Going Local

March 17, 2014

In the New England Climate Adaptation Project, MIT is working with four at-risk coastal communities in New England [Dover, NH; Wells, ME; Barnstable, MA; Cranston, RI] and four nearby National Estuarine Research Reserve System sites [Great Bay Reserve, Wells Reserve, Waquoit Bay Reserve, and Narragansett Bay Reserve]. All four communities are projected to experience significant changes in precipitation, temperature, and sea level as a result of climate change. With this in mind, one of the goals of the project is to illustrate that local communities can collaboratively engage in planning to prepare for these impacts, even in the face of scientific uncertainty. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in a veil of pessimism when it comes to addressing environmental issues, and climate change is an especially daunting problem. Scientific uncertainty, misinformation, competing views and interests along with other issues present huge barriers to taking action. The icing on the cake is the contentious nature of national politics, which does not exactly inspire confidence in our nation’s ability to prepare for the potential impacts of climate change. While it is tempting to give in to the belief that nothing can or will ever get done, doing nothing addresses nothing. Unfortunately, though, doing nothing happens all too often. So what the four communities – Dover, Wells, Barnstable, and Cranston - have attempted to do is really inspiring. It’s not that they aren’t realistic – the barriers mentioned above are real – but these communities have not given in to the belief that they are insurmountable. Instead, they are experimenting with new and innovative ways to break down these barriers, and to move forward. I was the research assistant working with Dover and the Great Bay Reserve, and worked closely with members of the Dover Planning Department and the Great Bay Reserve. They weren’t spectators; instead they were an integral and visible force in planning and running the workshops. We had 120 different participants in total come to these workshops, a number of whom were associated with local government, and every one of whom added something valuable to the conversation. Our initial findings indicate that these workshops raised awareness –awareness of climate change risks, and awareness that local stakeholders can play a key role in proactively addressing these risks. These communities stand as a reminder that much can be done to prepare for climate change impacts, especially at the local level. Dover may not be able to stop other communities or states or nations from emitting greenhouse gas emissions, but Dover can get ready for the consequences of those emissions, and those 120 participants have already taken the first steps to do so. They are not only preparing their own community to deal with the impacts, but they are also setting an example for other communities, by being willing to step outside of the status quo, look at problems from a different perspective, and apply local knowledge to global problems with local impacts.

-Casey Stein, Research Assistant and Master in City Planning Candidate