Georgetown Law

Leading on Adaptation Law and Policy Issues

The Georgetown Climate Center's law and policy work is focused in the coastal and public health sectors and it strives to address the legal barriers involved with adaptation to sea-level rise, the increased frequency, scope, and severity of heat events and the spread of hazardous waste by increased flooding.  It also provides broad legal and policy mapping of issues and options, strategies to adapt to each set of challenges, and technical assistance to select states and localities.

Sea-Level Rise (SLR) Projects

Global sea levels could rise three to six feet over the next century. Four feet of sea-level rise would inundate an area the size of Massachusetts, and just 20 inches of sea-level rise would cause $23-170 billion in damage in the United States.1 Sea-level rise will cause higher storm surge and more flooding and erosion.

Governments will be required to spend large amounts of money responding to emergencies and rebuilding flooded infrastructure.

Recognizing these risks, state and local governments have begun developing adaptation plans. Some are moving from planning stages to actually implementing adaptive actions. In doing so, decision-makers often face many challenges, including competing policy alternatives; divided authority among local, state, and federal entities; and limited financial resources.

The Georgetown Climate Center works with state and local governments to help them become “coast-smart”—that is, better prepared to cope with the threats posed by rising sea levels. To this end, the Center helps state and local governments during all phases of adaptation. At the planning stage, we help identify adaptation policies and organize them into a coherent strategy. At the implementation stage, we help governments evaluate their authority to adopt existing policies to meet the unique threats posed by sea-level rise by incorporating policies into existing legal frameworks, navigating legal obstacles, and tapping federal resources.

Recent/Current Work

  • Sea-Level Rise Toolkit — This toolkit analyzes 18 different land-use tools that state and local governments can use to respond to sea-level rise. The toolkit identifies adaptive policies, discusses how each tool can be used to address sea-level rise, and provides a framework to help decision-makers weigh the trade-offs between options and anticipate potential legal and policy obstacles.
  • Policy analysis — The Center analyzes policy tools from three perspectives: 1) tools that local governments can implement on the ground (e.g., a model overlay zone to cope with sea-level rise), 2) ways that state and federal laws might hinder implementation of adaptive policies (e.g., analysis of the impact of the National Flood Insurance Program on retreat options), and 3) existing federal programs that could provide financial resources to help governments adapt (e.g., the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program).

Urban Heat Island Projects

America’s cities are warming at an extraordinary rate. Unique landscapes and built environments create neighborhoods known as “heat islands” that are significantly hotter than surrounding areas. While heat islands are already prevalent in many urban areas, climate change will make these hot areas even hotter. Rising heat endangers public health in addition to increasing energy use and pollution levels in cities. The elderly, young, and poor are especially vulnerable.

Many local governments have developed emergency plans for health departments and other agencies to respond to heat waves. But often they have not yet considered how they might adapt their physical environments (buildings, roads, parking lots, etc.) to keep residents cooler in the first place. Fortunately, many policy tools already exist that can alter that physical environment (building and zoning codes, for example).

The Georgetown Climate Center works with state and local governments to develop “heat-smart” communities that are well prepared to cope with rising temperatures — to help them identify the adaptation choices available to them and navigate through the legal obstacles they may face in trying to implement different options.

Recent/Current Work:

  • Urban Heat Island Toolkit — This tool kit analyzes four basic tools — green roofs, cool roofs, cool pavements, and urban forestry — that state and local governments can use to reduce the temperatures of urban “heat islands.” The toolkit identifies the tools, discusses ways that different cities have created programs to promote each, and provides a decision-making framework to help local officials weigh the trade-offs for their specific geographic, environmental, and other priorities.
  • Policy analysis — The Center analyzes policy tools from three perspectives: 1) options for local governments to implement particular tools on the ground (e.g., amending building, zoning, or other local codes), 2) ways that state and federal laws might obstruct or support implementation of local policies (e.g., federal regulations for public housing), and 3) existing federal programs that could provide financial resources to help state and local governments adapt (e.g., weatherization assistance programs or transportation funding).

Assisting with State Adaptation Policy

The Georgetown Climate Center provides assistance to states that are working to address specific adaptation barriers. The Center evaluated the legal barriers and opportunities for local jurisdictions to adapt to rising sea levels in Virginia and helped provide recommendations for California’s greenhouse gas reduction program.

Vicki Arroyo, the Center's executive director, served on California's Economic and Allocations Advisory Committee, where she worked to ensure that adaptation is considered as a potential recipient of future cap-and-trade revenues.