Georgetown Climate Center’s Jessica Grannis: Adapt to Climate Change, Don’t Just Mitigate

BYLINE: KIERSTYN SCHNECK

March 5, 2015

Washington, D.C.— What if reducing your carbon footprint isn’t enough to stop climate change?

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy and the World Meteorological Organization naming 2014 the hottest year on record, the idea that climate change is already upon us doesn’t seem revolutionary despite the debate about humanity’s impact. In 2009, however, it was.

For attorney Jessica Grannis, adapting to climate change was just as important as mitigating it. It was the reason she left the West Coast in 2009 to move to the District of Columbia and join the newly formed Georgetown Climate Center.

Grannis is the center’s Adaptation Program Manager and teaches for the Harrison Institute for Public Law at the Georgetown University Law Center.

The Georgetown Climate Center works with state and local governments to help them update their climate, energy and transportation policies. The center also provides resources on how to plan ahead for issues like flooding and to understand changes made at the federal level.

“We help bring together state and local experts with their federal counterparts to think about how existing programs could be repurposed or better deployed,” Grannis said. “We help them as they grapple with the changes that are in store.”

According to the World Meteorological Organization, nations have been experiencing more extreme weather and rising sea levels, all signs of climate change.

The global mean sea level could rise up to six feet in the next century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Before the Center

Grannis was always interested in environmental policy. After graduating from Hastings College of the Law at the University of California in 2005, she worked on real property disputes for a private law firm. She wanted litigation experience in this field, Grannis said, because environmental issues often involve disputes over property.

She soon realized that litigation wasn’t for her and started working for the California State Coastal Conservancy and the Ocean Protection Council.

The California State Coastal Conservancy protects and restores coastland, while the Ocean Protection Council more broadly protects California’s ocean and coastal ecosystems.

Grannis worked on climate change adaptation policies and coastland property acquisitions while at these agencies.

The Ocean Protection Council works across several government agencies because the coast and ocean represent a significant portion of the state’s economy, according to Grannis.

One of her roles as part of this council was to help write the coastal and ocean adaptation chapter for the state’s climate change adaptation plan.

“I got steeped in the issues of sea level rise adaptation and then how you integrate adaptation into these layers of state and local regulation,” Grannis said. “At the time, people saw adaptation as a diversion from the real work that needed to be done, which was mitigation.”

Vicki Arroyo of the Pew Center on Global Climate Change was starting the Georgetown Climate Center around this time.

Arroyo, now executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center, wanted to create a program that would help governments face the effects of climate change and not just try to stop it, according to Grannis.

“She [Arroyo] was ahead of her time and knew that adaptation needed to be put on the same footing [as mitigation] because we already put enough green house gases into the atmosphere that we’re inevitably going to see consequences of that,” Grannis said.

Working at the Georgetown Climate Center has allowed Grannis to apply what she did for California to the national level, she said, and help a broader variety of state and local governments.

Grannis has worked with governments in Vermont, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York and Louisiana. One of the environmental issues Grannis works on with these states is flooding.

Out of these direct projects, Grannis and her law students created an adaptation tool kit.

Grannis plans to make the kit digital, so she can update the tools regularly as laws change and new research is published.

“The tool kit is an example of how we’re trying to distill the best practices for preparing for sea-level rise impact for a broader audience,” Grannis said.

The tool kit includes 18 suggestions on how to prepare for routine flooding, storm surges and other threats posed by sea-level rise.

Increased Flooding

Most areas near the coast could face 30 or more days of flooding by 2050 because the rises in sea level, according to a 2014 NOAA report. The District is already past that tipping point and is experiencing routine flooding now, according to the report.

Governments need to consider changes in sea level, precipitation and development patterns when assessing flood risks, according to Grannis.

“The reality is that most communities aren’t prepared for today’s flood events,” Grannis said, “let alone a dramatically different future.”

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