Moving Toward Adaptation

April 14, 2014
By Jenny Li Fowler, HKS Communications

The deadly mudslide that struck a small community in Snohomish County, Washington last month is raising new questions about the willingness and capacity of governments to prepare for the potentially serious impacts of global warming. While there are many examples of municipalities failing to act, a Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) teaching case prepared in 2009 spotlights the efforts by neighboring King County, Washington to develop strategies to confront the weather-related challenges facing it.
The case notes that at a time when “most local and regional leaders in the United States had not engaged the climate change issue…[King County Executive Ron Sims] pledged to take a leadership role on global warming, including the nearly unchartered realm of ‘adaptation’ – preparing at the local level for impacts of climate change considered inevitable.”
Part of Sims’ challenge included “persuading his colleagues in local government to arm against dangers that were not yet clear or present. In 2005, Sims presented his cabinet-level staff with a report outlining what King County would be like in 2050, if present trends went unchanged. He urged them to work backward from the predictions in developing their own goals and recommendations.”
Sims’ first order of business was to add a $28 million improvement to the Brightwater Wastewater Treatment Center that would clean water thoroughly enough for uses other than drinking, e.g. agriculture, street-washing and industrial use.
“The future need for this water was uncertain, but the possibility of a serious shortage of reservoir water was one of the climate change impacts most feared in the Puget Sound region,” the case notes. Yet not everyone on the King County Council agreed with this use of funds.
“The question of ‘how do you adapt?’—it’s something that people still don’t want to talk about,” says Sims, “because it’s an admission of political failure on an international scale, and a domestic one.”

The King County case package includes a teaching case written by Pamela Varley, senior case writer at HKS, and a video companion piece, produced by Patricia Garcia-Rios, multimedia case writer. The materials were developed under the sponsorship of Jack Donahue, Raymond Vernon senior lecturer in public policy.

The video companion piece includes 13 segments ranging in length from two to four minutes, which may be played in sequence, for a mini-documentary, or in any combination. These segments introduce the key players featured in the case and discuss three of King County’s most significant projects adaptation projects: reclaimed water, floodplain restoration and a guidebook for local, state and regional governments on how to prepare for climate change.
This case study is available for purchase through HKS partner Harvard Business Publishing.

Nov. 2006 floods in King County, WA.
Photo Credit: Ned Ahrens/King County Dept. of Transportation

“The question of ‘how do you adapt?’—it’s something that people still don’t want to talk about,” says King County Executive Ron Sims.

Nov. 2006 floods in King County, WA.
Photo Credit: Tim O'Leary/King County Dept. of Natural Resources and Parks


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