Climate Adaptation at the Local, State, and Federal Levels

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

How prepared is the United States to adapt to climate change? To answer this question, on a recent People Places Planet Podcast episode, “Is the U.S. Government Ready for the Climate Crisis? Examining Federal, State, and Local Climate Adaptation,” Staff Attorney Cynthia Harris spoke with three climate experts: Dr. Barrett Ristroph of Ristroph Law, Planning, and Research, Katie Spidalieri, Senior Associate at Georgetown Climate Center, and Jennifer Li, Staff Attorney and Professor at Harrison Institute for Public Law, Georgetown University Law Center.

Ristroph, Spidalieri, and Li co-authored the Climate Change chapter of the most recent edition of ELI’s legal treatise, Law of Environmental Protection, which includes an examination of climate adaptation at each level of government. In the podcast, they discussed their takeaways, including the lack of a standard legal framework for adaptation, successful cases of adaptation, and the importance of collaboration within and between government levels.

On the federal level, Ristroph explained that rather than an overarching adaptation law or agency, there are many agencies and laws and programs relevant to adaptation. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for instance, while typically conducting work after events occur, has preventative programs, such as the Hazard Mitigation Program. Another agency, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, works on erosion issues. Overall, the legal framework for climate adaptation on the federal level spans a broad range of agencies and areas.

On the state level, Spidalieri demonstrated there is no one-size-fits-all approach for how states are adapting to climate change. There have been calls to pursue resiliency strategies from state governors, state legislature, or both. Alternatively, state agencies can take their own action outside of executive or legislative leadership. Despite varied approaches, states are increasingly forming a governance structure or body that works across different agencies for adaptation. Planning is a critical element for adaptation. States are creating climate adaptation plans to set their statewide strategy for tackling climate change and implementing sector-specific plans or plans focused on a particular climate impact. States are also seeking to improve permitting programs for new development and using source funding to interject climate considerations into local-level projects.

Local government, as Li explained, also lacks a standard legal framework for climate adaptation. Local government authority differs across jurisdictions and so do climate hazards. There exists a patchwork system of local responses, largely comprised of land use measures and local programs, for example, for stormwater infrastructure. In addition, cities have been increasingly designing city-level climate plans. Many places have comprehensive plans—general or master plans—that shape the built environment.

Ristroph noted that as there are already many different federal agencies focusing on adaptation; what is needed is better coordination among agencies. Ideally, the National Climate Task Force established in President Joe Biden’s January 27th Executive Order, Section 203, works to foster greater coordination among agencies and mainstream climate change adaptions.

Spidalieri pointed out that states can play a critical role in adaptation and resilience. States serve as the intermediary between federal and local governments, by providing support in terms of funding, technical assistance, data, and guidelines on best practices. On the local level, Li described how local governments and their responses are where the rubber meets the road. Climate change strikes at the local level first, and local governments are the first responders. Cities are best positioned to know local needs and vulnerabilities. Structurally, local governments make land use decisions impacting how localities can respond to climate hazards.


For examples of successful adaptation, Li pointed to cities that, after having developed the first climate action plans, are now updating their plans with climate justice provisions. These updated plans seek to incorporate more community voices and bring in other priorities like housing, transportation, green spaces, and health. On the state level, Spidalieri identified California, Maryland, Massachusetts, and New York as leaders due to the level and scale of their work on adaptation.

Spidalieri highlighted the need to address resource constraints and elevate adaptation in rural areas. Knowledge surrounding best practices for adaptation is largely drawn from more well-resourced or urban communities and must be better translated to rural contexts.

In considering cross-jurisdictional coordination, Ristroph discussed the Coastal Zone Management Act as a potential model. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is responsible for administering the Act, and states can set laws beyond borders to protect and develop their coasts. Three levels of approval between the federal government, states, and localities are coordinated in one review. According to Spidalieri, there is increasing recognition of cross-jurisdictional impacts, yet our legal system is not set up to deal with these impacts. However, California, Florida, and other states have demonstrated informal opportunities for regional collaboration.

Li emphasized the importance of equity in climate adaptation and suggested utilizing the principle of Common But Differentiated Responsibilities (CBDR)—that countries have different responsibilities depending on development—on a domestic level. As the harshest climate change impacts are disproportionately faced by low-income communities of color, equitable allocation of resources must be provided to communities to mitigate burdens.

In closing, Li acknowledged we will never be able to rebuild our infrastructure and communities as quickly as climate change is changing them. Hopefully, however, there has been enough of a crisis that decisionmakers take action and community members recognize the urgency to avert worst-case scenarios.

To learn more, listen to the episode, “Is the U.S. Government Ready for the Climate Crisis? Examining Federal, State, and Local Climate Adaptation,” of the People Places Planet Podcast, the official podcast of ELI. You can find recent episodes by visiting or listening wherever you get your podcasts.