, every investment is loaded with judgement, so unofficial conversations can have a lot of impact.  

Rebecca believes that the demand for sustainability is so great that people who lead it “are going to make a lot of money and make a huge difference.” About the present time in the U.S., she posits that:

·      The private sector is good at supporting government change since innovation brings costs down and demonstrations help make change acceptable.

·      Businesses that act collectively (e.g., raising wages) through transparent collusion can bring about change beneficial to society.

·      Business is one of the most trusted institutions.

·      As soon as industry starts to cooperate and collaborate, they are reminded that a little government is really useful.  At that moment, she believes, “We will rediscover the power of well-run government.”

Equity, Climate and Corporations

Equity and the Private Sector

I’m working on a review of the U.S. adaptation field for a client – and a persistent theme keeps surfacing with the potential to change my work significantly. It’s the broken interface between equity and adaptation.  The project is raising my awareness about an issue my corporate clients seem to give little more than lip service to: the inequality of climate risk. 

Yet, I wonder if, perhaps, I just wasn’t hearing them properly. 

Of course, the development community speaks of the disproportionate risk from climate change confronting the world’s poorest people. I have written before about their plight. And the World Bank’s Turn Down the Heat: Confronting the New Normal report, persuasively surmises that climate change will erode progress made on reducing poverty. It is sobering that over the past 30 years, one dollar of every three spent on development has been lost as a result of climate risk,. according to USAID and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Academics have come to similar conclusions. A joint Stanford-Berkley study reveals that in a climate-changed world. global incomes could be 23 percent lower by 2100.

We know that the long-term impact of lower incomes relates to shrinking global markets and, thus, has an impact on economies and the corporate sector worldwide.

But do corporations care about inequity?  It’s a critical question since one of the key findings of this year’s World Economic Forum Global Risks Report, based on a global risk perception survey of over 1000 ‘educated elite,” is that inequality and “polarization” now rank among the top three as interconnected underlying trends influencing global risks.

I missed this finding while focusing on another pervasive trend – the importance of environmental risk – that the report demonstrates more clearly than ever. The report assesses 30 separate global risks divided into five categories: economic (blue), environmental (green), geopolitical, societal and technological. The pattern I detect is that economic risk impacts dominated earlier this century before environment risk impacts took its place more recently.

WEF’s Risk trends interconnections map illuminates that rising inequality has become the most important driver of global risks. “And the most important pairing of interconnected risks was that of unemployment and social instability,” It noted.

I put the question about corporations’ degree of care about inequality to a plenary of private sector leaders at ResCon recently and got a wide variety of responses. They ranged from “a rising tide lifts all boats” and “since the election, I’ve called a few meetings to discuss how we are helping or hurting social inequity” to “inequity is the largest challenge that cities face.”

WEF concludes that we need to “boost growth but also reform market capitalism to help to mend the increasingly pronounced fractures that can be seen in many societies.” 

Reforming market capitalism is a bold statement – more apropos of a grassroots group – but, personally, I certainly am glad to have WEF on the case and eager to continue to pursue equity actions with my clients.

As Feds Devalue Science, It’s Time To Take It to the City

This post initially appeared in Triple Pundit:


A pivotal conversation in Chicago galvanized my career in adaptation.  A group of scientists from Washington, D.C., were visiting as part of a roadshow preceding the rewrite of the National Climate Assessment. After an hour of posturing and talking at us, they asked if there were questions.

I couldn’t help myself.  I gave them a verbal licking for assuming that we practitioners knew nothing of science – or anything really.  It shushed the room and opened the door to many excellent speaking engagements, where I often was the token practitioner on a panel of scientists.

During one such panel session, after a climate scientist wowed a room of Doctors Without Borders physicians by describing changes expected from extreme heat, vector-borne disease and extreme weather events, the first question to the scientist was: “What should we do about these risks?” The scientist responded, “I don’t know.  I make science.  You guys are the ones with the solutions.”


