Wanted: A national climate adaptation adviser for America
No matter what corner of America you call home, this fall we are all experiencing what it means to live in an era of extremes.
To the west, California began September with the state’s most severe heat wave on record. In New England, farmers face an uncertain fall harvest as they wrestle with the effects of a summer without rain. To the north, the remnants of Typhoon Merbok destroyed roads, cut power and swept away irreplicable cultural heritage last month in communities across Alaska’s westernmost coastlines. And in the southeast, Puerto Ricans and Floridians are just emerging from the incalculable loss exacted by Hurricanes Fiona and Ian.
As the fatal fallout of our reliance on fossil fuels becomes more difficult to circumvent, finding the front lines of climate change in America isn’t hard.
What’s hard is figuring out what America’s national plan is to prepare our country for the catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis — and who will oversee its success.
The Biden administration has set an ambitious greenhouse gas mitigation goal and built a robust roster of climate champions to achieve it. Newly appointed national climate adviser Ali Zaidi comes with over a decade working on energy policy, and the recent addition of John Podesta as senior adviser on clean energy innovation and implementation brings decades more of government experience. These veteran policymakers are inspired choices to lead the sweeping economic and energy transformation our country desperately needs, and their positions within the White House will enable them to strategically implement the national goal of a 50 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.
But as the Biden administration reshuffles its climate team this fall, there exists a dangerous vacuum of visible leadership and strategic guidance for national climate adaptation. At a time when extreme weather events are causing devastation from coast to coast, President Biden needs to add one more player to his climate team: a well-known leader charged with the responsibility of adapting America to a rapidly warming world.
A designated adaptation leader must set and promote the expansive, long-term vision America currently lacks to prepare for unavoidable climate impacts on a national scale. And they could realize that vision by coordinating authority, organizing power and promoting cooperation across the government’s more than 20 climate adaptation and resilience plans in existence today. Such a recognized, respected individual could act as a national spokesperson for climate adaptation beyond the federal government, helping to augment local governments’ capacity to implement adaptation projects that further the overarching vision they set.
Two pathways exist to fill the climate adaptation void.
The first path is through executive order, much like those that defined the first year of Biden’s vision setting for climate change. The second path is through congressional passage of the skillfully drafted National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy Act (NCARS). Introduced in January by Sens. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), and Reps. Scott Peters (D-Calif.) and Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), the bipartisan bill would establish a chief resiliency officer in the White House, commission a National Adaptation Strategy, as well as create important processes to better collaborate and work directly with non-federal partners to increase the resilience and adaptive capacity of state, local, territorial and tribal governments.
This year’s successes in U.S. climate mitigation policies have sparked cautious optimism that acting on climate adaptation is possible.
The Inflation Reduction Act alone could propel the country to a 40 percent cut in emissions by 2030 compared with 2005 levels, and the more recently congressionally ratified Kigali Amendment to the 1987 Montreal Protocol will dramatically reduce the use of hydrofluorocarbon (HFC), a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide. Because of these actions, our planet is on a far better path of collective climate action in 2022 than at any other point in my lifetime.
But even as the United States enacts these critical climate mitigation measures, it must simultaneously address the painful cost of those actions coming decades past their due date.
As Americans across the country pick up the pieces of their lives devastated by recent floods and fires, heatwaves and hurricanes, a zero-carbon world is no longer enough. In our new normal, we must also prepare for unavoidable climate impacts like those brought by Hurricane Ian or Typhoon Merbok. It is incumbent upon the president, Congress, or both, to act with ambition and vision on national climate adaptation.
With leadership and strategy, these measures can drive America further in its preparation for a climate-changed world — not for those in some distant future, but for communities across the country facing existential impacts today. Without them, every American will continue to experience the consequences of their inaction.
Victoria Herrmann, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at The Arctic Institute and assistant research professor at Georgetown University.
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