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How to Adapt to Climate Change

Tips for building climate resilience at home and in your neighborhood.

Responses to climate change generally fall into two categories: mitigation and adaptation. Mitigation addresses the causes of climate change chiefly by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and expanding carbon “sinks,” like forests, that remove and store carbon from the atmosphere. Adaptation involves adjusting to climate impacts that already exist or are expected in the future. Both strategies are essential. Because carbon dioxide and other greenhouses gases remain in the atmosphere for many years, the effects of climate change will continue for decades or longer even if we were to cut all emissions today.

Climate change adaptation is sometimes described as “building resilience” or “reducing risk” and often involves large-scale infrastructure projects or changes in public policy. But adaptation isn’t something that only government agencies and big companies can do. Individuals can play a part, too. Even small changes, multiplied over many households, can make a difference.

Understanding Climate Risk
When we think about risk, we often look to the past as a guide to the way things will be in the future. But climate change is different. It’s an ongoing process, and some elements of that process – sea level rise, for example – are accelerating. It’s no longer safe to assume that the amount of risk we faced in the past is an indication of future risk. Instead, we need to consider reliable projections of future climate conditions and periodically review how well our adaptation efforts are performing.

Nor should we assume that risk is the same for everyone. Risk varies from one community to another – even one person to another – depending on exposure, sensitivity, and capacity to adjust to climate-related hazards. Location plays a big role. People who live in floodplains, for example, are clearly exposed to a greater risk of inundation. Those with certain health issues may be more sensitive to extreme heat or poor air quality. And groups who have been historically underrepresented – the poor, immigrants, certain communities of color – may not have the political influence or financial wherewithal to mount an effective response.

Left: A Red Cross volunteer assists a resident displaced by a storm. Right: FEMA field workers distribute disaster information in Paterson.

Bouncing Forward
Addressing the needs of vulnerable and underrepresented communities and ensuring that they are fully engaged in resilience planning has an additional benefit. Resilience is often defined as the ability of a community or individual to “bounce back” after hazardous events such as hurricanes or severe flooding. But for many policymakers and researchers, it’s not enough for community members to return to their previous situation if doing so only puts them back in harm’s way, especially if social conditions make them vulnerable to climate change impacts.

Instead of bouncing back, the goal should be to “bounce forward,” to come back stronger, better able to meet the challenges of the future. Rather than simply surviving a disturbance, a resilient community responds in creative ways to fundamentally transform the community for the better. Preparing for climate change is not only about protecting ourselves and our communities from extreme weather. It’s an opportunity to address the needs of vulnerable and underrepresented people and make our communities as a whole more sustainable, healthful, and prosperous.

Practical Steps
With that in mind, here are several steps you can take at home and in your neighborhood to ready yourself and your community for climate change.

Climate change will continue to bring heavier downpours to New Jersey and may intensify flood risk along inland waterways and low-lying areas. On the coast, sea level rise is projected to make storm surge and high-tide floods increasingly more severe. In places with recurrent flood losses, some homeowners have decided that relocation is their best option. The NJ Blues Acres program has purchased hundreds of properties in flood-prone areas and converted them into open space. Many other homeowners have chosen or were required to elevate their houses.

On a smaller scale, even relatively modest renovations like elevating HVAC equipment or altering a property’s landscape can save thousands of dollars in flood damage. And of course flood insurance is indispensable (and may be required by mortgage lenders) if you live in a flood zone and is often advisable even if you don’t. Your insurance agent and a contractor can help you sort through the options.

Online mapping tools like NJ FloodMapper and FEMA’s flood map service can help you make a rough assessment of your flood risk. NJ FloodMapper visualizes potential flooding on the coast under a range of sea-level and storm-surge scenarios. FEMA flood maps identify designated flood zones in your area. Simply enter your address to view the map.

Bound Brook flooded after Hurricane Irene

Flooding in Bound Brook in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

Heat waves in New Jersey are expected to become longer and more frequent due to climate change. Extreme heat is especially dangerous for older people, young children, pregnant women, and those with chronic health issues. Cities will be hardest hit. Urban areas tend to be warmer than suburbs due to the abundance of dark paved surfaces and lack of shade, a phenomenon known as the urban heat island effect.

