In a recent Stanford Social Innovation Review post, “Disadvantaged Populations Feel the Heat,” my colleague Karim Al-Khafaji described some research that explores the effects of climate change on elderly and low-income people, as well as those with medical conditions in the United States. Since then, we’ve talked with leaders of communities that are on the leading edge of climate adaptation and helping residents deal with the effects of climate change. One of our emerging hypotheses is that there are things that community leaders can do to incorporate climate impacts into their normal operations, without adding materially to local budgets.

Consider what’s taking place in Chula Vista, California, a city of 247,000, located seven miles from San Diego. While the city doesn’t have a high percentage of low-income families (the median household income is $72,326), it is a diverse community that includes a range of ethnicities and income levels. It also has a waterfront with a lot of recreational, commercial, and municipal infrastructure that could be vulnerable to storm surges and sea level rise, as well as a number of low-income communities close to the coast.

Chula Vista also has the most well developed climate adaptation plan that we’ve seen to date.

Brendan Reed is Chula Vista’s Environmental Resource Manager. He says that Chula Vista was an early mover on the climate change issue – primarily focused on mitigation at first. He told us that the conversation on adaptation was catalyzed by the publication of “Focus 2050,” a study on climate impacts in the San Diego region that was commissioned by the San Diego Foundation. The study provides information on how climate change will affect things such as temperature and water availability, wildfires, and public health, with a level of detail that makes it possible for local leaders to have some idea of what action to take.

After the release of the study, the Chula Vista City Council directed staff to form a Climate Change Working Group, which included representatives from business, education, environmental groups, and community residents. In May of last year, this group published a set of 11 climate adaptation strategies that the city is now implementing. These strategies include practical steps like improving community preparedness for extreme heat events, promoting the reuse of rainwater and graywater, and educating businesses about how to reduce their risks and costs from local climate change impacts.

The estimated cost of implementation is $554,000 for three years, then $337,000 annually after that. Given that Chula Vista’s 2011-2012 budget is about $290 million, this investment seems both feasible and worthwhile.

(Read the city’s “Implementation Progress Report,” released last April.)

So what are some of the keys to Chula Vista’s success?

Sustainability is a core community value. Chula Vista has a strong culture of sustainability—apparent in its building codes, energy policies, recycling programs, and more—and had climate mitigation on the agenda early, in the 1990s.
The San Diego Foundation is an honest broker. The foundation’s study was critical not only because of the content, quality, and scale of the analysis, but also because the source was highly credible.
There is broad stakeholder engagement in the Climate Change Working Group. This effort was completely community-led, and the resulting recommendations were owned and disseminated by community members.
Quick wins built momentum. Some examples: The city’s CLEAN Business program recognizes local businesses, which voluntarily “green” their operations. As part of the climate adaptation efforts, the city revised the existing CLEAN Business program to incorporate info about lowering their risk and costs from climate change. Also, the city passed a Cool Roof policy for new homes. City staff found that there was a very small average incremental cost for utilizing cool roof material ($75), but the energy cost savings resulted in a quick payback for the new homeowners (less than 3 years in many instances). 

While justifiably proud of the progress that Chula Vista has made, Brendan noted some challenges for communities that want to address climate change through increasing resilience (a community’s ability to adapt to the effects of climate change):

Metrics for performance. It’s relatively easy to track activities such as the number of trees planted or square feet of cool roofs, but it’s much harder to know whether the community has become more resilient to the effects of climate change. Much work remains to be done to develop good measures of resilience and to link activities to improvement.
Modeling the cost/benefit of resilience investment. While we’ve highlighted actions that are relatively inexpensive to implement, there are many potential adaptation actions that require significant investment (for example, building a seawall to protect a development against rising sea levels). Given uncertainties associated with climate change impacts and the lack of effectiveness measures, this modeling will be incredibly challenging.

Chula Vista is a great example of what’s possible when community leaders think creatively about incorporating climate adaptation into their core work. We’d love to hear about other examples, particularly in areas that have a high percentage of disadvantaged (and therefore particularly vulnerable) communities. Please continue to send your comments and suggestions our way, and we’ll keep going with our research.