The University of Arizona Provides Local Climate Adaptation Assessment & Planning Support

December 7, 2011

By Joe Abraham, Director, University of Arizona Office of Sustainability and Leslie Ethen, Director, City of Tucson Office of Conservation and Sustainable Development

(This article appears in the December, 2011 issue of The ACUPCC Implementer)

The World Meteorological Organization recently reported global atmospheric greenhouse gas (GHG) levels rose to new record levels in 2010, with the rate of increase on the rise. The steep upward trend in atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations is due in large part to a lack of coherent and committed national and international institutions and policy addressing major emissions sources including fossil fuels, deforestation, and certain land use practices.

To counter this trend, many local and regional governments in the U.S. have begun implementing plans to reduce GHG emissions. Nevertheless, even if we could magically stabilize greenhouse gas emissions at year 2000 levels, the earth would be committed to some temperature increases, due to the long residence time of GHGs in the atmosphere. Consequently, some local and state governments are taking active measures to plan and prepare for inevitable changes, and to make the most of possible opportunities presented by climate change, by identifying options to adapt to projected climate impacts and to increase the resilience of environmental and social systems.

UA students participate in the design and installation of passive water harvesting features into the UA campus landscape

Nearing completion of its Phase One greenhouse gas mitigation plan, the City of Tucson’s Climate Change Advisory Committee (CCC) recently embarked on a complementary planning process to understand local and regional impacts of a changing climate and to identify ways to adapt to those impacts. Researchers with The University of Arizona’s Institute of the Environment have begun working with the CCC and a consultant hired by the City to complete a vulnerability assessment and assist with the development of outreach materials.

In general, a vulnerability assessment involves identifying likely physical impacts of a warmer climate (e.g., warmer temperatures, more intense flooding events) and understanding how those impacts will lead to consequences for various natural and social systems and services of interest (e.g., public health, transportation, energy and water provision). Specifically, UA researchers, in conjunction with UA’s Institute of the Environment, will provide projections for the Tucson basin’s future climate and hydrology, analyses of future climate and hydrology of Colorado River surface water supplies that are part of Tucson Water’s water resources portfolio, and projections of changes in selected mosquito-borne diseases. The CCC and their consultant will then work with UA researchers to explore ways physical changes will directly and indirectly affect the systems and services the City is interested in. The CCC will eventually present a plan to Mayor and Council with recommended actions to improve the resilience of systems and services the CCC determines to be vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

The UA will also contribute to related public outreach and education efforts pertaining to climate change, its regional impacts, and potential solutions. The UA Institute of the Environment houses The Climate Assessment for the Southwest (CLIMAS), which has significant experience in this area. CLIMAS is a NOAA-funded program started in 1998 that brings together researchers who study the processes and effects of climate on the Southwest with individuals and organizations that need climate information to make informed decisions. CLIMAS promotes the exchange of ideas and information among members of the public, private, nonprofit, and academic communities.

While the UA has an abundance of faculty and researchers in many disciplines studying climate change issues, including impacts and adaptation, it is likely that many other ACUPCC signatory institutions can provide meaningful support for similar local and regional assessments and planning processes. The recently published ACUPCC report on Higher Education’s Role in Adapting to Climate Change (PDF) lays out several ways colleges and universities can help with assessments and planning, including serving as ‘hubs’ in their local communities for creating, testing, and disseminating knowledge about regional climate projections and adaptation strategies. The report also identifies unique opportunities for colleges and universities to demonstrate solutions in their own operations. The UA, for example, offers a water harvesting course  in which students actively participate in the design and installation of passive water harvesting features into the UA campus landscape. While the course was not developed as an adaptation strategy, it turns out to be an important strategy in the southwest U.S., where more intense flooding is one expected consequence of climate change.

Finally, UA planning and facilities staff are expected to participate in the City’s adaptation planning process to inform UA planning processes of likely climate change impacts and develop appropriate adaptation strategies. Located in the center of the Tucson, the University of Arizona’s main campus can be seen as a city within a city, with over 180 buildings on 390 acres, and over 50,000 students and employees. This will help the UA to continue to lead by example, and expand its climate change commitment beyond carbon neutrality, climate change research, and outreach to include effective adaptation strategies that contribute to the sustainability of the entire campus facility and the surrounding City of Tucson.

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