The Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy Network

June 29, 2017


Climate adaptation requires planning for anticipated climate threats to reduce the potential impacts of a changing climate on people, infrastructure, and the built environment. The investment costs for adaptation measures are generally high as many involve new or upgraded infrastructure. For example, the World Bank estimates that by 2050, adaptation might cost the United States between $70-100 billion per year (World Bank, 2011). Globally, cities are already investing in adaptation measures to protect municipal assets and operations both social and physical.

Recognizing that climate change adaptation is a broad and multifaceted topic, this paper focuses on local climate change adaptation frameworks that enhance flood protection. Cities with flood risk and similar population size were selected as case studies, including two cities in the United States (New York City and Miami) and two in Europe (London and Rotterdam), in order to provide a transatlantic comparison. Both New York and London have similar population size, as do Miami and Rotterdam. All four cities face significant infrastructure stresses due to flooding.

To achieve its objectives, this post is guided by the following questions:

  • To what extent can cities drive their own policy agenda on climate adaptation?
  • What role do local stakeholders have in climate adaptation planning in each city?
  • How do cities leverage other stakeholders/resources to move their climate adaptation agendas forward?

City profiles


London’s greatest climate threats are flooding, drought, and excessive heat. As a dense, topographically low-lying urban center, London is more vulnerable to climate impacts than areas outside the city.

Local Adaptation Framework
London is recognized as an international leader in climate adaptation policies and planning, having been the first city in the world to develop a climate adaptation plan. The Greater London Authority (GLA) has the most critical role and responsibilities regarding climate adaptation in London. The GLA is the citywide government and is comprised of the Mayor of London and a separately elected London Assembly. Another key player in climate adaptation policy in London is the London Climate Change Partnership (LCCP). This stakeholder group, comprised of over 30 organizations, is charged with facilitating cooperation among London’s climate change stakeholders. The LCCP also plays an advocacy role by promoting the inclusion of climate change within city government plans and policies. The group is also responsible for commissioning climate adaptation research and conducting outreach.

London’s overarching climate adaptation plan, the London Climate Change Adaptation Strategy (LCCAS), was published by the GLA in October 2011 after an extensive public outreach campaign. The LCCAS focuses on identifying climate risks, assessing how best to manage these risks, and implementing actions to address them. The LCCAS encourages leaders to take on adaptation activities despite the uncertainty of climate projections and to also contemplate how to manage the residual risk.

Consideration of Social Equity
London has a high number of vulnerable communities that will be disproportionately impacted by climate change. The LCCP is part of the Climate Just project. Climate Just is an online visual information tool to help with “the equitable responses to climate change at the local level” and is aimed at adding an equity lens to climate adaptation planning (Climate Just). This tool aids groups like LCCP in identifying where vulnerable populations exist and how climate change impacts them disproportionately to other communities.

Cooperation and Networks
London is an active member in several international climate change initiatives including the C40 global initiative, the Compact of Mayors, the Delta Network, and the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities.


Rotterdam is situated in the delta of the rivers Rhine and Meuse. Nearly eighty percent of the city lies below sea level, making it highly vulnerable to flooding.

Local Adaptation Framework
Rotterdam is one of the most active Dutch cities in the field of climate adaptation (Mees and Driessen, 2011) and one of the hotspots of the Dutch Knowledge for Climate Research Programme. The Rotterdam Climate Initiative (RCI) is Rotterdam’s response to the challenges the region will face over the next few decades, and the economic opportunities this entails. RCI is an initiative of the City of Rotterdam, the Port of Rotterdam, Deltalinqs (as representative of the Port of Rotterdam and the industrial companies in Rotterdam) and DCMR Environmental Protection Agency Rijnmond. The four initiators joined forces with their associates to realize the objectives of the RCI as it became clear that all must work hand in hand to meet their goals.

Consideration of Social Equity
The Rotterdam Climate Change Adaptation Strategy developed in 2013 sets the course that will enable the city to adapt to a changing climate. A cornerstone of Rotterdam’s Adaptation Strategy is public engagement. The concept of community resilience is becoming more widespread in Rotterdam and the ‘paving out and plants in’ campaign demonstrates how residents can take an active part in the process. Educational campaigns aimed at schoolchildren and a global water college for students represent two examples of strategies for involving younger people in adaptation planning.

Cooperation and Networks
Rotterdam is an active participant in global conversations on climate change. The RCI participates in C40, playing a leading role in the climate change approach of port cities. In April 2016, Rotterdam released its Resilience Strategy as part of the 100 Resilient Cities program through the Rockefeller Foundation.

New York

As a waterfront city, New York City (New York)  is particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, as demonstrated by the World Bank ranking of the city as third globally for having the greatest risk for costly damages from storm surge and flooding (Duc., 2013).

