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Climate adaptation: The gaping hole in American environmental policy

President Biden has started his administration with a sprint to address climate disruption. On his first day in office, he announced a slew of new measures aimed at reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions and building resilience to impacts like worsening droughts, more extreme rainfall and heat, and rising sea levels.

Biden is hosting a Climate Summit on Earth Day, April 22, with 40 world leaders discussing, among other things, “opportunities to strengthen capacity to protect lives and livelihoods from the impacts of climate change.”

But despite all the activity, the approach to adaptation or building resilience — defined as helping individuals, companies and government entities cope as effectively as possible with climate impacts that cannot be avoided — is still scattershot and incomplete. In short, we don’t have a national adaptation plan, and Biden has yet to call for one. This is a gaping hole in American climate policy, a hole large enough to leave the nation desperately unprepared for worsening climate impacts. A comprehensive national climate adaptation plan can save lives and money and increase efficiency, coordinating actions across all levels of government.

Last year, the tally of weather and climate-related disasters each causing more than $1 billion in damages reached 22 — an all-time-high. Even if countries succeed in rapidly cutting global greenhouse gas emissions, we already experience more than enough climate impacts to motivate strong action. Any delays in reducing emissions will only increase the need to adapt.

In 2012, the National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine warned that the country’s current approach to disasters, where most of the money gets spent after calamity strikes, would, if not updated, result in more lives, homes, jobs, and businesses lost to climate-worsened extremes. Recognizing the central role of the federal government in adaptation planning, it urged the creation of a national resilience strategy and implementation plan. A strategy would close the policy gaps and resolve inconsistencies across the approaches taken by federal agencies. The historic 2015 Paris Agreement similarly recognized the importance of national adaptation planning. Nations across the globe have heeded the call to create robust national adaptation strategies. China unveiled its plan in 2013, Russia in 2019. The European Union announced its new adaptation strategy earlier this year. The Netherlands, with a strong history of active flood-risk management, adopted their strategy in 2007. That country now builds dams and dikes tall and strong enough to withstand a once-in-10,000-years storm surge.

What would creation of an American national adaptation plan accomplish? First and foremost, it would establish concrete, shared goals for resilience. It would provide the framework for prioritizing risk reduction in the federal government’s coordination with states, cities and tribes, as well as companies and NGOs. Topics would likely include protecting against cascading failures of infrastructure systems from worsening climate extremes and regional planning for climate resilient infrastructure for transportation, communications, power distribution, water and waste management, as well as coordination early warning and disaster response.

Second, a national plan would promote climate-resilient decisions about where and how we live. Since 2009, more than one-third of coastal states have added homes in areas prone to flooding. With climate disruption, these houses face even greater risk. A national resilience framework would drive reliable, country-wide risk assessments to inform land-use planning and future development.

In addition to improving land use choices, a national approach to adaptation could also provide incentives to build structures to withstand future disasters. A 2020 by the National Institute of Building Sciences found that adopting modern model building codes saves $11 for every $1 invested. Currently, 65 percent of counties, cities and towns, across the country lack modern disaster-resistant building codes. As a consequence, Americans are buying and living in homes destined to burn or flood. A national plan would provide incentives for state, local and tribal governments to adopt building codes appropriate for future climate-driven extremes. It would require that, where federal taxpayer funds are used, the money is spent on improvements attuned for new extreme conditions. It would also seek to develop improved disaster insurance policies, in partnership with the private sector.

A national adaptation plan would also ensure that federal taxpayer dollars are spent wisely. It would make clear that “climate-proofing” is the responsibility of all. As the Government Accountability Office flagged in 2019, without a plan, federal taxpayer money risks being frittered away in projects that won’t keep us safe. A national plan would establish priorities to guide investments, steering funds to projects and regions where investments continue to pay dividends in the long term and avoiding short-term fixes like “renourishing” beaches with sand transported long distances or building sea walls that provide insufficient protection.

Finally, a national plan would establish benchmarks for judging progress, including for ensuring that the most vulnerable and marginalized communities are included in resilience planning and action. It would identify milestones for measuring progress and provide a roadmap of priority areas for future progress.

Adaptation has long played second fiddle to reducing carbon emissions. It’s time for that to change.

The federal government has made clear commitments to climate action. States and municipalities are increasingly learning the hard way that climate adaptation is a necessity and not a luxury. Without a comprehensive plan, the United States will keep racking up billion-dollar disasters, building back in high-risk places, and doing it all over again. It’s time to create the blueprint for a safer future.

Chris Field is a professor at Stanford, where he directs the Woods Institute for the Environment.

Alice Hill is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for Energy and Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations and the former senior director of resilience policy on the National Security Council.

Tags Alice C. Hill carbon emissions Chris Field climate adaptation Climate change Greenhouse gas emissions Joe Biden

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