Preparing for the Changing Climate: a Northeast-Focused Needs Assessment

Roger Stephenson
Posted on: 6/16/2011 - Updated on: 3/02/2020

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Roger Stephenson

Project Summary

Preparing for the Changing Climate: a Northeast-Focused Needs Assessment is the first region-wide snapshot from regional, state, and local scales on how communities are preparing for a changing climate, and what resources and assistance they need to succeed. The report, published by Clean Air-Cool Planet, is based on direct outreach to over 200 communities from Maine to New Jersey, including survey responses from 34 local governments, six regional planning agencies, and eight state agencies. 


Clean Air-Cool Planet (CA-CP) has worked on climate change adaptation since 2003. CA-CP conducted a series of interviews and questionnaires to survey the preparedness of and resources needed for communities in the Northeast United States. The Northeast faces climate impacts such as sea level rise, changes in precipitation patterns, flooding, increased storms and extreme weather events, and threats to public health and safety. Community planning is key to preparing for climate change in the region. Supported by the Kresge Foundation, CA-CP released the report Preparing for the Changing Climate: a Northeast-Focused Needs Assessment in June 2011.


The report's intent is to provide a snapshot of the barriers and resource gaps that must be addressed in order for local, regional, and state governments to effectively plan for and implement climate preparedness strategies. In the autumn of 2010, CA-CP’s staff conducted a series of interviews with representatives from the states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and New Jersey. Most of those interviewed work in state government or are focused on providing resources on a statewide basis. The goal of these conversations was to get an overview of climate preparedness work going on throughout the Northeast. The information from these interviews was also used to guide the next step in the research process—the survey. A twenty-question survey was created and distributed online in January and February of 2011. It was sent to over 200 local, regional, and state government officials. The survey sought to uncover the degree to which such officials were already focused on the need for climate change preparation, and asked respondents to identify and prioritize—through a series of both multiple choice and open-ended questions—the resources they needed to move forward on such work.

In total, 51 complete survey responses were received (only surveys that were fully completed were included in the analysis), 48 of which were from representatives of local, regional, or state agencies. The responses were well distributed throughout the Northeast, with state-level responses from six of the eight states, regional agency responses from four states, and multiple local government responses from all eight states.

The survey was closed after approximately four weeks and the responses were analyzed via each of the three levels of governments. CA–CP’s experiences helping various partners on climate preparedness work over the past 12 to 18 months reinforce the results of the survey.

Outcomes and Conclusions

This needs assessment reached out to over 200 communities from Maine to New Jersey, and generated responses from 34 local governments, six regional governments, and eight state agencies. While it cannot be considered a comprehensive assessment, it does provide ample data from which to draw general conclusions about the state of adaptation work in the Northeast. 

Assessment Results

Activities Underway: Communities in the Northeast are concerned about preparing for climate change impacts; over half who responded are already doing some form of adaptation planning, and another third are concerned but unsure what steps to take or lacking capacity. The climate impacts communities are most focused on include sea level rise, increased precipitation and floodplain changes, as well as public welfare and health.

Technical Needs: Technical assistance of various kinds is needed. The top priority is help with infrastructure vulnerability assessments—35 percent of the local respondents identified that as their top technical need. Other high-priority technical needs included help with overall climate impact assessments, local climate/science data, and updated floodplain maps. The most pressing local climate data needs are for maps that project sea level-rise at the local level at different time scales. 

Education and Outreach Needs: Communities also need help with education and outreach. Twenty-one percent said that convincing the local public that climate change is happening is their top need. Many said that they needed help making adaptation action a priority at a time of constrained human and financial resources.

Financial and Capacity Needs: Communities need financial assistance and staff capacity. Seventy-seven percent of the respondents said they needed assistance to hire or contract with a full-time person to lead their climate preparedness efforts. In addition to technical, education and outreach, and financial needs, it appears that local governments would benefit from a champion to push for climate preparedness work; this need was expressed by many respondents in some of the open-ended survey questions. Many governments do not have staff or time to add adaptation to the agenda. As a result, governments are attempting to either incorporate adaptation into all of their departments and planning, or they are looking to hire a consultant who will do adaptation planning such as a vulnerability assessment, for them. Many suggest the first option is preferred, because it saves money and allows the people who know the community best to conduct the work; makes it more likely that such efforts will be integrated into “business as usual” and sustained; and avoids the creation of another plan that requires implementation and potentially will collect dust on a shelf somewhere. This approach simply involves putting a ‘climate lens’ across all departments and projects. Boston is one example of a community that is taking such an approach; each city agency or department has been asked to set and work toward meeting climate mitigation goals and to incorporate data about climate change impacts into all the planning or projects that they undertake. The downside to that integrated approach is that it requires moving multiple staff through a learning curve; with budgets tight and personnel stretched thin, it can be more feasible in the short term to bring in outside expertise for specific tasks, such as evaluating coastal infrastructure vulnerability.

Ultimately, communities must decide what approach is best for them. Most importantly, they must get started.


Stephenson, R. (2011). Preparing for the Changing Climate: a Northeast-Focused Needs Assessment. Ed. Rachel M. Gregg. [Case study on a project of Clean Air-Cool Planet]. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated June 2011).

Project Contacts

Position: Senior Counsel

Affiliated Organizations

We are in the business of solving the global warming problem through civic engagement, education and effective policy.

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