Local Adaptation Framework
During the tenure of the former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg (2002-2013),  impetus was given for the preparation of the city’s strategic development plan (PlaNYC), released in 2007.  The PlaNYC aimed to improve environmental sustainability by 2030, while also positioning New York as a world leader in climate change.  Hurricane Sandy reaffirmed the relevance of PlaNYC and highlighted its importance and the urgency of implementing it. Six months after Hurricane Sandy and building on PlaNYC, the ‘’Special Initiative for Rebuilding and Resiliency: A Stronger, More Resilient New York’’ (SIRR) was released. The SIRR specifically addresses issues related to resilience and climate change adaptation. It strives to be location-specific by providing information on particular Sandy-impacted neighborhoods. During the tenure of the current mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, PlaNYC was revised to include a poverty reduction dimension, and was renamed One New York City: The Plan for a Strong and Just City (OneNYC).

The New York City Panel on Climate Change (NPCC) was convened in 2008 to advise the city authority on issues related to climate change and adaptation of critical infrastructure, including communications, energy, transportation, water, and waste systems. The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability and the Mayor’s Office of Recovery and Resilience provide overall strategic guidance and oversight on OneNYC and SIRR, respectively.  These offices foster interagency collaboration and monitor progress. The New York City Climate Change Adaptation Task Force (CCATF) was established to support the implementation of PlaNYC  and now supports OneNYC. Members of the CCTAF include stakeholders at the city, state and federal level, as well as the private sector.  A variety of resilience-related measures have already been implemented or are under implementation.

Consideration of Social Equity
Equity is a crosscutting issue that was made a guiding principle of PlaNYC and then OneNYC, recognizing that unsustainable practices and economic disparities must be addressed concomitantly. Despite these efforts, some gaps and limitations have been reported. Low-income communities, including those located on industrial waterfront areas and historically burdened by various environmental impacts to a disproportionate degree, have yet to receive the same level of resiliency investment as other, wealthier areas. There is a noticeable difference in the level of investment made in Lower Manhattan, a wealthy neighborhood associated with corporate business (e.g. Wall Street) and government offices, and other, lower-income neighborhoods.

Cooperation and Networks
New York demonstrates global leadership as part of several city networks, including C40 and ICLEI, and has established city-to-city exchanges and collaborations with cities like Copenhagen. Such international engagement reinforces New York’s determination to keep its global status as a city that is sustainable and influential on climate change.


Among cities across the world, Miami has the fourth largest population that is vulnerable to sea level rise (World Resources Institute, 2014). Miami’s total value of assets that are exposed to flooding exceeds $400 billion, making it the most asset-exposed city (Cox et al., 2015).

Local Adaptation Framework
In Miami, much of climate change work is collaborative and integrated across the municipality, county government, and a four-county collective in southeast Florida. In 2006, Miami-Dade County created a Climate Change Advisory Task Force to guide the county’s climate mitigation and adaptation work. By 2008, the City of Miami published its Climate Action Plan, which addressed both mitigation and adaptation, and framed itself as a launch pad for institutionalizing climate planning and policies at the municipal level. In 2009, the county co-founded the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, for which a Regional Climate Action Plan was developed for the four participating county governments. Later, the county approved the integration of climate change considerations into the county’s Comprehensive Development Master Plan and established a Sea Level Rise Task Force to synthesize existing sea-level rise analyses and make recommendations that enhance resilience in infrastructure, facilities, and real estate at the regional scale. Local strategies for mainstreaming adaptation practices include making upgrades and modifications to building codes and zoning regulations, as well as working with the county and other levels of government to make broader infrastructure upgrades.

Consideration of Social Equity
Resilient Miami has been a community-driven, foundation-funded initiative that mobilizes residents around climate planning and builds capacity for community climate leaders and organizers. This program aims to enhance community resilience, create a better framework for community engagement on climate projects, and strengthen lines of communication and collaboration among neighborhoods, government and the private sector.

Climate adaptation planning at the county level is also important for creating just solutions because marginalized populations in metropolitan areas are often spatially segregated from affluent communities. In Miami-Dade County, more than twenty percent of families with children live below the poverty line, making it challenging for these families to be resilient in the face of climate shocks. In the Miami area, there is currently debate about whether the US Army Corps of Engineers should raise freshwater levels in the Everglades, in order to increase flow eastward, thus creating a water force against intruding saltwater of the Atlantic. If this were to happen, a small low-income and predominately Latino suburban community, Sweetwater (west of Miami), would be flooded out because it is low-lying and sits above the subterranean freshwater flow that runs eastward (Delgadillo, 2016). Many small low-income communities are located on high-risk land and must have a seat at the table in climate planning processes because, just as with Sweetwater, ostensibly positive flood mitigation strategies in one location could have catastrophic implications elsewhere.

Cooperation and Networks
The City of Miami and Miami-Dade County are both participants in the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities program and are also members of ICLEI.

Comparative Analysis

The four cities analyzed in this paper provide a firsthand account on how addressing climate change is part of a larger equation, in which complex political, social, economic, and environmental systems interact and shape prospects for a resilient future.

