The content presented here is a simplified version of the Adaptation Planning Guide. For the detailed full text, download the chapter.

Introduction Chapter

Local government has an important role to play in efforts to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and limit the impacts of climate change. The State of California provides resources to local governments to support local action on climate change. The California Adaptation Planning Guide (APG) continues this effort by providing guidance to support communities in addressing consequences of climate change.

What is the APG?

The APG provides guidance to local governments on local adaptation and resiliency planning. As illustrated in Figure 1 and described in Table 1, the APG presents an updated, step-by-step process that communities can use to plan for climate change.

Since the state’s release of the first APG in 2012, it has been widely used by communities, government agencies, tribal governments, nongovernmental organizations, institutions, and others throughout California to help guide adaptation planning efforts.

Figure 1. Adaptation Planning Phases
Figure 1. Adaptation Planning Phases
Figure 2 State and Federal Resources Related to the APG
Figure 2. State and Federal Resources Related to the APG

Who Developed the APG and Why?

The California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) prepared the first APG in 2012 through a partnership with California Polytechnic State University (San Luis Obispo), other state agencies, and experts from local jurisdictions and nongovernmental organizations. From 2018 to 2020, Cal OES led an update, which resulted in this APG. Cal OES updated the APG in collaboration with a consultant team, the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research (OPR), and an interagency working group made up of state agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and experts from local and regional jurisdictions.

In 2015, the governor signed Senate Bill 246 (SB 246), which required Cal OES to update the APG within one year of an update to the Safeguarding California Plan and also established the Integrated Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program (ICARP) in OPR. The Safeguarding California Plan integrates the ICARP vision and principles, which represent the overarching vision and priorities for statewide adaptation planning (See ICARP’s Adaptation Vision and Principles text box on the next page). This APG follows the requirements of SB 246 and explains the connections between climate adaptation, community resiliency, public safety, and security; provides information and planning support for assessing climate vulnerabilities across sectors and regions; and supports tools to create and implement adaptation strategies that can be tailored to meet local needs.

Since the development of the 2012 APG, the state enacted requirements for local adaptation planning, which are summarized in the following section. This APG provides helpful resources to local governments as they comply with these requirements and provides recommendations and advice on community-level climate change adaptation planning—such as the preparation of vulnerability assessments and adaptation strategies. The APG also explains how these plans and processes can be integrated with other local and tribal government planning and operations.

Climate Adaptation and Resilience Requirements for Local General Plans

California Government Code § 65302 was amended by SB 379 and SB 1035 to require that local cities and counties include climate adaptation and resiliency and new information relating to flood and fire hazards in the safety element of their general plans.

In 2015, SB 379 revised § 65302(g)(4) to require that cities and counties update their safety elements to address climate adaptation and resiliency strategies applicable to their jurisdiction. The updates are required at the next update of their local hazard mitigation plan (LHMP) on or after January 1, 2017. Local jurisdictions without an LHMP must update their safety elements beginning on or before January 1, 2022. The safety element update must include:

  1. A vulnerability assessment identifying the risks that climate change poses to the local jurisdiction.
  2. A set of goals, policies, and objectives based on a vulnerability assessment for the protection of the community.
  3. A set of feasible implementation strategies to carry out the goals, policies, and objectives.

Section 65302(g)(4) identifies resources and considerations in support of the requirements, including the APG. Section 65302(g)(4)(D) allows local jurisdictions to meet this requirement in the safety element of the general plan or with an adopted LHMP, stand-alone climate adaptation plan, or a similar document if it “fulfills commensurate goals and objectives and contains the information required.” If a local jurisdiction elects to meet this requirement with other stand-alone plans or equivalent content in other portions of the general plan, it “shall summarize and incorporate by reference into the safety element the other general plan provisions, climate adaptation plan or document, specifically showing how each requirement of this subdivision has been met.”

In 2018, SB 1035 further revised § 65302 to require that after 2022 the safety element be reviewed and updated upon each revision of the housing element or LHMP, but no less than once every eight years, to address climate adaptation and resiliency and identify new information relating to flood and fire hazards.

Who should use the APG?

The state prepared the APG with a community focus to guide local governments, regional planning agencies, and tribal governments in the development and integration of climate adaptation and resilience components of stand-alone climate action and/or adaptation plans, hazard mitigation plan updates, and general plan updates consistent with state statutes.

