Wanted: Congressional Leadership on Climate Adaptation

The 116th Congress has the opportunity and responsibility to turn a new page on climate action, with a renewed and urgent drive to slash carbon pollution and to prepare for the present-day and future climate impacts we cannot avoid.
Smoky skies in Washington State, August 2018
Credit: Mïk, Creative Commons/CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0

Former White House Science Advisor John Holdren is fond of saying we have a couple of options for responding to climate change: We can cut carbon pollution and proactively plan for climate-related impacts, or we can suffer.

Unfortunately, there’s already plenty of climate-fueled suffering going on, from devastating hurricanes in North Carolina and Florida to deadly fires in the West. And as the latest National Climate Assessment finds, much more harm will come to Americans if we continue business as usual. The 116th Congress has the opportunity and responsibility to turn a new page on climate action, with a renewed and urgent drive to slash carbon pollution and to prepare for the present-day and future climate impacts we cannot avoid.

Planning and implementing climate adaptation measures often falls to local governments. That’s in part because each location has a unique combination of climate hazards, socioeconomic and demographic vulnerabilities, and community priorities. It’s also because many climate adaptation activities intersect with policies or services that fall under local control, like zoning laws or public transportation.

But Congress has an important role to play in adaptation, which will become ever more critical as the world gets warmer and the weather gets wilder.

The good news is that Congress is already showing signs of interest in climate adaptation. The Disaster Recovery Reform Act enacted last year dedicated more Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funding to disaster prevention and climate adaptation projects. The National Defense Authorization Act directed the military to assess its adaptation needs. Congress also earmarked $16 billion in U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding for disaster prevention and adaptation in states recently struck by climate-fueled disasters. (Although HUD has yet to make those funds available to states.)

But Congress needs to do much, much more to protect people, plants, animals, and natural systems from the ravages of climate change. 

Reforming federal laws to match our climate reality

Most major federal environmental, disaster recovery, and resource management laws were enacted without accounting for climate change. It’s time to reform those key laws to ensure they’re up to the task of the current and future impacts of climate change.

For example, the federal government sells insurance to cover damages from flooding in 22,000 U.S. communities through the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The flood insurance program is responsible for setting minimum building and zoning codes that local and state governments must adopt, and mapping the areas where flooding is most likely to occur. The problem is that the agency has not factored the escalating risk of flooding into any of these functions. The NFIP should be a linchpin in the nation’s efforts to adapt to rising seas and inland flooding. But in its current form, the flood insurance program is making matters worse. With the NFIP up for reauthorization this year, Congress needs to transform it from a program that repeatedly pays to rebuild people’s homes in the same vulnerable places, to a proactive program that helps disadvantaged families and communities adapt to the reality of climate change.

A small community in coastal Louisiana, one of the most vulnerable parts of the country to sea level rise

Similarly, the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries and Conservation Act, which manages our nation’s fisheries, does not address the impacts of climate change on our marine resources. As ocean waters warm, fish are swimming northward to cooler waters, abandoning traditional fishing grounds, and setting the stage for rising conflicts between fishing communities. The new Congress offers an opportunity to address these challenges and to support more scientific research in this important area.

Investing federal dollars wisely

The federal government granted state and local governments $728 billion dollars in fiscal year 2018. Those grants funded a wide array of functions, from highway construction to rental assistance for tenants. There is no requirement in the granting process, however, for projects and programs to take climate change into account. At a minimum, federal grants supporting the construction of public buildings, roads, bridges, and other infrastructure should require projects to be more climate-friendly and more climate-resilient. In addition to having a smaller carbon footprint, for instance, federally-funded infrastructure projects should be designed to withstand sea level rise, inland flooding, drought, and extreme heat. Congress also needs to reinstate federal flood protection standards, to ensure that infrastructure investments are made with future conditions in mind.

Building climate-resilient infrastructure makes sense from a health and safety perspective and an economic perspective. A new analysis by the National Institute of Building Sciences, for example, finds that about $7 in losses could be avoided for every $1 spent up-front on construction to help buildings withstand hurricane storm surges. Doing climate-smart infrastructure right—by taking into account social, economic, and environmental best practices—can lead to multiple benefits including good jobs, economic opportunities, and better community health and well-being.

Finally, Congress should incentivize the use of natural infrastructure such as dunes and wetlands to protect communities and wildlife habitat from storm surge. Use of natural infrastructure is often more affordable and environmentally-sustainable than the construction and maintenance of offshore barriers, and can improve water quality, enhance habitat for wildlife and fisheries, and improve community resilience to flooding.

Providing technical support, data, and funding

Our federal agencies produce a treasure trove of climate-relevant data and projections, modeling capacity, and policy expertise. For state and local decision-makers, however, it can be hard to know where to find—and how to use—the data and knowledge. The Trump administration has made it even harder to access taxpayer-funded experts and data by steadily removing climate information from government websites, and disavowing the work of its own scientists. Congress should use its oversight role to ensure that public data stay public, and to protect the integrity of the U.S. Global Change Research Program’s ongoing climate assessments.

Crew of the federal vessel Atlantis preparing for a NASA research mission
Credit: Michael Starobin/NASA Goddard

Unsurprisingly, state and local governments also need more funding to support climate adaptation. For instance, protecting America’s public health is mostly a state and local responsibility. But the federal government is supposed to ensure those agencies have the support they need to do their job. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Climate Ready States and Cities Initiative has enabled a handful of U.S. states and cities to develop climate and health adaptation plans. Most other states simply don’t have the technical capacity, staff, or funding to develop plans, leaving them unprepared for the increasing likelihood of heat-related illnesses, infectious diseases, mental health conditions, and other climate-related health impacts.

Climate change is here and now. Congress needs to address the root causes of climate change and the harms it is already inflicting on Americans. Almost every piece of legislation provides opportunities to make progress on meeting the challenges of climate change. Congress should seize these opportunities as a down payment on the bold action needed to avoid catastrophic suffering in America and around the world.

Thank you to Juanita Constible for her co-authorship of this blog post. 

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