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Institutional Decision-Making

The scientific understanding of global climate change is increasing, and in the Metropolitan East Coast region (MEC), results of the MEC Assessment project indicate that the impacts will escalate by the end of the 21st century. Many adaptations that may reduce or avoid the adverse consequences of global climate change lie in the hands of existing agencies and are consistent with their current responsibilities. Thus, decision-making institutions can begin to expand their capacity to anticipate and respond to potential impacts and to minimize associated vulnerabilities by leveraging existing planning and operations and new investments to accommodate changes in climate and the environment. Such adaptations will serve current and future generations and decrease the long-term costs of adaptation, especially in light of uncertainty, if made in the course of ongoing capital investment and operations.

This report focuses on those public agencies with authorities applicable to the vulnerabilities of populations and the natural and built environments to three main climate change impacts: increases in temperature, precipitation, and sea level. The assessment reveals that many of the region’s most influential decision-making institutions already possess missions and authorities compatible with the kinds of actions and policies that could ease adaptation to climate change impacts. New capital investment and capital programming in the region ($16.5 billion proposed by the MTA alone over the next five years and a budget of $3.9 billion for the Year 2000 for the Port Authority) and revisions of land-use and environmental policies offer prime opportunities to incorporate climate change into investment and policy decisions through collaboration and the attention of individual agencies. The most challenging adaptations will involve operational improvements in the in-place built environment, particularly in the region’s most densely populated areas along the coasts. Some examples of potential adaptations, primarily oriented toward sea-level rise are:

Adaptations Associated with Planning and Construction

  • Planning for the use of land through land use planning, environmental planning, and capital programming to ensure the location of new structures and relocation of existing structures outside of impact areas associated with sea level rise,
  • Acquiring property to prevent or guide development in hazard areas,
  • Redesigning structures to avoid impacts, including the removal of traditional flood retaining structures,
  • Retrofitting existing and redesigning new structures with barriers, higher elevations, and other forms of protection against the inundation of water and the extremes associated with heat and wind,
  • Using operational procedures and controls for infrastructure services and facilities to reduce or avoid population exposure during hazard events.

Adaptations Directly Targeted to Vulnerable Populations

  • Educating the public about adaptations and behaviors, including infrastructure and land usage patterns, that will reduce vulnerability,
  • Improving communication mechanisms such as warning systems,
  • Moving people and businesses away from vulnerable areas through incentives, relocations, and in extreme cases, evacuations,
  • Providing emergency response and disaster assistance for reconstruction.

The extent to which an institution incorporates climate change considerations into its policies and actions, and the potential for such actions to be effective, will depend on: knowledge and understanding of and experience with global climate change and its effects; consistency of an institution’s mission with global change issues; jurisdiction or domain; capacity (human, financial); and capability (politics, organizational culture).

Results of this analysis indicate that agencies engaged in decisions about population, land use, infrastructure and the built environment in areas vulnerable to global climate change impacts tend to be highly specialized given the size and complexity of the region — a 31-county region with close to 20 million people. Therefore, mechanisms for collaboration and coordinated action among them are largely ad hoc and project specific in spite of the fact that jurisdictions are often overlapping functionally and geographically. More targeted education of decision-making institutions and more effective and systematic collaboration among them will be essential to the region’s efforts to prepare for and adapt to global climate change.

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