Lessons Learned

The first State of Adaptation report, which reviewed over 150 marine and coastal projects in North America, concluded that the majority of adaptation activities were focused on building capacity and adaptation planning. Since that report was released in 2011, several of those projects have been completed, while others are ongoing or have been expanded to new geographies. Additional adaptation initiatives have been launched both by project leads that have completed their initial efforts and new players in the field. In general, there is a continued focus on assessment and planning for climate change in many marine and coastal projects with moderate advancements in the implementation and evaluation of activities. Progress is being made, although not at the pace and scale required to keep up with changing conditions.

Additional trends of note from our survey include:

  • Focusing on advancing equitable adaptation
  • Consensus-based use of climate projections in decision-making
  • Integration of communities in adaptation projects led by conservation organizations
  • Slower uptake & implementation of monitoring & evaluation
  • Continuing critical role of the federal government in adaptation


Focusing on Advancing Equitable Adaptation

More adaptation projects are considering the differential impacts of climate change on individuals and communities in different regions of the United States. Sea level rise, flooding, drought, and extreme heat and weather events can damage coastal infrastructure and homes, pose threats to public health and safety, affect local economies, disrupt access to food, water, and critical services (e.g., hospitals, utilities, transportation), and cause the temporary or permanent displacement of individuals and communities. Social factors, such as race and ethnicity, age, gender, economic stability, and education, contribute to both the vulnerability of and adaptation options available to communities. Meaningfully engaging community members in processes that affect where and how people live is an emerging part of the community adaptation planning framework. For example, Catalyst Miami, an anti-poverty non-profit organization, created the Community Leadership on the Environment, Advocacy, and Resilience (CLEAR) Program to train local climate justice leaders.52 After completing the program, graduates are invited to develop proposals for climate-related community projects, which are eligible for funding by Catalyst Miami.

Consensus-based Use of Climate Projections in Decision-making

Many local governments are moving towards consensus in projections used for decision-making. By moving away from a county-by-county, project-by-project approach towards programmatic consistency on what and how climate science should be factored into decision making, these communities are developing and implementing complementary adaptation plans. For example, the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact released a Regionally Unified Sea Level Rise Projection to guide coastal planning in Broward, Miami-Dade, Monroe, and Palm Beach counties.53 The projection was first released in 2011 and updated in 2015 and 2019. The latest update provides sea level rise projections through 2120, ranging from 10–17 inches by 2040, 21–54 inches by 2070, and 40–126 inches by 2120. Similarly, the Washington Coastal Resilience Project developed community-level sea level rise projections for 171 locations in coastal Washington, which have been adopted by several counties in the state to inform decision making.

Integration of Communities in Adaptation Projects Led by Conservation Organizations

Many conservation organizations that once focused almost exclusively on habitats and species have shifted to accommodate an added community focus because getting the local community engaged and invested has transformed the longevity of climate adaptation programs. For example, Mass Audubon is the largest private landholder and conservation organization in Massachusetts. Major activities include acquiring land to protect wildlife habitat and provide open space for residents, including purchasing and restoring land in Plymouth to allow coastal wetlands and salt marshes to migrate inland in response to sea level rise.54 More recent climate-related efforts are focused on convening community members through programs such as Youth Climate Summits and Climate Cafés to become climate-informed activists.

Slower Uptake & Implementation of Monitoring & Evaluation

While many marine and coastal adaptation plans and projects note the importance of including a monitoring and evaluation component, there are few examples of implementation. There are many more examples of projects that track climatic changes and progress on implementation than those that track the effectiveness of approaches. The field would benefit from learning how individual strategies and actions have proven successful––or not. Sharing what has not worked and why may help others avoid similar pitfalls. For example, the Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, initiated an oyster reef habitat restoration project on the intertidal flats of Lieutenant Island.55 The project was initiated to boost local populations of the wild American oyster (Crassostrea virginica) and to restore oyster reef habitat in order to protect the local shoreline from increased storm surges, sea level rise, and coastal erosion. Less than a year after the oyster reefs were installed, winter ice floes destroyed the reefs. Project leads realized that the installation site was appropriate to combat slow-onset events such as sea level rise and erosion, but too exposed to succeed during stronger winter events. Mass Audubon is now seeking funding for additional oyster reef habitat restoration projects in more protected areas of Wellfleet Bay.

Continuing Critical Role of the Federal Government in Adaptation

While local action is required for adaptation, federal support and action cannot be understated. The collective technical and financial capacity of the federal government is key to the advancement of climate adaptation and mitigation action in the United States. Over the last decade, federal action on adaptation has been highly variable. President Obama enacted a number of executive orders, which mandated the evaluation of climate vulnerability and the creation and implementation of agency climate adaptation plans. The Trump Administration then halted or terminated several of these efforts in favor of energy development on federal lands by Executive Order 13783, Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth. Funding was also stripped from many federal climate programs that provide critical services to tribal, state, and local governments and nongovernmental entities, such as the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs), which were largely eliminated or placed on indefinite hiatus since 2017. In some cases, federal programs found a way to survive these cuts; for example, the Climate Adaptation Science Centers (CASCs) have been a consistent presence due to their ongoing partnerships with regional universities. These centers facilitate scientific research, modeling, forecasting, and monitoring of climate impacts on the nation’s resources and serve as information centers for stakeholders in eight U.S. regions: Alaska, North Central, Northeast, Northwest, Pacific Islands, South Central, Southeast, and Southwest. For example, the Pacific Islands Climate Adaptation Science Center has been a key player in the effort to fund and coordinate research in the broader region, which includes the Hawaiian Islands and the U.S.-affiliated islands of American Samoa, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of the Marshall Islands, and the Republic of Palau.

The Biden Administration has launched ambitious efforts to confront climate change. Executive Order 14008, Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, centers climate change as an urgent issue requiring immediate action, and a critical element of foreign and domestic policy. The order requires each agency to submit climate action plans for review by the National Climate Task Force, White House Council on Environmental Quality, and Office of Management and Budget, and to report on implementation progress annually. On October 7, 2021, 23 agencies released adaptation and resilience plans to guide federal action on climate change. While these latest efforts at the federal level show promise, executive orders can be revoked. The policy whiplash of the last decade is unsustainable in a changing climate, and more durable climate adaptation action at the federal level may only happen with legislation.