Charles County is one of three counties in the state that will be teaming up with the University of Maryland’s Center for Global Sustainability to develop strategies for protecting community assets against the effects of climate change.
The “Resiliency Planning and Financing for Maryland Counties” program, which will also include Queen Anne and Anne Arundel counties in its initial phase, will result in a customized resilience plan that the county can use to prepare for and respond to flooding, hurricanes and other natural disasters as they become stronger or more frequent due to climate change effects.
“We’re really excited to be part of that first group of counties they’re working with,” county administrator Mark Belton told the Maryland Independent. “Climate change [effects are] widespread. It’s not just sea level rise. There’s a lot of things going on there.”
During the first phase of the project, which is expected to last through January, a team of county government staff from a variety of departments will be identifying the county’s critical assets and ranking them by their importance in ensuring the county is able to continue operating during and after a climate-related emergency.
“In a lot of ways it’s like a risk assessment,” Belton said. “If you have a most important asset in an area that’s going to be impacted [by climate change], then you’ve got to make some plans to deal with that.”
The second phase of the planning process, which will likely last a year, will include identifying options for funding improvements to those critical assets, which could include county funds as well as resiliency grants from state and federal agencies.
“As we put together our capital budget, which is a six-year plan ... some of [the projects] have 30 year or more service lives,” Belton said. “So you want to make sure they’re ready to withstand the impacts of climate change 30, 40, 50 years from now.”
One of the challenges facing resilience planners is identifying where the funding will come from to construct new resilient architecture as well as to buttress existing resources — and persuading elected officials to divert those funds from other projects.
“Obviously, every jurisdiction struggles with how to pay for ... new initiatives that weren’t already on the books,” said county planner Beth Groth, who is spearheading the county’s team on the project. “We have a couple of experts [from the University of Maryland] on the team that are ... really involved in this financing piece. I’m really getting excited to hear what kind of [ideas] they have.”
The Center for Global Sustainability, part of the university’s school of public policy, supports a number of projects related to climate policy, including programs to stimulate financial investment in sustainable and renewable energy practices and develop strategies for adapting to climate change.
Groth describes the resiliency plan as requiring an “across the board shift” in the way the county thinks about protecting its assets from risks associated with increasingly severe weather events — everything from reducing carbon emissions by adding more pedestrian- and bike-friendly options to changes in the zoning code.
“When you’re talking about climate change, you really need to look at it very holistically,” Groth explained. “Down to the type of paper that we purchase. If it’s not recycled, it has an impact. Those are things we’re going to have to really be looking at overall.”
Groth said her team will be conducting a greenhouse gas emissions inventory of county buildings and vehicles, with the ultimate goal of requiring all future building construction to meet Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, or LEED, standards for emissions both during construction and day-to-day use.
“There’s a lot of things that will be in our arsenal when it comes to climate change,” Groth said. “We’re going to have to pretty much look at everything.”
Climate change resiliency is a priority for Belton, whom the board of county commissioners hired as county administrator in January after serving as the Department of Natural Resources secretary during the first term of Gov. Larry Hogan (R). Belton said that he was able to convey the county’s interest in participating in the resiliency planning and financing program through personal connections he had established during his time in Annapolis.
On Belton’s watch as environment secretary, the state also established a Climate Leadership Academy, a six-day program for local and state government executives to obtain credentials as a certified climate change professional. By the end of this year’s class, Belton said, Charles County will have more graduates from the program than any other county.
Belton said that he has been gratified to see a strong interest in addressing climate change issues among the younger staff members who grew up with environmental education as part of their school curricula.
“We’re all used to looking at the past as a predictor of the future,” Belton said. “In the future, we can’t look at that as the pattern to expect. We need to look at what the scientists tell us the new norm is going to be. You’ve got to have a whole different lens on it. It’s a different way of thinking.”