The University of Arizona

How Are Western U.S. Cities Adapting to Climate Change?

June 1, 2012
Author Profile: 

This week, the University of Arizona in Tucson hosted the 2nd International Conference on Climate Adaptation. Presenters in science, policy, and industry came from around the world to discuss topics ranging from adapting water management to using the arts as a form of climate adaptation. What I was most interested in, however, was the topic of how western U.S. cities are adapting to climate change and how these cities can work together as a region to adapt to common impacts of climate change.

Representatives from three cities—Tucson, Flagstaff, and Salt Lake City—explained how climate change is expected to impact each city, and how each has begun to adapt to these potential threats. They painted a picture of a world with warmer temperatures, reduced precipitation, and earlier snowmelt leading to reduced water availability. More intense wildfires will threaten local economies, as well as wildlife and vegetation, and could potentially result in landslides and increased erosion. All three cities rely heavily on tourism, which may also be affected by climate change.

Over the years, each city has developed and implemented different strategies for reducing emissions and adapting to climate change. The City of Tucson, for instance, developed a greenhouse gas inventory in 1998, and in 2001 Pima County developed the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan. In 2006, the city council and mayor endorsed the U.S. Mayor’s Climate Protection Agreement—a national effort of 500 cities developed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors—and the city established the Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development. A Sustainability Framework and a Climate Change Committee were established by the city in 2008 and 2009, respectively. In 2011, the city developed an Impact and Vulnerability Assessment, and later this year, it plans to release an adaptation plan.

Flagstaff established a formal commitment to climate action in 2006 and initiated climate adaptation efforts a little earlier than Tucson in 2009. In 2011 and 2012, the city conducted a vulnerability and risk assessment of city operations, and in May it released the City of Flagstaff Resiliency and Preparedness Study. The study estimates the degree of risk and the potential impacts of climate changes on 115 areas of city operations. In addition, it offers policy recommendations for reducing risk and increasing resilience within city operations.

Salt Lake City established a formal commitment to climate adaptation in 2011, but has been practicing water-related planning and preparedness since 1950 and emergency preparedness since 2007. In 2012, the city prepared an operations risk assessment, and the mayor has declared that by the end of this year, the city will have a climate adaptation plan in place.

All of these cities have made individual, internal efforts to adapt to climate change impacts, but all will be impacted by climate change in similar ways. They are all predicted to get warmer and drier, and will likely face water shortages, more intense wildfires, and poorer air quality. So can these cities work together as a region to face the issue of climate change and adapt to its impacts?

According to the representatives at the adaptation conference, they can. In 2010, these three cities initiated the Western Adaptation Alliance through the Institute for Sustainable Communities. The alliance now contains seven additional member communities—Aspen, Boulder County, Denver, Fort Collins, Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Park City—and is not designed to set up a regional plan, but rather to allow communities with common threats to learn from each other and build a capacity to adapt within a larger community setting. Working as a group will allow the members to leverage strength as a region and to marshal federal support for the whole region that will benefit each community individually. The alliance is hoping to create a network for support in case individual cities need advice or support in implementing adaptation policies. Right now, the alliance only meets occasionally; they are working to acquire funding to be able to meet more regularly and to grow outside of the core cities and invite more cities, especially from New Mexico, to join.

Cities are on the front lines of climate change, and can’t afford to waste time on politics before dealing with the impacts. They have been adapting to weather extremes and climate variability for years, be it setting controlled fires to prevent large wildfires or creating green spaces to decrease the urban heat island effect. If Tucson, Flagstaff, and Salt Lake City are examples of how western U.S. cities are adapting, then it appears that they are beginning to develop and implement adaptation strategies. And they’re even beginning to work together as a region to develop more ideas for how to adapt to the common threats of climate change.  Let’s just hope this enthusiasm continues.


Representatives at the adaptation conference:

-          Stephen Adams, Institute for Sustainable Communities

-          Gregg Garfin, University of Arizona, City of Tucson

-          Stephanie Smith, City of Flagstaff

-          Renee Zollinger, Salt Lake City


Very interesting stuff,

Very interesting stuff, especially the regional collaborations. So... how can the arts be used as a form of climate adaptation?

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.