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Vulnerability Assessment Training Bootcamp: A Participant Synopsis

Posted By Lia Nicholson, Government of Antigua & Barbuda, Tuesday, October 7, 2014

On Wednesday September 24th, I suspended my post-Climate Summit activities with the United Nations to attend the Association of Climate Change Officers (ACCO) bootcamp, “Conducting a Vulnerability Assessment and Developing an Adaptation Plan.” The training was attended by the private sector, government, and non-governmental organizations, both domestic and international, as a precursor to the Rising Seas Summit, held on September 24-26 in New York and in partnership with Climate Week NYC.

Personally, the training was a high priority as the following week I was to begin a year-long fellowship, supported by the Gruber Program, to implement adaptation solutions in three flood-prone communities in the small island state of Antigua & Barbuda. The mandate of the project, implemented by the Government’s Environment Division, was to develop and implement adaptation solutions in consultation with community members. ACCO’s training presented an opportunity to expand my portfolio of assessment and consultation tools.

The session was moderated by Adam Whelchel, Director of Science at the Nature Conservancy, who introduced a panel of four speakers. Each speaker presented a case study, followed by breakout groups for participants to work on one of the four cases.

Olga Dominguez, formerly the Assistant Administrator at the Office of Strategic Infrastructure in the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, presented the Washington DC case. Adaptation challenges were ecological, notably the extensive marshlands and one and a half foot tidal range, as well as political, with a framework of complex property rights and resources that are, “owned by everybody and nobody.”

The Commissioner of the Department of Environment in the City of Boston, Nancy Girard, presented the case study for Boston. Nancy presented maps dating to 1630 and contrasted the cartography with the city’s present layout, highlighting the extent of development on coastal infill and consequential resilience challenges.

Pinar Balci, Director of the Bureau of Environmental Planning and Analysis in the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, presented the case for New York. Pinar highlighted the Catskills watershed and coastal challenges of adaptation. She emphasized the importance of establishing climatic thresholds for planning—given the range of climate projections and timeframes, “what are we going to protect ourselves from?”

The fourth and final case was Providence, Rhode Island, presented by Hope Herron, Senior Policy Analyst & Climate Adaptation Specialist at Tetra Tech. The adaptation challenges that Providence faces include the submergence of the airport, seaport, and historical districts in a 100-year flood event and sea level rise projections. Hope focused in on the public health impacts of climate change, citing the spread of the vector-borne Lyme disease transmitted through ticks. A rise in temperatures and longer summers leads to ticks remaining active for longer and inhabiting more regions.

Providence was my case study group. We began by responding to the question, “What excites you most about climate change.” It was an unexpected but welcome take on the topic, and the ice-breaker question elicited just that—participants described daily motivations to be excited to work on one of the most complex issues of our times.

Hope, our group facilitator, presented a matrix developed by the Adam Whelchel at the Nature Conservancy, to guide our vulnerability assessment discussion (Table 1). The first step was to identify priority hazards, followed by vulnerable assets in three categories—infrastructure, societal assets, and ecosystems. Finally, we filled in the matrix with actionable items that would mitigate the hazards, guided by the following questions: what infrastructure is exposed? What makes it vulnerable? What are the consequences of inaction? Each actionable item was ranked by high, medium or low priority, and by short-term or long-term implementation.

The matrix generated a rich discussion; yet due to limited time we only scratched the surface of the issues, assets and actions for Providence. With more time, we could take the analysis further by defining our thresholds, as recommended by Pinar.

A notable point of discussion was the challenge of isolating interlinked hazards. For example, despite similarities, storm surge is an infrequent, extreme hazard that can require different adaptation responses, such as emergency measures, compared to slow-onset sea level rise. At the same time, however, the two hazards can be mitigated by, for example, retreat policies.

On a similar note, solutions are also interlinked, and an action that mitigates risks to one vulnerable asset can mitigate risks in another category. For example, the actions that we identified for water systems—hardening infrastructure, planning and implementing retreat—can also be applied to power supply/energy infrastructure. Identifying synergies is important because the two sectors may be managed by different government entities. The risk matrix is a useful tool for defining and clarifying underlying assumptions about priority hazards, assets, and actions that converge to formulate a city-wide policy response to climate change.

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Tags:  Adaptation  Sea Level Rise  Vulnerability 

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