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Climate Adaptation

The impacts of climate change “are already affecting communities, natural resources, ecosystems, economies, and public health” (Executive Order (EO) 13653, Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change). These impacts can be managed through adaptation, defined as “an adjustment in natural or human systems in anticipation of or response to a changing environment in a way that effectively uses beneficial opportunities or reduces negative effects” (EO 13653). Adapting to climate change is a complex, long term process that requires personnel to work together across their organization, as well as with any external stakeholders.

Within the federal government, agencies are required to build on recent progress and continue to prepare for climate change-related risks through the development of Agency Adaptation Plans, a strategy which can also be applied to the private sector. Agency Adaptation Plans “evaluate the most significant climate change related risks to, and vulnerabilities in, agency operations and missions in both the short and long term, and outline actions that agencies will take to manage these risks and vulnerabilities” (EO 13653, Section 5). In addition, agencies must also comply with the Guiding Principles for Sustainable Buildings, which include a requirement to “Assess and Consider Climate Change Risks.”  Many agencies are currently developing infrastructure vulnerability assessments and tools, some of which may be applicable across other agencies. In an effort to identify and communicate facility and supply chain risks associated with climate change, the General Services Administration (GSA) conducted several climate change workshops. These workshops harnessed best practices from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and climate information and expertise from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP). GSA’s initiative was based on NASA’s seven-step process for conducting resilience and adaptation climate risks workshops. It is just one option for conducting a climate risks planning activity, and you may need to make modifications to this process to meet your organizations’ needs.

The following climate change risk workshop process combines best practices from the federal adaptation community and can help users to identify climate risks and develop strategies to secure vulnerable real property investments and supply chains. The workshop process and its results can also help to create a feedback loop where new information discovered during the process can lead to better informed next steps, an important part of adaptive management.

Climate Risks Workshop Process

When selecting participants for the workshop, be sure to invite people who either influence or control the affected assets (like asset, policy, or contract managers), as well as climate change specialists who can help to point out vulnerabilities and answer any climate-specific questions. Incorporation of climate risk factors into organizational processes is new to many, and this process can help to build the capacity, capability, and confidence in your team.

1. Conduct inventory of systems & assets

Step 1 consists of a scoping exercise to inventory the systems and assets you will focus on during the workshop. It is best to keep the scope small so the team can focus on developing strong adaptation strategies later in the process. For example, focus on a single critical site or facility and product or service that is critical to the activities performed at that location. “Critical” means that your organization’s operations would be compromised without access to the site, facility, product, and/or service. It is helpful to have a small team conduct this step prior to bringing the entire workshop team together.

2. Identify current and future climate hazards

The team identifies climate hazards that currently are or could in the future impact the region where the selected assets are located. For example:

  • Extreme heat
  • Extreme precipitation
  • Drought
  • Sea level rise

USGCRP’s two-page Regional Climate Trends and Scenarios Summaries outline the observed and future climate trends for the eight National Climate Assessment regions (see figure). These summaries can help you to quickly identify significant future climate risks. As with Step 1, it is helpful to have a small team identify the climate hazards before the entire workshop team meets.

Picture of Climate Assessment Regions Figure 1: Climate Assessment Regions.2

3. Characterize risk of climate on systems and assets

There are two parts to Step 3. The first part involves establishing the baseline impacts of the climate hazards (Step 2) on your selected assets (Step 1).

  • What are the impacts of the climate hazards on the assets? Focus on one climate variable at a time.
  • Are there any critical thresholds of the asset? For example, might the asset fail once temperatures reach a certain point?
  • Are there any current adaptation actions underway to manage these impacts?
  • If there currently are adaptation actions underway, are they identified in any plans? If so, who is responsible for ensuring these actions are completed?

During the second part of this step, characterize the likelihood and magnitude of the impacts on the asset and identify the type of response that is necessary. Likelihood can range from low to virtually certain or already occurring:

Likelihood of Climate Impact Occurrence
Low Likelihood
Moderate Likelihood
High Likelihood
Virtually Certain/Already Occurring

The magnitude can range from low to moderate to high. An example is provided below for a critical service:

Magnitude of Consequence of Climate Impact
Low No to little interruption to critical services/operations
Moderate Moderate disruption of service (including number of people impacted and duration of disruption), but easily repaired
High Significant disruption or loss of service/operations that can either a) not be easily repaired or b) would last for a prolonged period of time

Once you identify the likelihood and magnitude, you can then determine the type of response needed using the matrix below:

Picture of Climate Impact Figure 2: Climate Impact.3

4. Develop initial adaptation strategies and approaches

Develop initial adaptation strategies that can manage the identified climate risks to your assets, focusing on the impacts. Consider the following:

  • Characterizing the Asset/System
    • Is the asset/system already under stress (e.g., slow loss of habitat, aging infrastructure, etc.)?
    • How well can the asset accommodate changes in climate? (e.g., is the infrastructure designed to address a range of future climate conditions?)
  • Adaptation Strategy Development
    • What type of adaptation strategy are you developing? Is it addressing the maintenance and operation of a facility, capital investment decisions, policy, or procurement and contracting activities?
    • If existing adaptation actions have been identified, are they viable long-term solutions to the climate impacts?
    • Are there options that can be employed to accommodate the changes in climate? Are they costly? Would they take a long time?
    • How can you measure success and determine whether the strategies are successful over time?
  • Adaptation Strategy Implementation
    • What are the implementation steps for the strategies?
    • Who makes the decision whether to implement the strategy or not?
    • Who will be responsible for implementing the strategy?
    • Is there anything that needs to be completed before implementation can begin? Does any data need to be collected, research conducted, policies changed, or awareness training launched?
    • Will implementation involve several separate projects over multiple years? Would it be an add-on to something already underway?
    • Which stakeholders should be involved in the implementation process? Are there other stakeholders who will be impacted by implementation of the strategy?

5. Identify funding sources

Consider how much these strategies will cost to implement and what funding sources might be available.

  • What is the estimated cost of each strategy? This could be as simple as identifying the potential cost range (e.g., $1-5 million).
  • Do funding sources already exist, and if so, what is the process to request funding for the strategies?
  • What other funding sources might be available internally or externally? What is the timing for requesting and receiving funds through these sources?

6. Identify opportunities for coordination

Consider what partnerships you can leverage for implementing the adaptation strategies. This could include both internal and external partnerships and might involve various levels of the government (e.g., federal, state, and local) and private sector partners. Potential partners may also include your customers.

7. Integrate into management and planning

Finally, figure out how you can integrate the strategies you developed into existing processes, plans, funding mechanisms or activities. The team should consider the integration process over various time scales:

  • What can be done today to incorporate considerations of climate risks and adaptation strategies?
  • How can you integrate climate risk considerations and the strategies you developed into future management and planning processes at your organization?

The team should also discuss institutional or policy barriers that could impede implementation of the strategies, identify opportunities to address these barriers, and consider any other internal or external partners that should be involved in the process.

IMPORTANT NOTE: As you integrate and implement strategies into your organization’s processes, you will need to monitor and assess whether the strategies are working and whether the strategies need tweaking based on any new information.

1: U.S. Global Change Research Program Adaptation Science Interagency Working Group. FY 2013 Federal Agency Climate Change Adaptation Plans: Summary of Research and Information Needs. August 2013. http://downloads.globalchange.gov/adaptation/FY2013_Federal_Adaptation_Plan_Summary.pdf 2: U.S. Global Change Research Program. Widespread climate-related impacts are occurring now and are expected to increase. Washington D.C. UNT Digital Library. http://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc29346/. Accessed March 4, 2014. 3: http://www.mwcog.org