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4 bipartisan ways to keep National Climate Assessment warnings from coming true

From California’s horrific megafires to the punishing hurricanes and typhoons that leveled communities in the Carolinas, Florida, and the Northern Marianas, this year — like last year — faced deadly devastation from extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change. As our affected friends and neighbors are rebuilding their lives, re-establishing vital services, and searching for victims, the science is clearer than ever that our destabilized climate is fueling our era of extreme weather.

The report, compiled by 300 of the nation’s leading scientists, affirms our experience on-the-ground. Record megafires burn larger, longer, and more intensely, as drought conditions worsen and invasive pests spread.

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Hurricanes are becoming more powerful as water temperatures warm. Inland communities face greater risks of flooding events as extreme precipitation events become more frequent. Prolonged drought threatens water supplies and agricultural production. Heat waves are increasing and disproportionately harming children and older Americans. Warmer waters and increased pollution runoff fuels toxic algal blooms from the Gulf to the Great Lakes, imperiling both drinking water and aquatic species. Sea-level rise threatens drinking water supplies and local infrastructure. And low-income communities and vulnerable populations will continue to be disproportionately impacted.

Just as communities are struggling to adapt to more extreme weather events, America’s wildlife are struggling to survive in the face of rapid changes. Right now, more than one-third of all wildlife species are at-risk or vulnerable to potential extinction in the coming decades due to habitat loss or fragmentation, invasive species, or disease — all of which are being exacerbated by a changing climate. For example, ticks, mosquitoes, and other parasites are thriving in warmer temperatures, spreading disease and death. Many species are being forced to shift ranges and migration patterns, as warming temperatures alter habitat conditions.

This National Climate Assessment, coupled with the recent UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, must serve as a clarion call for Congress and the administration to focus urgently on both reducing emissions and making communities more resilient. 

It appears unlikely that this administration will use any regulatory authorities to reduce carbon and methane pollution — in fact quite the opposite, through its actions to deconstruct the Clean Power Plan, fuel economy standards, and methane rules, which will allow more climate pollution. That makes it is incumbent upon Congress to find bipartisan solutions that allow us to make progress towards dramatically reducing emissions and improving communities’ safety.

While economy-wide market-based solutions, such carbon pricing, are unlikely to move in near-term, there are a range of common-sense, bipartisan solutions that could be enacted by the next Congress that would complement the growing leadership by states, cities, and some companies.

1. A bipartisan infrastructure package represents the best opportunity for progress. With both the White House and Democratic leadership talking about the importance of infrastructure, a well-crafted package could reduce current emissions by more than 30 percent and make communities across the nation more resilient. Through strategic investments nationwide in industrial and building efficiency; a cleaner power sector; transportation electrification and transit; and carbon sequestration, we can reduce emissions beyond our Paris commitments in a manner that supports well-paying jobs and domestic manufacturing. 

Such a package must also include investments in natural infrastructure, such as reforestation and improved forest management, agricultural practices, and restoration of wetlands, grasslands, and other essential wildlife habitat, which could ultimately sequester more than 20 percent of current domestic emissions.

2. Another area of potential bipartisan agreement is reducing the one-quarter of domestic greenhouse gas emissions that originate from federal lands. Despite recent deregulatory efforts, there remain common-sense measures to reduce emissions leaking from oil, gas, and coal development and electricity generation, including next generation sequestration technologies, which could save taxpayers billions of dollars.

3. As reduce emissions, we must also seek bipartisan solutions to improve the resilience of communities across America. Rather than spending billions of dollars after a fire, flood, or other disaster occurs, we must invest more in prevention that could mitigate much of the damage, saving lives and tax dollars.

In the aftermath of calamitous fires, a top national priority must be restoring the health of public and private forests to reduce fire threats and improve ecological outcomes. We must dramatically increase the pace of ecologically-sound reforestation and restoration projects, including prescribed burns and other appropriate active management projects, and we must make structures in the wildland-urban interface much more fire-resistant.

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Investing in natural infrastructure, such as wetlands, sand dunes, living shorelines, and other natural stormwater solutions, would help protect communities from hurricanes and inland flooding — as advanced by the recently passed Water Resources Development Act — while providing recreational, water quality, and wildlife habitat benefits. It is essential that we pass and fully fund effective, bipartisan conservation programs, like the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the North American Wetland Conservation Act, and strengthen farm bill programs that accelerate cover crop adoption and grassland restoration.

4. We must also reform the National Flood Insurance Program and Stafford Act to prioritize pre-disaster mitigation, actuarially-sound rates, up-to-date floodplain mapping, and greater market competition, which will make communities safer and reduce taxpayer liabilities.

Conventional wisdom is that nothing meaningful can be accomplished on climate in the next Congress. I disagree. There are areas that are ripe for meaningful bipartisan progress. The National Climate Assessment gave us the facts, so the only question that remains is, do we have the will to act?

Collin O’Mara is president and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation.