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Climate Adaptation Policy: "It's not going away"

Environmental studies graduate student addresses the future of climate adaptation policy
Bethany N. Bella | Oct 25, 2017

The recent changes in federal climate policy initiatives, especially the United States' withdraw from the historic Paris Agreement, has many environmentalists concerned for the future of climate change policy.

However, for Master of Science in Environmental Studies (MSES) candidate Alex Hurley, climate adaptation policy is as resilient as the cities and local communities still committed to addressing climate change – it's just shifting from a heavy top-down to a thriving bottom-up approach.

Hurley and several of his Voinovich School colleagues attended the third National Adaptation Forum, a three-day conference held this May in St. Paul, Minnesota. The Forum, hosted every two years, entertains a "big ecosystem" of green businesses, academics, non-profit organizations, and government officials – all engaged in climate adaptation planning and action. 

Hurley's interest in pursuing climate adaptation didn't emerge until the end of his undergraduate experience at Centre College in Danville, KY.

As one of the first students to graduate with an undergraduate Environmental Studies major, Hurley got the opportunity to work on a carbon mitigation project that kick-started his research in interdisciplinary environmental studies. Through this work, he set the groundwork for his graduate interest in 'knowledge networks' – or how information and ideas about climate change are shared through different networks of government and civil society.

His next opportunity, working as a chapter consultant at his fraternity's national headquarters, applied this interest in knowledge networks on the job – but in a different field. Hurley learned valuable lessons about building relationships and important professional development skills that have helped shape his future career in climate adaptation.

"In a way, I did get to practice some of that policy and knowledge diffusion in the role that I had," Hurley says. "I was very interested in the way the organization was structured, and combining that with environmental studies led me to what I'm doing now. It's all connected."

Now as an MSES candidate, Hurley's thesis project expands on this flow of information in climate policy circles and asks "Who's most central in this network?" of climate policy and adaptation.

"There's been a lot of activity at the local level," Hurley says. "It's a common saying: 'All adaptation to climate change is local.' You live at the local level – that's how it's going to affect people – so you need local governments involved with solutions.

At the lower level of government, they're more nimble, and that means a lot. Climate change creates such huge hurdles for society, for an economy, for policy, that having some nimbleness is extremely important."

His research with environmental studies faculty Dr. Derek Kauneckis focuses on the connections between local governments and universities, federal climate-related programs, non-governmental and private-sector actors and how each of these connections impact local climate action. The over-arching project, initiated by Dr. Kauneckis, involved sending approximately 12,000 community surveys across the country, resulting in more than a thousand responses – and a data lover’s gold-mine.

Ultimately this research initiative led Hurley to continues his studies at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs.

"I'm interested in the way that different levels of government and society can work together to solve an issue like climate change," Hurley says. "If we can help contribute to the literature in good ways for local governments to get engaged in this knowledge network, then maybe we can play a small part in driving adaptation around the country."

At the Forum, Hurley took a keen interest in the local climate policy initiatives being presented, connecting and collaborating with many of the Forum's panelists and attendees in-person and on social media networks – another local climate policy engagement tool.

"[The Forum] was great for me because that's what I study – all these people coming together, and so I'm basically walking around looking at all the people and organizations I've been researching," Hurley says. "It was just an incredible opportunity to network.

"I can read about it, but it's something else when you hear about it in-person."

Despite the obstacles for climate adaptation unfolding at the federal level, Hurley remains confident that policy addressing climate change is "not going away."

"Just because there's a changing of the guard, it's not too late – there's too much momentum now."