While the primary audience for the APG is local and tribal government public agencies, the process and many of the resources can also be of value to nongovernmental and private-sector planning efforts. Additionally, formally engaging businesses, community-based organizations, and other private entities is key to achieving comprehensive results and implementing adaptation actions. Additional guidance on local and regional collaboration and public-private partnerships is presented in the Regional Collaboratives and Adaptation Planning text box and Public-Private Partnership section in Phase 1.

How Should the APG Be Used?

Communities throughout California have different needs and capabilities. Regardless of the size, capacity, or resources of the community, the APG provides a four-phase process that can increase resilience and support compliance with state requirements (see Figure 1). Communities can use the APG as a step-by-step guidance document for conducting adaptation planning processes, preparing vulnerability assessments, and developing and implementing communitywide adaptation strategies.

The APG provides a standard approach to adaptation planning that can be modified to suit the unique needs of each community. Although each phase has unique steps for completing the process, the APG allows flexibility in the commitment of time, staffing, money, and scope. Communities can follow a basic process that draws on readily available data and minimizes staff commitment or they can follow a more in-depth approach. The logic is the same—what will differ is the sophistication of the vulnerability assessment and the extent of the adaptation strategy development.

This introduction, designed to orient users to the online APG, introduces key terms used in the APG in the glossary. The primary content of the APG, the four phase planning process, is presented in four sections with four supporting appendices provided as “supporting resources” and accessible from the APG home page. The Endnotes section provides sources and supporting notes. Text boxes throughout the APG provide examples, summaries of key resources, or other supportive information. In each phase, the APG further provides outreach and engagement tools to help local planners and staff collaborate with the local community and stakeholders throughout the process.

As illustrated in Figure 2, the APG integrates with other key state resources to support local adaptation planning. In addition, when using the APG, communities can utilize state, regional, and local entities, including academic institutions and collaboratives, for specialized information. For example, in communities where wildfire occurrence or intensity is expected to increase, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection can provide tools, guidance, and coordination. Likewise, a Bay Area community facing sea level rise may utilize data resources from the Ocean Protection Council, California Coastal Commission, and the San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC) to support and facilitate adaptive efforts.

What Is Climate Adaptation Planning?

Climate adaptation planning allows communities to identify ways that they might be harmed by future conditions, including those unique to their communities, and to prepare for these conditions before they happen. Climate adaptation planning can be conducted on its own or "mainstreamed" with other planning efforts across programs, departments, and sectors to develop a comprehensive and connected adaptation system. Examples include climate action or GHG reduction planning, local comprehensive land use and environmental planning, and local hazard mitigation planning.

An integrated approach to climate change and resilience will involve both adapting to future climate conditions and reducing GHG emissions. Climate adaptation activities can also have several benefits, such as increased public health and safety, reduced GHG emissions, greater economic stability, reduced cost of healthcare and infrastructure, increased resiliency of housing, improved air and water quality, and better stormwater management.

This APG’s adaptation planning process includes four phases, and each one has a dedicated chapter and supporting resources to detail key steps and considerations (see Figure 1). At the end of the process, the outcome ideally is a locally focused, easy-to-follow framework that includes vulnerabilities in a community as well as strategies and implementation actions. The framework can be integrated into general plans, local hazard mitigation plans, and other planning efforts or be a stand-alone document.

Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation

Addressing climate change relies on two high-level approaches: mitigation and adaptation. Figure 3 illustrates the relationship of these approaches. Communities should take advantage of strategies that support both goals. For example, homes that install solar panels and battery storage systems are better protected against climate-related disruptions to the electricity supply (an adaptation effort), but solar panels also generate electricity without any GHGs and allow homes to use less energy from GHG-emitting power plants (a mitigation effort). However, there is potential for conflict. Consider a program to install air conditioning systems in homes. While this will help protect residents against extreme heat (an adaptation effort), these systems will require more energy to run and could increase GHG emissions if the energy source is not carbon-free (working against mitigation efforts).

