Climate Adaptation Planning

Cornell is the first major U.S. university to include climate adaptation in its CAP...

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Climate Adaptation Planning is an Innovation goal in the Cornell Climate Action Plan (CAP).

Conduct vulnerability assessments and climate adaptation planning in order to minimize disruptions to campus as a result of extreme weather events and increased flood risks.

Goal: Educate students and staff on campus about climate change impacts, engage faculty in climate adaptation research and demonstration projects, and help reduce future climate-related risks to the Cornell and Ithaca community through appropriate upgrades to campus infrastructure and protocols.

As part of the University’s land-grant mission, Cornell faculty, graduate students, and extension staff support climate science and adaptation planning for New York State and the wider Northeast Region. According to the Higher Education Climate Adaptation Committee, Cornell also has a national leadership opportunity to engage the campus community and showcase the application of robust planning climate adaptation tools. Cornell is the first major U.S. university to include climate adaptation in its Climate Action Plan. By innovating and demonstrating new approaches to infrastructure development and emergency response, Cornell can serve as a state and national leader in climate adaptation planning.

As the host of the Northeast Regional Climate Center, Cornell works with federal agencies such as NOAA to provide accurate climate data and analysis tools for the 12 state region. The data and many interactive analysis tools are publicly available through the website Cornell also provides climate adaptation support to farmers across the state through the Cornell Cooperative Extension and Agricultural Experiment Stations. The new Institute for Climate Change and Agriculture serves as a focal point to facilitate research, education, and outreach to reduce the agricultural sector’s collective impact on the climate and to help farmers become more resilient to climate change.

In 2009, NYSERDA commissioned a comprehensive state-wide report, Responding to Climate Change in New York State (ClimAid). Cornell faculty including Professors Art DeGaetano and David Wolfe helped coordinate the partnership with Columbia University and Hunter College to produce the report. The ClimAid report was undertaken to provide decision-makers with cutting-edge information on the state’s vulnerability to climate change and to facilitate the development of adaptation strategies informed by both local experience and scientific knowledge.

The ClimAid report includes a useful tool for campus engagement, the Climate Adaptation Guidebook for New York State, which outlines a methodology for local and regional planning. The Guidebook and a similar model developed at Dalhouise University in Canada, provide a roadmap for Cornell to create a customized climate adaptation plan for campus.

Cornell’s actions to mitigate climate change-related hazards will have widespread impacts across Tompkins County. Cornell University is the largest private land owner and employer in the county, and approximately 60,000 people live or work on Cornell property or adjacent to Cornell properties. Based on cost estimates from the Tompkins County All Hazard Mitigation Plan, Cornell could experience significant capital losses and health related costs in the range of $10,000 to $10M per event from predicted increases in severe droughts, flash floods, heat waves, and disruptions to water filtration systems as a result of climate change. If climate adaptation planning can help the University to anticipate and mitigate just 10% of these losses, savings could range from $1,000 to $1M per event – or more.

The Tompkins County Hazard Mitigation Plan was updated in 2013 to reflect the increased understanding that climate change-related hazards needed to be specifically addressed. In the 2013 update the county’s top three highest rated hazards identified using the Health Industry Representatives Association (HIRA) risk assessment process were: 1) transportation accident, 2) severe storm, and 3) flash flood. Additionally the plan emphasized that the county should to prepare for the following impacts over the next 65 years:

  • Heat waves will become more frequent and intense, increasing heatrelated illness and death and posing new challenges to the energy system, air quality, and agriculture.
  • Summer drought is projected to increase, affecting water supply, agriculture, ecosystems, and energy production.
  • Heavy downpours are increasing and are projected to increase further. These can lead to flooding and related impacts on water quality, infrastructure, and agriculture.
  • Major changes to ecosystems, including species range shifts, population crashes, and other sudden transformations, could have wide-ranging impacts, not only for natural systems but also for health, agriculture, and other sectors.

The County mitigation plan names Cornell as a partner in several key actions to mitigate the damage of climate change, including:

  • Developing regulations to prohibit future building in flood-prone areas as well as creating incentives to encourage property owners to protect and improve streams and buffers. This should include improving gorge safety and carefully designed and maintained trails within these buffer areas.
  • Developing and publicizing a heat response plan which includes the use of cooling centers.
  • Working with the scientific community to update and refine regional climate projections/impacts and utilizing this information in planning and management.

In the next two years faculty, staff, and local partners can utilize existing adaptation planning tools and processes to better prepare for the impacts of a changing climate. Scenariobased vulnerability assessments involving the campus community can be used to evaluate the need for smarter, more resilient infrastructure to withstand extreme weather events and increased flood risks.

Next Steps

  • Evaluate the existing methodologies presented by ClimAid and Dalhousie University.
  • Adopt a framework for climate adaptation planning.
  • Administer a vulnerabilities survey of the campus community and develop prioritized actions based on identified vulnerabilities.


The success of this effort will require support and involvement from Cornell EH&S, Tompkins County planning staff, and Cornell faculty to develop a robust assessment process. Funding will be required to conduct a vulnerability study.