Our nation’s need to become resilient to the impacts of climate change intensifies every day. Our resilience challenge leaps to our TV screens with increasing frequency — when forest fires rage across the West, storms batter the Gulf Coast, droughts and flooding events punish cities and rural communities alike, and polar weather shuts down the Texas power system. Such events reveal the depths of our vulnerability to the stresses and shocks of climate change, which threatens our food, energy, water, transportation and health security — and ultimately, our economy and national security.
Consider, for example, the fate of too many small businesses — the lifeblood of the American economy, generating nearly half of U.S. economic activity. More than 90 percent of small businesses fail within two years of being struck by a disaster, according to the United States Small Business Administration. Yet, the problem is more pervasive than the disasters that make the headlines. Slowly progressing and lasting changes — for example, failing crops from diminishing rainwater — are equally concerning.
Our nation must rise to tackle this challenge by mobilizing an effort commensurate with the problem. Building back better from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic offers the opportunity for our nation to rise to the challenge. A once-in-a-generation investment that can put America on the path to resilience is not only building back better, it is building a better future for all.
What does rebuilding for resilience look like? It looks like building our homes, buildings, military bases, bridges, roads, water systems, coastal protections and other infrastructure to withstand climate impacts — which will reduce the catastrophic loss of lives and livelihoods and will save the U.S. money in the long-run. It looks like supporting our farmers, ranchers and rural landholders to preserve and protect our natural infrastructure — like the wetlands, forests and coastal ecosystems that provides us with clean, reliable water, buffer us from storms and so much more.
It looks like prioritizing investments in vulnerable and marginalized communities that bear a disproportionate brunt of climate impacts in addition to long-standing inequities. And it looks like making some very tough choices about changing where we live and work.
Rebuilding with resilience will benefit every congressional district: red and blue, rural and urban, rich and poor. It’s an opportunity to come together as a country. To seize this opportunity will require a whole-of-government approach to resilience. The Biden-Harris administration recognized this in the Jan. 27 executive order on climate change by assigning the National Climate Task Force to increase our resilience to the impacts of climate change. Further efforts, however, are necessary to embed resilience more fully and effectively in the federal government’s decision-making. We propose a roadmap to building national resilience that starts with the following three steps.
1) The government should develop and implement a National Climate Resilience Strategy to build resilience into communities, services, built infrastructure and natural and working lands. The strategy should be championed by a “resilience lead” in the White House, empowered to work closely with the Office of Domestic Climate Policy and the White House National climate advisor to mobilize and coordinate interagency efforts. An important role for this leader is to work with federal agencies to ensure that every federal dollar is spent as efficiently and effectively as possible.
2) Rebuilding with resilience will require creating true partnerships between the federal government and local, state and tribal governments. This necessitates listening to communities. Actions and critical decisions on infrastructure, land use and natural resource management may be catalyzed by national policy and agency efforts — however, this must happen locally through the efforts of state, local and tribal governments and their constituents.
Keeping these decisions local is right, but expecting thousands of local entities to assess their risks from climate impacts and plan a response on their own is unrealistic. The federal government has some of the best science, data and planning tools, and these must be made accessible to state, local and tribal actors. And federal funding must enable these local leaders to prepare for the changes that are coming, not simply responding after disaster strikes — as many programs do now.
3) The federal government should increase funding for resilience and direct that funding to best-in-class science and practice — to those actions that increase resilience the most. The American Jobs Plan already promises that “every dollar spent on rebuilding our infrastructure during the Biden administration will be used to prevent, reduce, and withstand the impacts of the climate crisis.”
Other federal funds should also meet this standard. This funding should be prioritized to address the needs of the most vulnerable — marginalized, low-income and tribal communities. Not only are these communities most likely to bear the brunt of climate impacts, structural inequities and historical divestment mean they also have less capacity to adapt.
The Biden-Harris administration has hit the ground running to reduce the greenhouse gases that drive climate change. It also has a tremendous opportunity to not simply build back, but to build forward better to an America that can respond and equitably adapt to the climate changes we already face.
Tim Profeta is the director of Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University.
Jennifer Kurz is a senior strategist with Susan Bell & Associates.
They are co-conveners of the Resilience Roadmap, a non-partisan, independent project that aims to deliver practical information and actionable advice to the Biden-Harris administration on resilience.