Climate Report Confirms Housing Is Essential to Adaptation

Healthy, decent, affordable, sustainable housing must be at the core of the climate transition.

The World Meteorological Organization building in Geneva, Switzerland, where the IPCC is headquartered

Credit: Image by World Meteorological Organization

The latest report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) confirms what housing advocates and activists have long known: healthy, decent, affordable, sustainable housing must be at the core of the climate transition.

The IPCC’s newest report summarizes current scientific knowledge about the impacts of climate change and the vulnerability of people and nature to climate-related hazards. It also assesses current efforts and opportunities to adapt to a changing climate. Overall, the picture is dire: the impacts of climate change are already more severe than predicted, and about to get worse. These impacts will be most devastating for marginalized and vulnerable groups, including racial minorities, Indigenous peoples, and poorer communities in the Global South.

It’s not all bad news: “There are feasible and effective adaptation options which can reduce risks to people and nature.” However, there’s a massive gap between current adaptation efforts and what is necessary to avert the worst impacts of climate change. And as the report makes clear, urban infrastructure and affordable housing are critical to closing the “adaptation gap.”

Housing as a nexus of climate vulnerability 

Housing advocates have long argued that housing and social vulnerability are intimately linked. Stable access to decent, affordable housing is a prerequisite to human well-being, and disruptions to a person’s access to housing can easily spill over into other parts of their life, including their job, social support network, and physical and mental health. That’s why many housing advocates support a “housing first” approach founded on unconditional access to housing as a basic social right.

Based on this, the IPCC report’s conclusions should be no surprise: access to housing and climate vulnerability are closely intermeshed. The report catalogs the connections between housing and climate vulnerability across multiple dimensions. For example: 

  • Heat exposure. Rising global temperatures are causing an increase in the number of heatwaves, particularly in cities due to the “urban heat island” effect. Heatwaves can be dangerous and even deadly, particularly for older residents, children, and people with underlying health conditions. Lower-income people face disproportionate risks from heat exposure due to leaky and poorly-insulated housing and less access to air conditioning—a phenomenon referred to in the report as “thermal inequity.” In the United States, thermal inequity is associated with historical housing policies including the redlining of neighborhoods based on race. 
  • Health. Poor living conditions and substandard housing are associated with increased vulnerability to climate threats. Housing-related hazards such as lead paint, asbestos, and poor filtration can contribute to chronic health conditions, amplifying the impact of climate-related hazards such as heat or cold exposure.
  • Displacement. Although voluntary migration is a viable (and sometimes necessary) response to climate change, the involuntary displacement of people from their homes due to climate-related hazards such as flooding or fire increases vulnerability and is associated with “poor health, wellbeing and socio-economic outcomes.” Precarious access to housing can also make it harder for households and communities to respond to climate change. For example, someone who is coping with unsafe living conditions or facing eviction will find it much harder to access programs designed to protect their home against climate threats, such as flood-proofing or energy efficiency services. 

Housing as a pathway to inclusive adaptation 

Housing’s role as a nexus of climate-related vulnerability suggests its importance to climate adaptation efforts. As the report puts it, the “unmet needs for healthy, decent, affordable and sustainable housing are a global opportunity to integrate inclusive adaptation strategies into development.” In other words, building climate-resilient affordable housing is a powerful means of ensuring that vulnerable communities are prepared for a changing climate.

The report provides some important takeaways about the role of housing in climate adaptation: 

Takeaway #1: Leverage the power of public finance 

One key lesson from the IPCC report is the key role of public finance in driving adaptation efforts. To date, most financing for adaptation has come from public sources, and the public sector will continue to play a key role both directly and by addressing regulatory, cost, and market barriers. 

Although private investment in housing can drive a significant amount of adaptation, the IPCC report warns that a predominantly private approach risks excluding “the priorities of the poor.” It’s not hard to see why this is the case. Market forces respond to market demand, not social need. And as any first-year economics student will tell you, market demand is determined by “willingness to pay,” which depends on having money in the first place. This means that a wealthy person looking for a second, luxury vacation home generates a lot of housing demand, while a low-income renter with little disposable income generates very little. This core dynamic helps to explain the dire lack of affordable rental housing in most major American cities, despite overwhelming need.

In the United States, effective climate adaptation will require moving past the current market-based approach to affordable housing development—which largely relies on “nudging” the private sector through modest tax incentives and subsidies—toward a more active role for government. This entails scaling up existing affordable housing programs and incentives and reforming exclusionary land-use and zoning policies, two key priorities in the Biden Administration’s Build Back Better agenda. But it will also require taking seriously policy approaches that have long been off the table, such as government-led construction and social ownership of healthy, green, affordable housing.  

Takeaway #2: Beware maladaptation

A second lesson from the IPCC report is the danger of “maladaptation”—adaptation measures that aim to reduce climate risk but actually end up compounding the problem. The risk of maladaptation is particularly high when planning and implementation processes fail to incorporate diverse perspectives and consider “adverse outcomes for different groups.” 

One example of maladaptation highlighted in the report is the phenomenon of “green gentrification,” whereby investments in climate-friendly housing and other adaptation efforts drive up local property values and rents, fueling displacement. Gentrifying adaptation measures can have the perverse effect of increasing net vulnerability to climate risk, by increasing displacement, disrupting social networks, and driving lower-income residents towards higher-risk areas.  

Avoiding maladaptive outcomes requires careful attention to who benefits from adaptation efforts, as well as meaningful involvement of vulnerable residents in decision-making processes.

Takeaway #3: Take an inclusive, bottom-up approach

A third lesson from the report is the importance of “inclusive governance that prioritizes equity and justice in adaptation planning and implementation.” Inclusive, diverse decision-making processes can “link scientific, Indigenous, local, practitioner and other forms of knowledge,” helping to ensure locally appropriate solutions and avoid maladaptive outcomes like green gentrification.

Given housing’s role as a nexus of climate vulnerability, it is also critical to take a cross-sectoral approach, integrating adaptation efforts across the fields of housing, energy, water, and health. This might entail, for example, coordinating and streamlining the delivery of energy and water efficiency services, utility bill assistance, and rental assistance to comprehensively address energy and housing insecurity for vulnerable households.


An installer with Veterans Green Jobs weatherizes a low-income home in Denver as part of the Energy Department's Weatherization Assistance Program

Credit: Dennis Schroeder, NREL

Moving beyond incrementalism

The latest IPCC report makes clear that healthy, decent, affordable, and sustainable housing must be at the center of our climate strategy. To adapt to a climate-constrained future, we must shift from incremental measures to a transformative approach aimed at ensuring universal access to affordable housing through ambitious public investments in high-quality, climate-resilient homes. The $150 billion in housing-related investment in the Biden Administration’s proposed Build Back Better agenda—which includes historic funding increases for federal programs supporting low-income renters and the preservation and production of affordable housing—is a step toward the scale of investment required. But we’ll need to go even further, ramping up time-tested programs (like the Weatherization Assistance Program) while standing up entirely new ones (like a federal electrification program for affordable housing) to “secure a livable and sustainable future for all.” 


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