A few commonsense tips will help keep you safe in extremely hot weather: stay hydrated, wear lightweight clothing, pace yourself when working or exercising outdoors, never leave children or pets in a parked car, check on at-risk people, and stay in an air-conditioned place as much as possible. If air-conditioning is not available at home, take advantage of nearby shopping malls, libraries, or other public places, or ask your county health department about the location of the nearest cooling station. Additional tips for staying safe in extreme heat can be found at the CDC website.

Keep in mind that New Jersey residents can avoid contributing to greenhouse gas emissions when using air conditioners and other electric appliances by switching to renewable electricity like solar or wind power. See the NJ Board of Public Utilities website for a list of third-party suppliers and information on how to sign up.

Excessive heat and periodic dry spells also increase the risk of wildfires. New Jersey’s Pinelands are especially vulnerable; a fire there in 2019 consumed more than 11,000 acres. Homeowners near forested areas should take care to create a defensible space around their home by removing wood piles, dry brush, dead leaves, or any flammable material that could lead fire closer to the home. Wildfire smoke can degrade air quality from many miles away, making it all the more important for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma or COPD to keep medications, emergency inhalers, and other treatments on hand. NJ Forest Adapt, an online mapping tool developed at Rutgers University, allows users to visualize forest data throughout the state, including wildfire fuel hazard, heat zones, and projected number of high-heat days.

Whether or not you’re concerned about climate change, making an emergency plan is a smart thing to do. Consider the types of emergencies that are most likely to happen where you live, then map out an evacuation route, prepare an easy-to-carry emergency kit, and designate a meeting place if members of your household are separated. For situations that require sheltering in place, keep enough food, water, medications, and other basic supplies to last for at least several days and make necessary arrangements for people with special needs such as the elderly or disabled, as well as pets. FEMA’s publication “Are You Ready? An In-depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness” and the website offer detailed information about preparing for an emergency.

Resilience is as much about strong communities as it is about infrastructure. Simply getting to know your neighbors is the first step toward building the sort of “social cohesion” that helps communities weather difficult times and get back on their feet after a disaster. Volunteer activities, civic engagement, school functions, shopping at local businesses – just about any social interaction strengthens the bonds between neighbors, decreases isolation, increases cooperation, and builds a support network that can be a lifeline in times of need, especially for the most vulnerable members of the community such as older people, the disabled, and those who live alone. Check in often on neighbors who may need assistance and offer to help any way you can.

Union Beach volunteer helps clean up after SandyBetter yet, take part in efforts to build climate resilience. Understand the options for your community regarding clean energy, green spaces, public transportation, and improvements for bicycling and walking. Share your concerns about climate change with elected representatives; join your local watershed association or land trust; volunteer for your town’s green team or environmental commission; and, if possible, participate in resilience planning in your own community and urge officials to incorporate resilience objectives into open space, public health, and other community plans.

Meet the Climate Corps

Angel Alguera, Rutgers Climate CorpsAngel Alguera
I am a first-year Atmospheric Science master’s degree student in the Department of Environmental Sciences, and my work focuses on meteorology and applications of climate change resiliency. My professional interests include severe weather forecasting and community preparedness regarding weather-related disasters. I work with Dr. James Shope at the NJ Climate Change Resource Center to produce applied research and reports relevant to New Jersey stakeholders. I currently assist with climate change data analysis, large dataset management, and report writing.

Daniel GilkesonDaniel Gilkeson
I’m a second-year master’s student in the City and Regional Planning Program with a concentration in environmental planning. As a planner, I hope to build more resilient communities in the face of increased risk due to climate change. With the Climate Change Resource Center, I am working on a project to aid the state in an update of its floodplain buyout program, known as Blue Acres, to be more proactive and comprehensive. Prior to this position, I interned in the Community and Economic Development Office at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Association. I’m also an AmeriCorps alum, having completed a year of service working on affordable housing in Nashville, Tennessee.

Benjamin GoldbergBenjamin Goldberg
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in climate adaptation and resiliency planning, with experience in sustainable food systems. I joined the Climate Corps last summer to help develop a GIS-based food waste recovery tool, and currently support community resilience through flood vulnerability analysis. I hold a B.A. from Middlebury College and a Certificate in Ecological Horticulture from UC Santa Cruz.

