Weathering the Storms – UConn Leads in Climate Adaptation (Part 1)

Whether or not you believe the overwhelming scientific evidence  about climate change and anthropogenic causation, you will probably agree that it makes sense to prepare for the worst of New England’s sometimes harsh weather.  And regardless of whether you interpret the occurrence in Connecticut, over the past three years, of two 100-year storms, one 50-year storm, and a record-setting blizzard as a sign that the effects of global warming are upon us, or as random coincidence, you probably have done things recently to prepare for storms that you might not have done four years ago.

Raise your hand if, faced with the more likely prospects of downed trees and power lines, you’ve done things like bought an emergency generator or chain saw for your home.  Or if, with the forecast of more stormy weather and the risk of flooding or an extended power outage ahead, you’ve topped off the gas in your hybrid car or stocked up at the grocery store.  If so, what you’re doing is a scaled-down form of adaptation, building personal and family resilience against the effects of what may be our “new normal” weather patterns.

In planning for the more frequent and severe storms predicted by climate scientists, UConn was ahead of the curve two years ago when President Herbst reaffirmed the University’s commitment to a carbon-neutral campus and approved the addition of an Adaptation Section to our Climate Action Plan (CAP).  Since that late-March day in 2012, and in collaboration with the State of Connecticut, UConn’s progress on adaptation initiatives in particular has been remarkable.

Sure, our CAP, like hundreds of others at college campuses across the country, contains a multitude of mitigation measures.  By implementing many of them, UConn has successfully reduced its carbon footprint in existing buildings by more than 10% since 2010.  But UConn’s 2012 Adaptation amendment, unique among colleges and universities at the time, offers to others our expertise and resources for adaptive response.  Inherent in these recommended measures is the assumption that the world’s collective actions to reduce carbon emissions are too little, and possibly too late, to prevent damaging, or even catastrophic, consequences.

As Connecticut’s land and sea grant, public research university, UConn can and should play this pivotal role, especially in helping communities throughout the state and region protect property and natural resources, harden infrastructure, and ensure public health and safety. This two-part blog will review some of the activities that have made UConn a true leader in climate resiliency.

New Climate Adaptation Center

An event in late-January marked an important milestone when local, state, federal and University officials, along with environmental advocates, gathered to announce the exciting news that UConn’s coastal Avery Point campus will be home to the new Institute for Community Resiliency and Climate Adaptation (ICRCA).  The dedication of the new Institute was an event that would make anyone associated with UConn proud to call themselves an EcoHusky.  It featured an impressive line-up of leaders and lawmakers taking turns at the podium, from Governor Malloy, to President Herbst, U.S. Senator Blumenthal, Congressman Courtney, EPA Region 1 Administrator Spalding and DEEP Commissioner Esty.  As coastal communities face the more immediate risks of rising seas from global warming, the historic Branford House on our Avery Point Campus was an apropos setting for this ceremony, with Long Island Sound glistening as a backdrop through the windows of the crowded atrium.

UConn President Susan Herbst speaks at an event to announce the launch of the Institute for Community Resiliency and Climate Adaptation held on Jan. 24, 2014 at the Branford House at the University of Connecticut Avery Point campus in Groton(Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)
UConn President Susan Herbst speaks at an event to announce the launch of the Institute for Community Resiliency and Climate Adaptation held on Jan. 24, 2014 at the Branford House at the University of Connecticut Avery Point campus in Groton(Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

The Institute in Groton will unite faculty in the natural sciences, engineering, economics, political science, finance, and law disciplines, as well as expert staff from Connecticut’s DEEP and the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a front to increase both the resiliency and sustainability of the state’s communities, critical transportation and energy infrastructure, and coastline. It will receive an initial $2.5 million in operating funds from a joint EPA Region 1/DEEP settlement of an environmental enforcement action related to a Connecticut company’s wastewater discharges to Long Island Sound.

Through collaborative research, education and outreach, the ICRCA will help Connecticut areas to withstand these developing climate challenges by focusing on:

  • Improving scientific understanding of the changing climate and its local and regional impacts;
  • Encouraging strategies that will reduce the loss of life, property and natural resources, and limit social disruption from future high impact weather events as well as from sea level rise, flooding, erosion and other hazards;
  • Hardening of the electric grid and other shoreline infrastructure such as roads, bridges, train tracks, and wastewater treatment plants;
  • Designing innovative financial options for property owners seeking to make their homes and businesses more resilient;
  • Conducting workshops and developing on-line decision support tools for regional and local officials;
  • Increasing public understanding of climate issues so that residents and community leaders can make scientifically informed and environmentally sound decisions about climate adaptation.

Given this comprehensive list of public services, which track the goals of our CAP’s 2012 Adaptation amendment, there is no doubt the new Institute will be central to fulfilling UConn’s adaptation promises. For CTN’s public TV recording of the dedication ceremony, please click here.

By Rich Miller, Director Office of Environmental Policy (OEP) and Kerrin Kinnear, OEP Intern (4th semester, ENVST).

(Next: Weathering the Storms, Part 2 takes a closer look at UConn’s major climate adaptation research initiatives, from clean energy microgrids to roadside forestry, with a preview of the March 31st CIMA3 conference.) 

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