Resilience Regionalism in Southeast Florida: A Governance Model for Climate Adaptation

By Steve Adams, Senior Advisor for Climate Adaptation - Institute for Sustainable Communities

Since 2008, adaptation has rapidly climbed the policy agenda at every level of government.  Previous posts here at ClimatePrep have documented the leading efforts across the US and around the world: cities are assessing their vulnerabilities and taking measures to harden infrastructure, increase design capacities, and develop strategies to protect public health; states are taking proactive measures in wildlife management, water resource protection, and coastal planning; and federal agencies are increasingly active in areas as diverse as endangered species protection, federal highway planning, and community development programs.  But as the Council on Environmental Quality – Interagency Adaptation Task Force noted in its 2010 report to the President, “[a]daptation requires coordination across multiple sectors, geographical scales, and levels of government . . .  Because impacts, vulnerability, and needs vary by region and locale, adaptation will be most effective when driven by local or regional risks and needs.”

On its face, this thought is highly intuitive – but the devil is in the details.  How do we square this recommendation with the increasingly limited resources of state and federal agencies across a nation of 3,000 counties and nearly 19,500 municipal governments?  How can so many local governments access the considerable but diminishing scientific and technical resources of state and federal agencies?  And how can we ever hope to align local, state and federal policies and investments across so many “local or regional risks and needs” everywhere across the nation at once?

Over the past two years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with and watching an innovative group of local government leaders from Southeast Florida’s Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe and Palm Beach Counties pioneer a model of “resilience regionalism” that may offer some insight on these questions.  In announcing the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact in 2009, the four counties committed to developing a region-wide climate action plan, to coordinate their advocacy in Congress and in the state legislature, and meet annually in regional summits to mark progress.

Combining the efforts of 109 municipalities across the four counties of Southeast Florida has created an economy of scale for federal and state agencies that enables each to bring scientific and technical assistance to bear on the region within the context of a local climate agenda.  Over the past two years, the Compact has benefited from working with NOAA, USGS, the Army Corps of Engineers, EPA Region IV as well as the Florida Department of Transportation, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and the South Florida Water Management District.

The four-county region from Palm Beach through Monroe includes vast expanses of the Everglades, the Florida coral reef system, and coastal marsh habitat of enormous biological importance to the nation.  It also contains a full third of Florida’s population and economy while serving as a center of finance and commerce for the Caribbean and Central and South America.  The nexus between natural systems protection and protecting the most productive community assets is no accident.  Restoration of the Everglades turns out to be enormously important in terms of future sea level rise impacts on the region’s aquifers.  “Fighting water with water” as its put locally, means that the region’s future livability depends on restoring the hydrology of the Everglades.  And Everglades restoration in turn depends on an increasingly sustainable Southeast Florida. The Compact enables the four counties to coordinate resilience building strategies to protect and restore the region’s natural systems in order to protect the important ecosystem services they provide.

The Regional Compact also offers a model of integrated climate policy; from the beginning, local leaders perceived that the policy wonk’s distinction between climate change “mitigation” and “adaptation” is irrelevant in practice – that communities must do both at the same time.  And in doing both, communities can intelligently manage the inevitable tradeoffs that occur when addressing climate-related vulnerability and implementing cost-effective strategies to reduce emissions.

As an ongoing collaboration, the Compact provides a formal framework for policy development, implementation and evaluation that is so critical to enable public sector learning over time.  The first Regional Climate Action Plan – released in draft in December 2011 – recommended several steps toward reducing emissions and building resilience to climatic impacts across Southeast Florida. Subsequent iterations will enable the incorporation of new science, new risk assessments and the lessons learned from previous implementation efforts.

But ultimately, the Regional Compact has built camaraderie among the participants that hasn’t existed before. The Compact process has brought the four counties together around a sense of shared risks and a shared vision of future prosperity. This has been fostered by, and in turn has helped foster stable, bi-partisan political support since its initiation despite swings in the politics of climate change elsewhere.  This stability has endured despite the departure of early champions of the Regional Compact from elected office.  It’s clear that the counties have found comfort in knowing that their neighbors share common threats and hope in knowing that they are working together for common goals.

The common wisdom is that the 2010 elections doomed the prospects of federal climate legislation for the foreseeable future; even the President remarked that progress will now need to come “in chunks.” Chief among these chunks will be the efforts of individual communities working together at various scales to build resilience to the impacts of climate change and to reduce the emissions that are driving those impacts.

Other regional efforts are underway, including a replication of the regional compact model by local governments in the Willamette Valley of Oregon with assistance from my former colleague Stacy Vynne.  We as adaptation practitioners can serve intermediary roles bringing additional capacity, expertise and good ideas, but ultimately it will be local governments that transform ideas into action.   Challenging times require innovation and local governments are heeding that call – we need these and other governance models to emerge as we learn how to cope with climate impacts.  That local government leaders have recognized this challenge and are stepping bravely into the breach gives one great hope that we can effectively address this uniquely global problem, one region at a time.

The Institute for Sustainable Communities is a global NGO whose mission is to help communities around the world address environmental, economic, and social challenges to build a better future shaped and shared by all. ISC is dedicated to helping passionate people get the tools, skills and resources they need to make their communities better places to live.