State law requires communities to address GHG emissions (and reductions) in local planning and environmental review processes and climate adaptation in local long-range planning processes, such as general plans (or acceptable alternatives). Communities should evaluate their specific needs and priorities when deciding how best to balance these strategies. Communities can prepare one stand-alone plan to address GHG reduction and climate adaptation, prepare separate stand-alone plans for each topic, or integrate the topics into other plans and planning processes. While there are numerous co-benefits between climate adaptation and GHG reduction, there are also instances where there may be trade-offs. These trade-offs should be considered and balanced in the context of a broader planning framework that addresses community goals and needs. It is essential to reduce emissions and plan for impacts simultaneously because efforts to adapt will be overwhelmed by the harm done by climate change if emissions are not reduced.

Figure 3 Illustration of GHG Emissions
Figure 3. Illustration of GHG Emissions

How does Adaptation Planning relate to other Community planning processes?

The ways to integrate climate adaptation into other community planning processes vary by the needs of the community and how local adaptation and resilience fit within those needs. Adaptation and resilience policies can be integrated into local policy and programs in a variety of ways—for example, development of a stand-alone climate action or adaptation plan, update of a general plan safety element, preparation of an LHMP, or integration of adaptation strategies into any number of local planning and policy documents.

Considerations for choosing an approach:

    Although there are options for addressing climate adaptation and resilience, local jurisdictions in California, as noted earlier, must incorporate climate adaptation and resilience in the next update of their general plans (individual element update or comprehensive update) and/or address it in a stand-alone plan or LHMP update, as directed by California Government Code § 65302(g)(4).

One of the biggest challenges to developing climate adaptation strategies is the diversity in the potential effects on community services, equity, public health, economic vitality, ecosystem health, water supply, etc. Fortunately, many existing local and regional plans, such as general plan safety elements and LHMPs, already address some of these impacts, meaning that communities are likely to have a good idea of the types of strategies that would be most effective. In some cases, developing adaptation policy can mean simply integrating and bolstering existing policies and strategies through the periodic plan update process.

How Should Communities Take Action?

Communities have a range of possibilities for taking action on climate change adaptation. Some common municipal plans and programs include:

  • Administrative policy, procedures, and initiatives
  • Climate action plan (CAP)/climate change action plan / climate adaptation plan / climate adaptation and resilience plan / climate mitigation and adaptation plan
  • General plan, comprehensive plan, community specific plan, or community area plan
  • Local hazard mitigation plan
  • Zoning code and other land development codes, ordinances, and resolutions
  • Local coastal program (LCP)
  • Capital improvement plan/program
  • Integrated regional water management plan
  • Emergency operations plan
  • Tribal and indigenous community plans
  • Community health assessments and community health improvement plans
  • Historic or cultural preservation plans

The four phase planning process and guidance presented in this APG support integration of climate adaptation into multiple plans and programs.

Communicating the Facts of Climate Change

Communicating the facts on climate change can be daunting, to say the least.

Climate change is inherently abstract; “climate” is the average of weather, not weather itself. Moreover, scientists predict a changing climate based on global climate models, which are quite abstract to the layperson. When scientists qualify their findings with error bars and offer various “uncertainties,” people can become even more confused.

In addition, climate trends move slowly. It can take 20 to 30 years for the emissions from a tailpipe or smokestack to affect the weather. The glacial pace of climate change creates “shifting baselines,” where one generation only perceives risk related to the climate they inherited and fails to perceive shifts underway over the course of a century or longer.

Climate change can also be emotionally fraught. Climate change threatens health and longevity, and the actions required to reduce emissions and prepare for climate impacts can be overwhelming since they can include significant changes and transitions, such as shifting from the fossil fuel that has traditionally powered our society to carbon free, renewable options.

Research on climate communications has basic dos and don’ts. The group ecoAmerica has published a helpful guide, 15 Steps To Create Effective Climate Communications,” on discussing climate change. Climate Nexus and the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communications also have resources to support climate change communications. In addition, OPR’s Facts and Metrics webpage ( includes climate change facts and metrics that can be helpful in discussions and presentations.

How Is California Vulnerable to Climate Change?

Climate change is already impacting California and will continue to affect it for the foreseeable future.17,18 For example, the average temperature in most areas of California is already 1°F higher than historical levels, and some areas have seen average increases in excess of 2°F. Similarly, sea levels along the coast of central and southern California increased over 15 centimeters (5.9 inches) during the 20th century.19 Over the long term, reducing GHG emissions can help make climate change less severe.

