Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

How Tompkins County Can Address its Lags on Essential Climate Adaptation Infrastructure

By Samuel NicholsPublished January 15, 2022

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Climate change is becoming increasingly unavoidable. Policymakers have largely focused on mitigating climate change, but it is also time to refocus on adapting to the changes we will soon be living with. Tompkins County, for example, must do more to protect its most vulnerable and to prepare for the consequences of climate change that we are currently experiencing.

The vast majority of discourse around the recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasglow has focused on the successful agreements to cut emissions and coal usage, as well as to further finance renewable energy programs. These strategies are fundamentally mitigatory: they attempt to reduce the effects of climate change by reducing the flow of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Despite the great amount of attention these agreements have garnered, these plans may be decades too late. The most recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report described human-caused climate change as “irreversible” and “inevitable.” Despite various agreements and initiatives, 84% of our energy comes from fossil fuels, which continue to be burned at an accelerating rate each year. Climate change is no longer avoidable––it is being lived. People are already dealing with the effects of climate change worldwide, whether it be the rising of sea levels or extreme weather events. There are hundreds of examples of its harms, from the fading of permafrost in Siberia to the disappearance of the Carteret Islands under rising sea levels. It is time for policymakers to move past the focus on mitigation to a new focus on adaptation.


Tompkins County is a diverse county, where approximately 12% of residents live below the poverty line. Climate change will affect these individuals the most, as well as other “vulnerable” populations that are unable to independently adapt to climate change, move to safer areas, or otherwise invest in safety measures. Furthermore, due to rising temperatures and an increased formation of heat waves, towns and cities such as Ithaca will experience the urban heat island effect, where urban areas become significantly hotter than surrounding rural areas. In addition, Ithaca is also at risk for flooding, with many of its most vulnerable residents potentially being the most impacted. While Ithaca’s movement toward decarbonization is certainly a step in the right direction, it is important for the public to invest in adaptability measures now, before it is too late.


The need to make adaptability investments now is reinforced by the fact that infrastructure upgrades and their financing often take years. Short-term and cost-effective strategies that prevent flooding, such as stream buffers and the creation of cooling centers for low-income and homeless people, are quick solutions that have the ability to save lives. Additionally, participating in the Federal Emergency Management Agency Community Rating System would be another cost-effective system to build up climate adaptation infrastructure in Tompkins County. This initiative is a voluntary incentive program that provides incentives in the form of discounted flood insurance premiums and investments for cities and counties that meet water and flood management guidelines. On a wider scale, assessing the resilience of residential and commercial buildings to extreme weather events, flooding, and heatwaves would be increasingly important. Many buildings in interior cities, such as Ithaca, are not built to withstand the storms that would become increasingly common as a result of climate change. These vulnerabilities also must be noted when developing new buildings. New developments must be cautious to avoid interfering with wetlands, which are often important for flood prevention and water management. Further, new developments should be located away from vulnerable floodplains. Depending on the severity of storms, as well as data from Flood Insurance Rate Maps and Geographic Information Systems in New York State, it may even become important to relocate already existing structures. Climate adaptation would require significant public investment, and it would be important to make sure that adaptation strategies are scientifically-backed and provide long-term protection from climate risks. The quicker that Tompkins County is able to invest in climate protective infrastructure, the less it would have to spend on expensive repairs later.


Climate change is continuing, despite utmost effort from policymakers. Strides have been made, but it is important for the world to accept that damage has already been done––and this damage must be lived with. Although decarbonization initiatives and the advancement of renewables are priorities, Ithaca and the broader Tompkins County have done little to adopt standard adaptation measures, despite the county consistently adding these measures to annual reports and long-term plans. It is time for local governments to begin taking steps to protect Tompkins County’s most vulnerable populations from the harrowing and ever-approaching effects of climate change.