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Adapt or update municipal plans: Create a Climate Action Plan

Adaptation Strategies and Actions

Adapt or update municipal plans: Create a Climate Action Plan

Adaptation type: 
Planning and prioritization
Policy, laws, and regulations


Update or create municipal plans for cities and towns that incorporate climate change.


Create a climate adaptation or action plan

What is a climate adaptation plan?
Climate change is already impacting human communities and natural resources in cities and towns across the state. Proactive local planning to prepare for and cope with impacts of a changing climate is essential. Several towns have adopted different type of plans that address mitigation or adaptation to climate change. The planning process for climate adaptation is similar to other planning frameworks and can take many forms, but broadly we refer to a climate adaptation plan.

Where do I start? Typical chapters in a municipal adaptation plan:

1. Introduction and Vision –What goals do you want to achieve? Who is writing this plan and why?

a. Your goal is likely to include being more climate resilient, but could also be other valued outcomes like:

  • strengthening economic development through green jobs;
  • becoming more livable through more open space and pedestrian/biking opportunities;
  • supporting more and better local food sources;
  • improving protection of endangered species and all habitats;
  • ensuring that benefits from adaptation are directed to the least resourced populations; and many other goals.

These positive outcomes that can be achieved by the same actions that make your town more resilient are called co-benefits.  Identifying these positive goals and co-benefits will help elected official and citizens feel enthused about the climate adaptation plan, and encourage implementation of it.  This is often done through community process, or you can look to recent other plans to see what goals were identified in those and seek to support them in this plan.

b. The introduction should explain the process followed, whether there was a steering committee and who was on it, what public meetings were held, etc., so that readers know where the plan is coming from.  It should be endorsed by the highest elected official(s) in the community to indicate political buy-in.  It may also be helpful to have it endorsed by key agency personnel, such as the head of Transportation or the head of Municipal Operations, to also encourage long-term buy-in (perhaps even after the elected officials have left) and integration into the day-to-day operations of those key departments.

2. Climate projections and Vulnerability Analysis.

The vulnerability analysis will identify populations and assets most at risk, and so includes people, species, and infrastructure whether natural or built, based on stressors anticipated.

a. Projections can vary from very basic, such as “We know the city will have more excess heat days and be rainier in winter” to more data driven approaches. If detailed information is not available, it is still possible to move forward.

b. Where possible, it can be helpful to present information in stages, so that implementation can be matched to what is experienced

i. E.g., “It is very likely that the city will experience SLR of 2 mm in the next twenty years.  It is likely the city will experience SLR of 1 meter in the next hundred years.”  Or similar timed language.

c. This data should be presented in a way that it can be imported into lots of other reports, such as Open Space Plans and Capital Improvement Plans.

New Jersey shore following intense flooding after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS.
New Jersey shore following intense flooding after Hurricane Sandy. Credit: Greg Thompson/USFWS.

3. Action Strategies. This is the section that lays out what you will do.

a. Develop (brainstorm) a long list of possible responses to the different risks identified in your vulnerability analysis. This site lists lots of different possibilities and sorts them by stressors, providing a place to start.

b. Narrow down the list based on general financial, ecological, technical and social feasibility for your particular town or city.

c. Set different thresholds for action. This allows more incremental action that acknowledges that we do not really know the pace or final extent of climate change, although direction of change is generally clear. So, a good format might be (content is just an example):

i. Changes to make now: flood-proof homes and plan evacuation routes

ii. Changes to make after the next flood events: move coastal homes back on lots and raise the height of vulnerable coastal roads.

4. Implementation Matrix

Prepare a table that shows each proposed action, its timing and (if used) the thresholds that matter for it.  Include estimate of how much it will cost even if this is just a general category (inexpensive, moderate, more expensive).  The most important column is the one that says who has to do the action – city council?  The planning department? Or whom?  Also include a column to check off each year if/when the action is taken.

5. Monitor and Re-evaluate

How will you know if the overall plan is successful, and if the actions within it have worked?  Prepare some basic outcomes that can be measured, and check those each year or after each flood or heat event, for instance.


