Facing Scary Facts: How Will We Pay for Climate Preparedness?

A changing climate poses enormous challenges for towns, cities and communities around the world. If, like me, you live on the coast you can look forward to slowly rising sea levels and bursts of more intense flooding and storm activity. Or maybe you live near a floodplain that’s vulnerable to increased rainfall or in the arid west where wildfire activity poses a threat.

Unfortunately, planning for a starkly different future isn’t the norm. Communities often base their climate change adaptation plans on data sets from the past: longstanding weather patterns, flooding and heat-wave frequencies and intensities, and crop growth rates and times. However, thanks to improving communications, information technology and techniques we can collect and crunch more data than ever before, and at a low price.

It’s going to take a lot of top-notch planning to get ready for climate change and we will need to invest in new types of resilient infrastructure that can withstand these harmful impacts. Thankfully, Halloween week was a crucial moment for tackling climate challenges facing our communities.

First, it was the anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, which laid waste to an East Coast that was built in a world before climate change.  Second, was the announcement on the West Coast of a historic Pacific Coast Climate Action Plan between four west coast jurisdictions, which my colleague Annie Notthoff covers here.

These events, though separated by time and space, are closely related.  A key component of the Pacific Coast Climate Action Plan is to finance and deploy resilient infrastructure. Specifically, “the West Coast Infrastructure Exchange (WCX) is demonstrating how to attract private capital for infrastructure projects while increasing climate resilience through best practices and certification standards. To scale up these efforts, the governments of California, Oregon and Washington will sponsor pilot projects with local governments, state agencies and the WCX.”

Image removed.















The SE Holgate Blvd station of the MAX Green Line of TriMet, in southeast Portland, Oregon.

WCX was lauded here a year ago, and it deserves attention now. It’s a new tool for delivering much-needed infrastructure investments, namely a bank-like institution that packages grants and financing for worthy projects such as a new or improved rail line. In the affordable housing world, such institutions are invaluable features in a landscape where skepticism about top-down federal programs runs high. Their growth has been stunning. In 1969, there were 112 local Community Development Corporations and by 2005, there were more than 4,600! State Housing Finance Agencies didn’t even exist in 1968 and now every state has one (these facts come from this great book on housing policy published by the Urban Institute). 

It’s high time for a similar revolution in the infrastructure world, so that we can plan and invest in climate preparedness. New York is providing a model, with the creation of a billion-dollar Green Bank designed to boost deployment of renewable energy and energy efficiency technologies. New York recognized that in a time of urgent need for clean energy coupled with tight budgets, the most effective strategy is to use public dollars to leverage private dollars to finance these investments. It also recognized that because some of these technologies (e.g., rooftop solar and energy efficiency retrofits of buildings) are decentralized and relatively new investors, they are more difficult to finance and therefore need a dedicated institution with specialized expertise. Instead of (or in addition to) clean energy, a climate-preparedness bank would tackle the task of financing the infrastructure that makes our cities and town more able to withstand the current effects of climate change like flooding from more powerful storms. 

A week that began with grim reminders of Sandy and a renewed commitment to the multi-state WCX ended with a bang. The President signed an Executive Order on climate preparedness, tasking agencies to knock out policy and programmatic barriers to local and state preparedness planning and “identify opportunities to support and encourage smarter, more climate-resilient investments…” The President also established a task force to deliver a report on preparedness in a year’s time. I know that many local and state officials tapped for this.

Climate change threatens the future of our communities and the infrastructure “bones” that connect us all. Thanks to the state governors driving WCX and President Obama, we have more tools for tackling it.

Photo: Steve Morgan