With its mix of bustling metro areas and varied topography—from rugged coasts and snowcapped mountains to major rivers and expansive semi-arid plains—Washington state is particularly vulnerable to the effects of a changing climate. Flooding is the most prevalent and expensive climate-related disaster in the state and recently has led to some alarming scenes. But recent deadly heat waves and anticipated longer fire seasons and the higher likelihood of drought show that state and local leaders must plan for a range of severe climate-related threats.
To reduce these current and future risks, Washington has developed an innovative approach to leverage resources and knowledge from across state government and local communities. The new Climate Planning Guidance grew out of a nearly two-year effort by the state’s Department of Commerce and its partners to help communities reduce greenhouse gas emissions while incorporating climate resilience into local comprehensive plans. The guidance took on new meaning this year when the state enacted a bill to update the Growth Management Act (GMA) requiring that the state’s fastest-growing counties and cities set climate goals in their comprehensive plans.
In September, Sarah Fox, climate program manager for the Washington Department of Commerce, led a virtual discussion on the new guidance with a Pew-convened network of resilience officials, the State Resilience Planning Group. Fox explained that the guidance helps communities select and customize climate goals and priorities, offering an interactive dashboard and menu of over 200 climate measures for communities to choose from.
The Department of Commerce partnered with six other state agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources and Department of Ecology, and assembled a team of 80 local planners, consultants, and Tribal leaders, met regularly over a year and a half. Additionally, the Commerce Department contracted with Front and Centered, an environmental justice coalition, to carry out an extensive community engagement process and enlist leaders from overburdened and vulnerable communities to help design the guidance.
To test the new planning guidance and tools, Fox and her partners worked with consulting groups to develop a pilot program and recruited three small cities to participate and provide feedback on usability and on whether those cities would implement any of the climate measures identified.
"We recruited communities that are more affected by different climate impacts: One is focused on coastal impacts, another on wildfires, and the third on inland flooding,” Fox said. “We partnered with them to build trust in our process, test our guidance, and become champions for our recommendations.”
The selected cities of Port Angeles, Pullman, and Woodland worked with consultants to identify climate hazards with the support of an online tool from the University of Washington’s Climate Impacts Group, “Climate Mapping for a Resilient Washington.” Per the guidance, each city followed a four-point process:
- Establish a climate policy team.
- Develop a public participation plan.
- Draft a climate plan element.
- Integrate that element into the city or county comprehensive plan.
The pilot program revealed that staff capacity was a major barrier, with only one of the three cities reporting that it had sufficient expertise to execute the resilience guidance. Study findings from the pilot, along with input from the communities and stakeholders, encouraged the Department of Commerce to explore technical assistance opportunities such as webinars, workshops, and a hotline for communities.
To further support local resilience planning, Washington is awarding about $30 million in climate planning grants to communities covered by the GMA to build staff and technical support capacity. The grants will support two years of town and county efforts to explore climate impacts, identify needs in existing plans and policies, and implement new climate measures.
With robust planning guidance, tools developed with community input, and funding support, cities and communities in the Evergreen State can better assess climate-related hazards, plan ahead, and act to ensure a resilient, safe, and thriving future.
Kristiane Huber works on climate resilience with Pew’s U.S. conservation project.