Several organizations have created resources to help you start the process:

  • ICLEI-US ICLEI Preparing for Climate Change: A Guide for Local, Regional, and State Governments:
    Written by the Center for Science in the Earth System (The Climate Impacts Group). Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean University of Washington and King County, Washington in association with ICLEI. The purpose of this guidebook is to help you as a decision-maker in a local, regional, or state government prepare for climate change by recommending a detailed, easy-to-understand process for climate change preparedness based on familiar resources and tools.(Local Governments for Sustainability) Climate Resilient Communities (CRC) Program helps municipalities develop climate adaptation plans.
  • Climate Adaptation Knowledge Exchange (CAKE): The Tools section of CAKE directs to you to the wealth of tools available online to help you process climate change information and make adaptation decisions.
  • NOAA: Adapting to Climate Change: A planning Guide for State Coastal Managers:
    The purpose of this guide is to help U.S. STATE AND TERRITORIAL (state) coastal managers develop and implement adaptation plans to reduce the impacts and consequences of climate change.
  • Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Report: This report contains the over-arching conclusions and recommendations of the Climate Change Adaptation Advisory Committee and analysis and policy suggestions for specific sectors: natural resources and habitat, key infrastructure, human health and welfare, local economy and government, and coastal zone and oceans.
  • Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Coalition: The Massachusetts Climate Change Adaptation Coalition is comprised of engineers, architects, planners, and conservation and environmental organizations working to reduce the Commonwealth’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change.
  • Environmental Defense Fund (EDF): Links science, economics and law to create innovative, equitable and cost-effective solutions to society's most urgent environmental problems. It is dedicated to protecting the environmental rights of all people, including future generations.
  • EEA, Department of Conservation and Recreation: Water Ways Program - Division of Engineering: The Engineering division provides comprehensive and varies types of engineering services throughout the Commonwealth in support of the DCR’s many facilities programs and missions.The sections included in the Engineering division are responsible for working with our Planning Bureau on the planning and design phases park and parkways projects and supervising construction and maintenance of capital projects including roads, sidewalks, park facilities, dams, street lighting, water mains, and storm sewers, curb cuts, pedestrian bridges and storm water management.

Case studies
See the resources section below for links to local example plans and preparations including, Keene, NH, Boston, and Marshfield, MA (which included a climate adaptation chapter in their Master Plan).

A Climate of Progress, City of Boston Climate Action Plan Update 2011
After joining on 2000 the Cities for Climate Protection Campaign of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability, Boston City Government began its climate action program. The goals of the climate action are to reduce contributions to the causes of climate change, reduce vulnerability to the consequences of climate change, and create new jobs and businesses that enable Boston to thrive economically while becoming more resilient and sustainable.
This document is the first community-wide plan and focuses on different actions toward mitigation, adaptation, economy, community engagement and implementation.

Boulder County Climate Change Preparedness Plan. 2012.
This plan aims to assist county and city departments that manage climate-sensitive resources and assets to achieve their departmental objectives in the face of challenges posed by anticipated future changes in the climate of Boulder County. This plan is the first step in preparing for the potential impacts that Boulder County and its municipalities will face.

California Adaptation Planning Guide. Planning for Adaptive Communities, 2012.
The “Climate Adaptation Planning Guide” prepared by California Emergency Management Agency is designed to provide guidance and support for local governments and regional collaborates to address the unavoidable consequences of climate change. This document is a set of four complementary documents that provides guidance to support communities, it introduces the basis for climate change adaptation planning and details a step-by-step process for local and regional climate vulnerability assessment and adaptation strategy development.

City of Cambridge, Climate Protection Plan, Local Actions to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions.
After voting in May 1999 to join Cities for Climate Protection (CCP) of the Local Governments for Sustainability, an international consortium of communities working to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. The document considers the climate science and impacts of the phenomenon.

Copenhagen Climate Adaptation Plan.
The City of Copenhagen has been working on adaptation to climate change for many years, and with this document draw up a strategy based on projections for the climate future. It defines three levels of adaptation that will prevent a climate-induced accident from happening. Level 1 aims to reduce the likelihood of the event happening, preferably to completely prevent it. Level 2 aims to reduce the scale of the event, and level 3 to reduce vulnerability to the event by taking measures that make it easier and cheaper to clear up after an event. It also defines different geographical levels, scenarios, assessment of results, and projects and recommendations for each of the challenges.

Finding funding
In addition to sources listed above, below are a couple funding sources that other municipalities have used to support creating a plan or conducting a vulnerability assessment:

American Institute of Architects (AIA) Sustainable Design Assessment Teams (SDAT): A community assistance program that helps cities create adaptation plans. They worked with Boston and they are helping Northampton create a plan as of 2015.

100 Resilient Cities: Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, this is an initiative to help cities worldwide create adaptation plans. It is a competitive program, and Boston was accepted into the first round of 35 cities.

Massachusetts’ Storm-Smart Coasts Initiative: This Massachusetts-only grant program provides financial and technical resources to advance innovative local efforts to increase awareness of climate impacts, identify vulnerabilities and risks, and implement measures to increase community resilience.

Kresge Environment Program: The Kresge Foundation Environment Program seeks to help communities build resilience in the face of climate change.

Scope and Constraints

Ongoing action
Municipal or county jurisdiction required


National Fish Wildlife Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy Goal 3: Enhance capacity for management

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