Surya Jacob, Rutgers Climate CorpsSurya Jacob
I am a graduate student in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School concentrating in community development, focused on housing, land and finance, as well as pursuing the Real Estate Development/Redevelopment Certification. Prior to Bloustein, I worked as an architect and interior designer in India and Canada and am pivoting towards a career in urban planning to engage in extensive projects at the macro level. My interests include affordable and mixed income housing, urban redevelopment, and housing finance, and I am deeply passionate about climate resilience in community planning. Being part of Climate Corps is a foundational step towards helping to solve equity issues in vulnerable communities along the coastal region.

Vineesh Das Kodakkandathil, RutgersVineesh Das Kodakkandathil
I am an urban planner with five years of professional experience in community-led ecotourism development and land use and environment management planning in ecologically sensitive areas. I have worked on and conducted extensive environmental sensitivity analyses, flood and landslide vulnerability assessments, and human impact assessments with the help of GIS tools. I’m currently pursuing my master’s in City and Regional Planning at Bloustein School with a concentration in Transport Planning and GIS.

Douglas LeungDouglas Leung
I am working with the Climate Change Resource Center to identify vulnerable communities and places affected by climate-induced flooding in coastal New Jersey municipalities. I am a Master of City and Regional Planning candidate at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. As a planner, I want to develop strategies and solve problems affecting our cities and communities that enable more equitable outcomes in housing and transportation. I am also a recent Army veteran, having served as a company commander of recruiting in the northern suburbs of Chicago and as a reconnaissance platoon leader in the 10th Mountain Division. For fun, I enjoy weightlifting, running, reading fiction, and board games.

Nihar MhatreNihar Mhatre
I am a master’s candidate in city and regional planning at Rutgers University’s Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, focusing on urban design and land use planning. Before being accepted at Rutgers, I worked as an architect at JD Studio and had my own architectural practice, Vastu Insights. My research interests revolve around designing and developing climate change adaptation and resilience strategies to promote equity in urban landscapes. Having the opportunity to work on real-world projects through Climate Corps will be an essential step in the development of my understanding of addressing climate change issues in vulnerable regions.

Justin MorrisJustin Morris
Justin is a master’s student at Rutgers University studying discovery informatics and data sciences. He is working under Professor Mark Rodgers to develop an optimization model that will act as a decision support tool for university financial investments with the end goal of eliminating Rutgers’ scope 2 emissions. He is excited to apply his background in data analytics and mathematical programming to help the university fight climate change.

Josephine O'GradyJosephine O’Grady
I am a first-year student in the Master of Public Policy program. Through the Coastal Climate Risk and Resilience (C2R2) certification, I am focusing a significant portion of my graduate coursework on topics including coastal geomorphology, environmental justice, and hazard mitigation planning. Before beginning my studies at the Bloustein School, I received my bachelor’s degree in public health from Kean University, where I first became interested in how coastal dynamics shape lived experiences. I previously served as an intern at the New Jersey State Policy Lab and currently work for the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

Jessica Parineet Jessica Parineet
I am a first-year Master of Public Policy student at the Bloustein School with a strong interest in climate change policy and related topics. In my previous work, I gained experience in a number of dimensions of climate change issues through carbon capture storage research, urban heat island research, and community level engagement as I am currently on the Student Advisory Board for the Rutgers Office of Climate Action. I am excited to expand on my interests in environmental justice and local level resilience planning through my involvement in the Climate Corps.

Dillon Patel Dillan Patel
I am a second-year Master of City and Regional Planning student concentrating in Environmental Planning and International Development. I have previously worked as an economist performing cost-benefit analysis and conducting monitoring and evaluation for renewable energy in developing countries. I have also spent a summer in western Massachusetts mapping stormwater infrastructure and working with planners to identify suitable places for green stormwater infrastructure.

Moira Sweeder, Rutgers Climate CorpsMoira Sweeder
I am a graduate student enrolled in the Master of City and Regional Planning program at the Bloustein School. My concentration is environmental planning with a focus on coastal resilience. Before pursuing my master’s degree at Rutgers, I studied sustainability at Stockton University. During this time, I interned for the PSEG Institute of Sustainability Studies, the Jacques Cousteau National Estuary Research Reserve, and NJ Audubon. I am thrilled to now be a part of the Climate Corps, researching coastal resilience as a part of the Megalopolitan Coastal Transformation Hub (MACH) team.

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