Differences in exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity affect an individual’s or community’s vulnerability to climate change. Both sensitivity and exposure are directly affected by population growth, development patterns, and success in addressing underlying vulnerabilities, including equity and social vulnerability.20 Chapter 2 of the Fourth Climate Change Assessment discusses how climate change will affect people, infrastructure, and natural systems. Moreover, the Fourth Climate Change Assessment’s “Climate Justice” report shows that some vulnerable populations already bear a disproportionate burden of climate impacts, and the report provides strategies so that they do not bear the costs of mitigation and adaptation as well.21

Primary climate change effects can exacerbate hazards seen at local and regional levels, such as wildfires and associated smoke, drought, landslides, flooding, and human health hazards.

State Climate Change Impact Summary

The California Fourth Climate Change Assessment identifies the following climate change impacts of concern to the state under a business-as-usual emission scenario, also known as “representative concentration pathway” (RCP) 8.5.

Table 2 shows the historical and expected climate change effects in California as presented in the California Fourth Climate Change Assessment Summary Report.

    Climate change is already affecting temperatures throughout California. Annual average daily high temperatures are expected to rise by 2.7°F by 2040, 5.8°F by 2070, and 8.8°F by 2100 compared to observed and modeled historical conditions. These changes are statewide averages. Heat waves are projected to become longer, more intense, and more frequent.

What Are the State’s Climate Resilience Efforts?

The State of California advances climate adaptation and resilience in a variety of ways. The state’s current adaptation plan is Safeguarding California, which specifies integrated state adaptation strategies for a variety of strategic sector areas. Updating the APG is one strategy in the plan. Safeguarding California Plan: 2018 Update establishes a vision for the state and identifies principles, goals, and policies primarily directed to state agencies. Safeguarding California also establishes a “critical” role for California’s local and regional government agencies.

The Governor’s Office of Planning and Research administers the Integrated Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program to coordinate regional and local efforts with state climate adaptation strategies to adapt to the impacts of climate change. The program has two components: the State Adaptation Clearinghouse and the Technical Advisory Council. The Adaptation Clearinghouse is California’s centralized collection of adaptation and resiliency resources designed to guide decision-makers at the state, regional, and local levels. The Technical Advisory Council supports the Office of Planning and Research in its goal to facilitate coordination among state, regional, and local adaptation and resilience efforts with a focus on opportunities to support local implementation actions that improve the quality of life for present and future generations. The Council adopted an adaptation vision and principles in September 2017 (see text box on page 8) and approved a revised charter and a definition for vulnerable communities in April 2018.

For Aadditional examples of information on the state’s climate adaptation and resilience plans and programs, visit the State Adaptation Efforts page on the Adaptation Clearinghouse.

State Adaptation Sectors

Planning and implementing comprehensive resilience measures across the urban-rural divide will be critical to mitigating wildfire risk, safeguarding California’s future water supplies, and preserving habitats, biodiversity, and the multitude of valuable ecosystem services that our natural and working lands provide. The 2018 Safeguarding California organizes its policies under 11 sectors: agriculture; biodiversity and habitat; emergency management; energy; forests; land use and community development; ocean and coast; parks, recreation, and California culture; public health; transportation; and water. Five of the Safeguarding sectors, emergency management, energy, land use and community development, public health, and transportation, address vulnerabilities in social systems and the built environment. Five other Safeguarding sectors, agriculture, biodiversity and habitat, forests, ocean and coast, and water, address vulnerabilities in natural and managed resource systems. The eleventh sector, “Parks, Recreation, and California Culture,” spans these three areas.

The Adaptation Clearinghouse website also organizes its resources under these topics.

For consistency, the discussions of potential vulnerabilities and example adaptation strategies in the APG use these 11 key sectors as an organizing framework, with Parks, Recreation, and California Culture (refer to Figure 4 for a list of the sectors). Appendix A provides summaries of each sector and its vulnerabilities. In the APG, the issue of equity and environmental justice is not a sector in itself, but an overarching topic that is integrated into all 11 sectors as applicable.

Individual communities may choose to follow this framework, or they may organize their adaptation efforts differently. All topics may not be relevant to all communities. Regardless of the preferred organizing structure, this APG recommends an approach that integrates climate adaptation and resilience across sectors.

