Students Help Coordinate Climate Vulnerability Assessment for the City of Oberlin

June 28, 2021

Office of Communications

Bronze sign recognizing downtown Oberlin as a historic district
Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Fifteen Oberlin College students who were enrolled in Practicum in Community Climate Resilience Planning in the City of Oberlin played a key role in conducting a climate vulnerability assessment for the Oberlin community. This one-time course offered in the spring of 2021 was a unique collaboration between the city and the college. The assessment work undertaken by the students is the initial step in developing a climate adaptation plan.

Across the globe, forward-thinking communities are engaging in climate adaptation planning to prepare for the local changes in climate that all cities will have to address in the coming decades. “We know that climate change is happening here, and we are taking proactive steps to reduce the impact those changes may have,” said Oberlin Fire Department Chief Robert Hanmer, who was tasked with overseeing the development of a comprehensive climate vulnerability assessment by Oberlin City Manager Rob Hillard.

Hanmer, City of Oberlin Sustainability Coordinator Linda Arbogast, and Professor of Environmental Studies John Petersen all recognized that students had the potential to play a key role in researching local climate hazards, and developed the idea of engaging an Oberlin College class to assist in the project. Together with Petersen, Arbogast coled the student team.  Students were trained to facilitate discussions and conduct interviews with community leaders, gather their insights into the risks associated with climate hazards on particular aspects of the Oberlin community, and then compile this information into reports and presentations.

Students facilitated discussions and conducted extensive interviews with more than 50 civic leaders to assess vulnerabilities and the adaptive capacity of various aspects of the Oberlin community.

“This process really showed me the value of community participation,” said Emma Neufer ’24. “Few people we talked to thought of themselves as experts in climate change. And yet the information they shared was perhaps more essential than ‘expert’ climate knowledge because you couldn’t just look it up, you have to talk to the right people.”

Representation was sought from city departments, local churches, public service agencies, schools, cultural organizations, businesses, food providers, hospitals, and emergency service agencies. The goal was to engage this group of community leaders in identifying how systems critical to the functioning of the Oberlin community — for example municipal services, emergency services, food supply and community and cultural assets — are likely to be impacted by the specific climate hazards predicted for Oberlin, such as increased flooding and heat waves. 

Community participants were engaged in both group discussions and interviewed individually to explore climate risks and the opportunities available for mitigating and enhancing community resilience in the face of these risks. Students facilitated discussions of risks and adaptive capacities then interviewed each community participant. The net result was a wealth of input from Oberlin community members on likely climate risks.

Students also collected and organized data predicting local climate change. They used Temperate, a modeling tool developed by ICLEI — Local Governments for Sustainability and Climate Explorer, a publicly available tool managed by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to develop climate predictions. These tools allow for “downscaling” to predict hyper-local climate impacts — in this case for the 44074 zip code that includes Oberlin. The students were able to produce annual predictions for the City of Oberlin for temperature, precipitation, extreme heat days, flood events, heating and cooling degree days, and a variety of other conditions under low and high emissions scenarios extending out to 2100.

Graphs of predicted impacts were combined with facts drawn from a variety of respected sources, most notably the 4th National Climate Assessment to produce a City of Oberlin Climate Hazard Fact Sheet. The goal was to develop an easy-to-digest science-based explanation of the known and predicted risks for the City of Oberlin that could be shared with community participants to inform and initiate community dialog. 

Like all other communities, Oberlin has significant climate vulnerabilities that must be addressed and preparing a comprehensive climate adaptation plan will be a critical next step for the community. The good news is that there is significant alignment between the adaptive measures that community members suggested and with many of the municipal and community planning processes that are already underway.

“I have been learning as much as my students about how to positively and proactively address the reality that climate change is here and now and already beginning to affect every community on this planet,” said Petersen. “In my role as instructor I feel a sense of responsibility but also hope that students will leave this class empowered to translate some fairly stark realities into positive plans and action that helps build resilience in Oberlin and in the many communities that they will inhabit.”

The students’ work culminated in a final climate vulnerability assessment report that was presented to community leaders and shared with the Oberlin City Council in a public presentation. The report also includes a summary of key insights that emerged from community discussions and interviews with community members.

Read the final climate vulnerability assessment report.


Reflections on Climate Vulnerability Assessment 

“Participating in this process caused me to think much more concretely about what the world is going to be like years from now. It motivated me to be more committed to pushing harder, to emphasizing the importance of speed.”

— Professor of Psychology Cindy Frantz, POWER board member —


“From this experience, I learned that Oberlin’s social infrastructure is an integral part of our community’s ability to adapt and respond to emergencies. Oberlin has an engaged community that is eager to collectively work toward solutions.”

— Emily Bengtson ’24 —


"Our role in the discussions and interviews with community members was to ask questions and take notes. As someone who hopes to continue environmental and musical work with communities, what I've appreciated most about this class is that it has taught me to truly listen to what others are sharing." 

— Jane Vourlekis, ’21 —


 “Participating this process helped take it from the nebulous ‘climate change’ to ‘these are the things that are going to happen, in our town, to us.’ That was very, very helpful.”

— MAD Factory Theatre Company Program Director Nina Fisher —


“An important lesson I learned by participation in the process is how emergency preparedness is so much broader than just response. It's getting out in front of potential concerns. It's seeing climate change as it is, a trend of situations that if we pay attention to we can get ahead of. So for me, what's exciting and challenging is to continue this mission” 

— Oberlin City Manager Rob Hillard —


“This experience helped me to think about how to give more focus to environmental change and how it impacts people on the ground, every day”

— Pastor, Oberlin House of the Lord Fellowship and Emeritus Professor of Religion A.G. Miller —


“It's good that the conversation is opening up more broadly to the community to think about the way in which essential services, both of the municipality and ecosystem services, underlie pretty much everything that we do.” 

— City of Oberlin Director of Public Works Jeff Baumann —


“I'm feeling a lot more hopeful that we're imagining all of these scenarios and being able to think about how we might respond to them in the future, and to start building plans to make sure that our community is really resilient.”

— Oberlin College Sustainability Manager Bridget Flynn —


 “I think the work that's being done here is very significant and could be a model for other communities when it comes to how we look at emergency preparedness.”

— Oberlin City Manager Rob Hillard —

“What really is new and very exciting to me is actually seeing something happening at the planning level, instead of the academic level. So this is a fantastic experience to be part of.”

— Peter Richards, former director of the national water quality laboratory at Heidelberg University —

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