Perhaps in this era when science seems so devalued at the federal level, we possess an exceptional opportunity to bring science to cities.  Indeed, many cities wish they had the bandwidth to increase the evaluation of evidence to shore up their decisions.

Not all scientists are averse to digging into local issues and suggesting solutions.  When I led implementation of the Chicago Climate Action Plan, I benefited from two incredible science rock stars who prepared the city’s climate risk assessment: Katherine Hayhoe and Don Wuebbles. And, of course, the New York City Panel on Climate Change is a respected and relatively well-known local scientific engagement.

So, if you’re frustrated that U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations might be rolled back, recognize that local government can be a way to control private-sector environmental harms. If you’re worried that federal data and tools have been removed from the public domain, take your data and tools to a city’s public domain. If you’re unsure how you can make an impact on the world without the federal government’s support, consider all that cities have done and have the power to do.

While scientists and their supporters rearrange their packed schedules to participate in the March for Science later this spring “to support and safeguard the scientific community,” I encourage you to look up your mayor’s office and make an appointment for a chat. And I do mean your mayor. It doesn’t have to be Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel or any big-city chief executive. What about the mayor of your mom’s town?  You could return as the prodigal son or daughter.

When you secure a meeting, prepare a three-sentence overview of what you do. Not a book or even a short bio. After brief introductions, start the meeting with such questions as:

  • What sort of science do you need?
  • What department heads are using science in their work right now?
  • How can a scientist be helpful to your work?
  • What innovation are you most proud of?
  • What most needs work?

Then listen. If in this first conversation you talk 15 percent of the time and listen the other 85 percent, you have succeeded.

And please don’t follow up with half a dozen peer-reviewed articles that raise complex questions and end with complex questions in tiny print. That just reminds your city friends of the gulf between your research and their practice.

Instead, suggest ways to reframe their questions, offer ideas for solutions from the literature, put them in touch with knowledgeable scientific colleagues, and create your own “support and safeguards for the scientific community” — in your actual community.

Now, proceed, scientists, to make some science in the city. You might find it invigorating.

Image credit: Pexels

Joyce Coffee, LEED AP, is president of Climate Resilience Consulting,, working with leaders to create strategies that protect and enhance markets and livelihoods through adaptation to climate change. She also collaborates with scientists at Arizona State University on the Urban Resilience to Extremes Strategic Research Network. Previously, she worked with the University of Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiatives’ “Science Serving Society” as managing director of the Global Adaptation Initiative.  Earlier in her career, she led implementation of the Chicago Climate Action Plan @joycecoffee.

Moonshot Musings

We at Climate Resilience Consulting asked our network for their climate resilience moonshot – their ambitious idea and grand vision for achieving a resilient future as the Apollo program did in landing the first astronaut on the moon. The responses were inspiring for our future. I share several here to fuel your imagination and forge your impactful idea.   

From a research scientist based in North America with expertise in adaptation measurement:

Change the method for assessing investment time frames to correspond to the lifetime of the project’s impact. Integrated coastal zone management, water management, flood management and forest management project impacts may be even longer than the end of this century. Many of these projects impact markets. Yet most investment decisions are annual at best.

From a member of the UNFCCC Adaptation Committee based in Europe:

When we think of adaptation, we often focus on big events and focus on a time horizon of a decade or two. For instance, most National Adaptation Plans have a time horizon of 2030. We should look even further into the future for the many relevant slow onset climate change events – including sea level rise, loss of snow cover, loss of permafrost, loss of glaciers, desertification and ocean acidification – that have significant impacts in the long term and need to be addressed now to keep the challenges manageable.

From a City sustainability director in North America:

Use a gas tax for a federal, state or city revolving fund for resilience.  This would be a way to generate revenue, creating a pool of capital to fund “unbankable” resilience.


