Courts around the world are increasingly affected by major, often extraordinary environmental events and natural disasters. These include flooding, wildfires, extreme temperatures, prolonged droughts, and earthquakes. Many of these events are caused by climate change (whether man-made or naturally occurring). In response, many courts have updated their emergency response plans (such as their COOP – Continuity of Operations Plan) to be better prepared. But, is this enough? Are we only prepared for short-term, single-incident events, but also the long-term effects of climate change? Courts need to fully understand both the scale and impact of climate change, along with planning ahead and implementing effective responses. Two recent articles in Government Technology [www.govtech.com] highlight how these environmental events are related to climate change, make predictions about what we can expect to happen in the future, and discuss how municipal governments have been responding (which provides lessons for not only cities, but also courts).
- What are Models Predicting for Climate Change? What Are the Models Predicting for Climate Change? (govtech.com)
- Building Resilient Cities that are Ready for Climate Change Building Resilient Cities That Are Ready for Climate Change (govtech.com)
Let’s first consider the climate change predictions, focusing on the United States as an example.
“From sea-level rise on the coastlines to drought and wildfire inland to warmer, wetter weather in the middle of the country, it is clear that the climate is changing, and that the trends will likely continue.”
In other words, things are going to get worse in the near, and not just the long term, future. The impact depends on where you live. For example:
- In the Eastern U.S., major impacts include rising sea levels, more frequent weather disasters (like hurricanes and tornados), and altered ecosystems due to warmer winters and hotter summers. Rising sea levels result in flooding and coastal land erosion (which leads to more flooding). All of these negatively impact economic activity (like agriculture and tourism) and the health and welfare of citizens (especially the economically disadvantaged).
- In the Northern Great Plains, already known for its highly variable climate, more extreme weather will occur, including prolonged droughts, major flooding events, frequent winter blizzards, and other extreme temperature events. These will negatively affect regional agriculture, which is a major part of the U.S. food supply (crops and livestock), and again the health and welfare of citizens.
- In the Southwest, major impacts include diminished winter snowpack and streamflow due to prolonged drought, more extreme temperatures, and increased wildfires. This region is a major source of high-value specialty crops, which are vulnerable to extremes of moisture and temperature, so the changing climate will have a severe economic impact on agriculture. There will be diminished water supplies available to cities, agriculture, and ecosystems. A negative impact on tourism, a major economic sector, will occur.
What does this mean for courts? As noted above, courts must be prepared for COOP-level events to occur more often. Having a robust COOP is already important; in the future, it will be a necessity. A great reference for courts is a COOP planning guide published by the NCSC: Courts Continuity of Operations (COOP) Planning Guide and Template – Courthouse Facilities – National Center for State Courts (oclc.org).
The second Government Technology article has important observations for adapting to the realities of climate change.
- Climate change scenarios vary greatly depending on geography, population, land use and other factors. A beach town must worry about the rising ocean, for example, while some inland areas will suffer most from catastrophic heat waves.
- We must shift the focus away from reactive disaster spending and toward holistic, research-supported, proactive investment in community resilience.
- Up to now, we usually have focused on individual buildings; it’s no good if the courthouse doesn’t flood but all the roads leading there do and cut off access.
- Forethought rather than improvisation is easier and cheaper. The National Institute of Building Sciences, for instance, estimates that every dollar spent on disaster preparation saves an average of $6 down the road.
Taking all of this into account means courts must plan beyond the next few years and think longer term. Although we have a good handle on basic things we can do to mitigate and even prevent severe events via existing COOP efforts, but this is often reactive in nature. It is great to strengthen our IT infrastructure and court facilities to be ready for power outages and temporary weather events. But what we need to do now is broaden our planning to respond to not just an individual floods or wildfires, but the broad impacts of climate change on the communities we serve.
Courts need to incorporate these kinds of questions into their strategic planning programs:
- What happens to our courts when agriculture, tourism, and other major economic drivers are severely harmed?
- What happens when economically disadvantaged citizens are hurt even more as time goes by?
- What happens when previously habitable land areas are lost or rendered useless, displacing thousands of people?
- What happens when sizeable populations migrate from one region to another to escape negative impacts?
Courts need to respond to questions like these to reflect your regional and local reality, although some issues are nearly universal. It is not hard to foresee major changes in caseloads (higher? lower? what kinds? with what impacts?) almost everywhere, for example. In some locations building new courthouses may be needed because the old location is no longer tenable. In other locations courts will need to either greatly expand or downsize their facilities. On the personnel side, embracing remote work is almost a given. Similarly, providing robust remote litigant services will be necessary. The use of regional court service centers that pool the efforts of multiple court locations may be a something to consider to build in greater flexibility. Court leaders need to creatively think about what problems will likely happen where they are located, and creatively identify and plan for effective solutions.
The bottom line is courts need to face up to the increasing adverse effects of climate change with a commitment to ongoing, robust strategic planning and execution. We must move away from being reactive to proactively responding to, and preparing for, the future realities of climate change. This is even more important now to deliver the highest level of public service.