How Is Equity Integrated into Climate Change Adaptation Planning?

Equity means that all people are justly and fairly included in society and that everyone is able to participate, prosper, and achieve their full potential.24 It recognizes that everyone enjoys different advantages and faces different challenges, and that everyone should be treated justly and fairly according to their circumstances. Equity should be treated as a critical component of all planning, including climate adaptation planning. Equitable climate adaptation planning involves identifying persons who may be most vulnerable to climate change and ensuring that planning processes, distribution of resources, and efforts to address systemic wrongs are all conducted in an equitable manner.

First, adaptation planning should look at climate vulnerability through the lens of the adopted definition by the Integrated Climate Adaptation and Resiliency Program’s (ICARP’s) Technical Advisory Council. ICARP’s Technical Advisory Council developed Defining Vulnerable Communities in the Context of Climate Adaptation to provide a clear understanding of the many elements that characterize vulnerable populations in the adaptation context. This guide provides the climate vulnerability assessment tools to evaluate climate risk and adaptive capacity, specific indicators to include in vulnerability assessment, and the following definition of vulnerable communities:

The Fourth Climate Change Assessment and related research also affirm that several communities already feel the cumulative burden of climate change, environmental pollution, and historical socioeconomic disparities.26 It is important to identify and acknowledge these communities because there is an opportunity in climate adaptation planning to address issues holistically. Communities that have long experiences with systemic exclusion and resource deprivation have developed assets, coping skills, and knowledge that can benefit overall climate resilience planning. Robust community engagement in plan development, as recommended throughout the APG, can bring these communities’ wisdom into local resilience efforts.

Second, through all phases of adaptation planning, it is helpful to think of equity as multidimensional and having three objectives: 1) procedural, 2) distributional, and 3) structural (see Table 3).

How Is Uncertainty Addressed in Climate Adaptation Planning?

The uncertainty of the future poses significant challenges to evaluating climate impacts and developing policy. First, because climate change is driven by how much GHG is emitted into the atmosphere, climate outcomes are subject to the adoption and effectiveness of GHG reduction. The more the world acts to reduce GHG emissions, the less adaptation should be necessary. Second, for any given level of atmospheric GHGs and associated global warming, there will be impacts to natural and human systems. Despite extensive efforts to model these potential impacts, they are ultimately uncertain. Finally, the future state of technology, socioeconomic conditions, and other human systems is unknown. This is not, however, a reason for inaction. The APG has numerous techniques for addressing uncertainty through the recommended four phases of the adaptation planning process.

In addition, Appendix B provides additional information about adaptation pathways as an approach to addressing uncertainty in strategy development and implementation. Adaptation pathways are an emerging approach for communities, but best practices are still being developed. Appendix B provides more information about adaptation pathways as an alternative or supplement to Phases 1 to 4.

Who Should Be Involved?

In addition to assembling the right resources, it is important that organizations and people actively participate in adaptation planning. In general, it can be helpful to think of four different groups of potential participants:

    Local people and organizations are key for gathering and analyzing local information, developing robust climate adaptation strategies, building political support, and creating a more informed and active community. This includes building support from community elected officials, civic leaders, and community-based organizations.

Engaging stakeholders is essential to adopting equitable adaptation policies and strategies and ensuring that they can be implemented efficiently. Stakeholder engagement offers the opportunity to educate and build commitment and consensus among local decision-makers and community members. Each phase of the adaptation planning process should include community and stakeholder outreach and engagement.

Communicating climate change can be challenging. Hazards created or worsened by climate change as well as other climate change–related effects affect all communities across California, but communities deal with many other issues. Sometimes other issues take precedence over climate change, like housing, transportation, immigration, and public safety. However, climate change is inextricably linked with many social issues, and taking action to adapt will also provide many other benefits.

Wrap Up

Although climate change has the potential to significantly harm communities throughout California, local jurisdictions have many options and resources to adapt to these new conditions. The APG assists communities with this work, ensuring that adaptation planning reflects the latest best practices and information, and uses the best available science. It guides communities through a four-step process that takes a holistic approach to adaptation work, including engaging the community at large and addressing issues of equity and environmental justice. The following sections of the APG walk through each of the four steps in detail, beginning with the first phase (Define, Explore, and Initiate) discussed in the next chapter.