A multi-level governance structure of variable-geometry or polycentricism supports climate change adaptation in most of these cities. Of all the case study cities, Rotterdam is the only one that follows a more vertical approach, in which national, subnational, and regulatory frameworks have a direct influence on the city’s decisions on adaptation. In the two European case study cities, high-level national vision, political mandates, and national adaptation plans and strategies provide a framework for accelerating adaptation in cities. At the same time, a city like Rotterdam is a good illustration of the critical role that local governments play in scaling up community adaptation efforts. Across the Atlantic, the United States federal government has a much smaller role in the development of the cities’ climate vision and strategies. In Miami, efforts to address climate change are primarily undertaken by the county, with the city itself having limited jurisdiction and responsibilities. Conversely, New York makes relatively autonomous decisions, with limited involvement from the State and the Federal Government.

Regardless of the governance structure, the political thrust necessary for comprehensive adaptation planning and implementation is first enabled by the mayor’s strong leadership on climate change issues, commitment to integrating climate change adaptation in the city’s broader development framework strategies, and sphere of influence outside the city’s boundaries. The degree of political engagement of the city government will also determine community members’ and the private sector’s involvement and buy-in.

At the operational level, cities have also modified their institutional structures to better address emerging issues such as sustainable development, technology advances, and climate change. In the past ten years, climate change institutional arrangements have been established in local authorities, building on existing ones. In most cases, these new institutional arrangements act as coordination mechanisms. They are composed of a spearheading committee, which provides political guidance, and a multi-agency technical committee. In addition to addressing the immediate risks associated with infrastructure, a robust coordination mechanism will also help identify trade-offs, synergies and co-benefits, e.g., between adaptation and mitigation. 

In all four case study cities, strong scientific input is found essential for decision making, addressing urgent, medium- and long-term adaptation needs, and setting ambitious mitigation targets. In this respect, global cities, such as London, New York, and Miami are clearly advantaged as they can tap into a pool of world-class academic and non-academic experts and institutions, covering a broad range of environmental and social science-related disciplines. Rotterdam also benefits from hosting one of the Netherlands’ high-caliber climate research programs in coastal protection.

However, while data and models have good precision in the near-term, they are less accurate for planning horizons longer than 30-50 years. The three cities and county (Miami-Dade) realized the necessity of planning for adaptation, even when the best data was not available. They have adopted a risk management approach, with respective degrees of flexibility to make room for any necessary adjustments as the understanding of climate change and its impacts improves over time.

Adaptation measures in these four case study cities include a mix of hard engineering solutions (e.g. storm surge barriers, flood defenses, draining and pumping infrastructure), green infrastructure (e.g. green roofs), and policy measures (changes in building codes and zoning). Measures also include the development of innovative tools to further enhance the climate proofing of assets. Several of these measures are under implementation or have already been implemented.

As cities and regional governments take on primary adaptation roles and responsibilities, there is a need for added capital at these levels. Both in the United States and in Europe, many local and regional governments rely heavily on property tax revenue. Thus, if property values depreciate because of increasing flooding risks and properties that have increasing flood insurance premiums cannot be sold or need to be abandoned due to sea level rise, city and regional governments could see decreased tax revenue. Decreased tax revenue could mean fewer available funds for adaptation investments. And, although private developers are seeing benefits in creating and marketing new developments such as resilient buildings, the longevity and success of these developments depend on broader municipal and public infrastructure systems being resilient too. The case of Miami is particularly compelling and demonstrates that policymakers should not only see climate change adaptation as protecting people and properties, but also protecting sources of funding for continued adaptation investment.

Regarding stakeholder and community engagement on municipal-led adaptation projects, careful consideration needs to be given to the organizations and networks that are being engaged to ensure that the needs of the most vulnerable communities are fully taken into account. Similarly, engagement should go beyond simple consultations to sustain public participation. While all cities in this paper recognize the added threat to low-income vulnerable populations, the majority of flood protection infrastructure investments are going to wealthier neighborhoods, creating protections for high-end coastal properties that bring in higher tax revenue. This is exacerbating inequality. By placing its inhabitants at the center of its adaptation strategy, Rotterdam perhaps offers some good practices that could be replicated in other cities.

Cities are increasingly engaged in international climate change forums. Leaders of cities such as New York, London, and Rotterdam have been instrumental in raising awareness on the role and responsibility of local governments in the fight against climate change. Cities’ leadership roles are fostered through national and international city networks such as the C40 and ICLEI, which provide a platform for sharing lessons learned and best practices, forging partnerships, and bringing the voice of cities into the formal international discourse on climate change. The Paris Agreement gives visibility to sub-national leadership, and the adoption and entry into force of the Agreement have provided additional momentum and empowerment to cities as they continue to scale up their adaptation and mitigation actions.

Against this backdrop and regardless of the supra-national and national political contexts (e.g. the current Brexit situation in the United Kingdom or the announcements of the climate skeptic federal administration in the US), cities with relatively high GDP, such as the ones highlighted in this paper, are unlikely to slow down their climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.  With sustained political leadership at the city/country level and strengthened international partnerships, these cities are likely to continue to enact progressive climate change policies and strive to address, at the very least, most of their urgent adaptation needs.

Salem Afeworki, Kate Judson, Sadya Ndoko and Axum Teferra are Emerging Leaders in Environmental and Energy Policy (ELEEP) fellows with the Atlantic Council and Ecologic Institute.

Photo: Fotolia © Martina Berg

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