Revisiting barriers to climate change adaptation in coastal municipalities Massachusetts




Kelly Main (United States of America) 1

1 - Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Massachusetts has positioned itself as a leader in climate adaptation and mitigation action. However, there is little knowledge about how exactly climate adaptation is occurring at the local level and what barriers municipalities in the state face in implementing adaptation strategies. In response to a 2011 study on barriers to climate adaptation in coastal municipalities in Massachusetts that found ‘leadership’ and ‘values and beliefs’ as the two main barriers to adaptation, this thesis set out to ask: how, given the increase in extreme weather events and the presence of significant political leadership at the state level, have barriers to climate adaptation for coastal municipalities changed? And if the barriers have changed, what are the new barriers? The research draws on sixteen interviews with staff in six municipalities and arrives at the following findings: (i) barriers to adaptation have shifted from the understanding phase to barriers found in the implementation phase, and include the following cross cutting themes: (ii) private property interests are a significant barrier because publicly funded adaptation projects require public easements on all property that benefits from public funding; (iii) the potential of decreasing property tax revenue continues to be a concern for towns that rely on valuable waterfront property as a pillar of their municipal income; (iv) the town meeting process illuminates many concerns about equity in regards to who should pay for adaptation projects; (v) planners are aware of zoning and land use strategies for long-term adaptation, but such projects are still unpopular and unlikely to pass a town meeting vote in the near term; and (vi) uncertainty about significant damage caused by extreme weather events is more challenging to manage than slow-onset changes such as sea level rise or temperature changes.

The findings lead one to believe that adaptation planning is not in fact a bureaucratic issue to be overcome with information, charts, and resources, but a much more fundamentally conceptual issue faced by a society grappling with the implications of shifting economic, social, and environmental conditions caused by climate change.