From a community leader bridging between people in vulnerable communities and local government in North America: 

Create a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) mechanism, Property Assessed Resilience (PAR).  Like PACE, PAR financing would stay with the building upon sale and could be shared with tenants. State and local governments could sponsor PAR financing to create jobs, promote economic development, and protect the environment through projects related to flood, heat and fire mitigation.


From a water conservation leader in North America: 

Create a Work Projects Administration-type jobs program, similar to the Depression-era program that kickstarted jobs, to address the millions of acres that need to be re-treed in the American West.  Along with increasing water security and decreasing fire risk, jobs would include dead tree removal, biomass technology creation and new tree planning.

What is your moonshot?

New Year’s Solution: Putting adaptation out of business

 My business started with an intention I set 10 years ago to gain enough knowledge, experience, moxie and network to establish a climate adaptation firm. It reminds me of the power of the self-help genre that tells us to write down our goals, create vision boards, and send our big ideas out into the universe.


So in the month of New Year’s resolutions, here’s the next big goal I’m setting for myself: In the next 10 years, put the adaptation business out of business.


My vision is this: every housing, health, water, food, transportation, energy, communications and economic development decision we make anticipates a climate-changed future.


Adaptation needs to be a part of the routine!  And, like the green building movement it needs to be not only acceptable, but expected, that every professional that makes decisions that impact our future (that’s all of us) thinks adaptation first. 


Right now, Adaptation is a movement, it’s a special attribute. It’s embraced by a minority. 


But in 10 years, we’ll define success as adaptation being intrinsic, not unique.


And with that, all of our new year’s resolutions will be easier to achieve:

We’ll be healthier

We’ll drink more and cleaner water

We’ll have more outdoor areas to exercise

We’ll put our families first

We’ll take more calculated risks

We’ll have a better quality of life…

And we’ll have a lot more reasons so smile more!


Happy New Year!

Chicago: Taking Tips from the Screwworm

This blog originally appeared on Triple Pundit.  See here

Given the typical irreverence of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, I’m pondering something I think he might like to know: He could be the Screwworm Mayor.

Some of you may know that the lowly screwworm threatened Southwestern cattle in the 20th century, decimating Texas ranchers’ livestock with the wasting disease it triggered.  The tenacity of those hard-scrabble ranchers in the Southwest Cattleman’s Association eradicated this invasive pest by introducing of millions of screwworm flies sterilized by radioactivity. (You with me, Rahm.) The Association contends that this was the most beneficial 20th-century program to livestock producers than any other.*

As science and policy swirls around the introduction of sterile male mosquitoes to help eliminate the global scourge of malaria in some regions, Chicago has its local version.  Here’s our story: In 1986, the mosquito Aedes albopictus – also known as the Asian tiger mosquito – arrived by way of standing water in used tires (which had come full circle from stripped rubber rings in the U.S., then via ship to Asia to be retread and home again) and bamboo.

The mosquito survived in Chicago, despite being well outside its native range, because of the urban heat island effect that increases the temperature of urban areas with lots of black, heat-trapping surfaces. (Think: tar paper roofs and asphalt roads and parking lots.)  In the meantime, while shipping rules for tires and bambooprevented the introduction of more of these pests, every year (10 generations in a mosquito’s life) some live on in Chicagoland, contributing to our mosquito population. As the climate changes, the range for this mosquito will move north.

What if Chicago established a Midwest Mosquito Infertility Association, introducing sterile males specifically for this invasive pest, thus halting that progression?

While mosquito fertility is a topic of much debate, the unique situation of Tigris mosquitos in Chicago gives us a chance to control this experiment and address two of the biggest issues in that debate: One, the population affected isn’t over an entire continent or state (making it harder to eradicate, given the scale of effort), and two, the population is not native to the area (thereby, the web of life does not depend on its existence to keep itself in balance).

Let’s give those tiger mosquitos a wrangle!

*Update:  Those sterile males may need to be called back into service.  The Washington Post reported this fall:  Screwworm outbreak in Florida deer marks first U.S. invasion of the parasite in 30 years.