As Maryland’s climate changes, a new training initiative is striving to make sure that local governments and other organizations don’t fall behind.The Susquehanna overran its banks at Port Deposit, MD, during a high-flow period  in September. Extreme rainfall is predicted to continue as the climate warms, and  governments are grappling with flooding and infrastructure problems. (Dave Harp)

The state started collaborating with the Association of Climate Change Officers this fall to educate a broad spectrum of government employees about climate change in a school-like setting.

Maryland is the first state to participate in what the association calls its Climate Leadership Academy. The target audience is state and local government employees, but others are invited to participate as well, said Daniel Kreeger, the association’s executive director.

And it’s not just for the science-minded.

“Not everyone needs to be a climate science expert, but the complexities of climate change require you to have aligned decision-making across an organization,” Kreeger said.

That means providing at least some training to almost everyone, from accountants to zoning directors, he said. The length of the educational sessions and the depth of the material will vary, depending on the audience, he added.

Some sessions may be as concise as an afternoon seminar for employees who just need a thumbnail version of the material. Others, offered over multiple days, are geared toward professionals involved in environmental programs, infrastructure management, emergency response planning and other activities more closely linked to climate science, Kreeger said.

For the first round of courses, enrollees are attending two-day workshops that meet three times over about six months. Each can accept up to 75 participants. Enrollees can pick from one of three locations: Chesapeake College on the Eastern Shore, Hagerstown Community College in Washington County and Roger Carter Community Center in Howard County.

Planning for the costs of damage and upgrades to infrastructure is important for  community resiliency as climate change continues. Here, stormwater overwhelms a leaf-choked drain near the Choptank River in Cambridge, MD. (Dave Harp)When it’s over, the association will recognize the students as “certified climate change professionals.” The title signifies that the recipient has “developed the fundamental skills and knowledge to effectively support climate change initiatives,” according to the academy’s website.

The association has a three-year contract with Maryland to operate the program. All of the planned courses are being offered at no cost to participants. The program itself cost $150,000, with funding coming from a federal grant and additional assistance through partnerships, the state government and the University of Maryland, Kreeger said.

If it finds success, he said, the academy could become a model for other states.

In Maryland, recent extreme weather episodes have already provided a preview for the challenges that governments — big and small — will face in the coming decades, he said. Such emergencies trigger obvious problems, such as strains on the capacity of first responders. But there may be other issues that quietly ripple their way through a jurisdiction’s organizational chart, Kreeger said.

Scientists predict that as the global temperature rises, heavy rainfalls will become more frequent. Kreeger suggested that a town’s budget official armed with that information may recommend creating a literal rainy-day account to buffer against the potential financial damage.

“When something like Ellicott City happens,” Kreeger said, referring to the May 27 flood that inundated the historic mill town for the second time in two years, “if I was a bond-rating agency or a financial institution, I wouldn’t be thinking, ‘Hey, Ellicott City is a great place to put my money.’ ”

The Association of Climate Change Officers was founded as a nonprofit in 2008 as a credentialing body for professionals working in fields that increasingly incorporate climate-related knowledge.

“We said this is clearly the emergence of a new occupation,” Kreeger said.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s administration announced the academy’s creation at the state’s inaugural State of the Coast conference last May. Several agencies and organizations partnered to develop the program, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Maryland Sea Grant, University of Maryland and state Department of Health.

The concept for the academy began taking shape four years ago shortly after a state Department of Natural Resources official completed his certification with the association’s national training program.

“It was that kind of realization you can’t have one individual to be responsible as that climate coordinator,” said Matt Fleming, director of the DNR Chesapeake and Coastal Service, which provides funding and technical assistance for coastal projects. “It has to be part of everyone’s job.”

His department soon hired Kreeger and his colleagues to bring employees up to speed on climate change. Now, their job descriptions mandate climate training, Fleming said. It’s as central to their work as knowing how to use a computer, he added.Rain from State Route 50 and a large parking lot courses into a storm drain at Woods Road in Cambridge, MD. (Dave Harp)

Not everyone bought into the idea immediately. But as they dug into the material, Fleming recalled, they saw how much they needed to have knowledge about the state’s climate forecast. Not long after, some of his employees pitched him a plan to make their office carbon-neutral.

“It’s fast-acting karma,” Fleming joked.

Maryland may not be the only state to sponsor climate change training for long. Colorado is moving forward with training modules geared toward a coalition of communities.

David Herring, director of communication and education in NOAA’s climate office, will be leading what he calls a “Climate 101” class for Maryland’s program. His main goal, he said, will be to make the information relevant, regardless of how much existing knowledge his students have.

“There are people who are pretty cognizant of the broad concepts of climate change,” Herring said. “And some have a relatively poor understanding. If they get global warming, many may not understand variability” in temperatures and rainfall that are expected to occur.

Nearly all of the 225 spaces in the Maryland training program were booked about a month before it was set to begin, organizers said. Fleming said they might have to create a waiting list.

But to ensure that classes continue to fill, Kreeger said employers will need to make the training mandatory or offer incentives for taking the courses.

While they generally have comparatively small staffs, city and county governments can also benefit from climate education, Kreeger said.

He pointed to the plight of Miami Beach, FL, where officials recently delayed parts of a $500 million plan to combat rising sea level because of opposition from residents. The city is raising roads and giving the drainage system a makeover, but many residents fear that the higher roads will shunt floodwater onto their properties.

City officials failed to foresee a big problem, Kreeger said. After they raised roads a few feet in one neighborhood a few years ago, the base of many adjacent buildings fell below street level. When heavy rains caused $15,000 in damage to a restaurant, the insurance company denied the claim, saying federal flood coverage didn’t apply because it had become a basement.

The administrators overseeing the drainage overhaul should have reached out to insurance carriers before ever breaking ground to find out how the work would affect property owners’ coverage, Kreeger said.

That is a lesson best learned in a classroom setting — like Maryland’s Climate Leadership Academy — than after it’s too late, he said.

For information about the academy, visit mdclimateacademy.org.