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Fires, smoke, floods, droughts, storms, heat: America needs a climate resilience strategy

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As wildfire season approaches, the Western United States remains gripped by a megadrought

Last summer, one of us was locked inside their home in the Seattle area, not because of the pandemic, but because the air was full of smoke from fires raging hundreds of miles away in California. The other was peering through an orange afternoon haze because of those same fires — thousands of miles away in Maine.

Our country has been battered by the advancing impacts of climate change — fires, smoke, floods, droughts, storms and heat. These impacts are affecting our health, our homes, our jobs, our communities and our natural heritage. And they are expensive — climate impacts in the U.S. cost our economy nearly $100 billion in 2020 — almost double the previous year’s costs.

In the face of this national crisis, we need to change the way we do business in every facet of the economy, with an eye toward reducing risk, increasing resilience and ensuring equity and justice.

We have lost time by failing to mobilize at the scale the climate crisis requires. Truth be told, we are not just four years behind where we need to be, we’re decades behind. It is imperative that we mobilize as we would for a national crisis.

In his first week in office, President Biden set the ball rolling with an executive order  promising to “move quickly to build resilience, both at home and abroad, against the impacts of climate change that are already manifest and will continue to intensify.”

He has further promised that “every dollar spent on rebuilding our infrastructure” will be used to prevent, reduce and withstand the impacts of the climate crisis. And Biden’s National Climate Task Force is exploring ways to help drought-impacted communities.

Fortunately, the Biden administration doesn’t need to start from scratch, nor wait on Congress to act.

There are abundant opportunities to apply a climate-smart spending lens to other federal spending — from managing lands to operating buildings, responding to disasters to supporting state and local governments.

Federal agency programs that were providing climate science tools and advancing adaptation and resilience for frontline communities, indigenous people, farmers, fishers and land managers were shuttered, underfunded or neglected under the Trump administration. They stand ready to provide and scale up services to Americans across the country.

The administration should take stock of these existing assets, both inside and outside government, and mobilize them as soon as possible into a coordinated climate services infrastructure that serves communities, sectors and ecosystems across America.

In order to “build back better,” these assets are our foundation. 

In addition to investing in innovative climate-smart infrastructure and restoring past adaptation efforts, it’s also time to develop a national resilience strategy to organize and guide resilience and adaptation efforts in the decades to come.

A national resilience strategy led by the White House will provide the scaffolding to guide investments and lift resilience efforts into a whole-of-government climate approach. It will allow decision-makers to collaboratively establish priorities and goals, promote win-win solutions, and address difficult trade-offs. Measurable action steps will ensure a focus on reducing risk to our health and safety while safeguarding our natural resources.

Most importantly, the strategy will provide opportunities for all Americans to engage in building resilience. It will help unleash successful state and local efforts around the country that were constrained and isolated by lack of federal leadership, coordination and funding during the previous administration. It will help lift up and build out existing non-governmental resources such as the largest adaptation database in the world, currently run on a shoestring by a small nonprofit. 

The benefits would be enormous.

We can create jobs and training to put people to work building a healthier, safer and more prosperous future.

We can ensure that frontline communities and communities of color have the resources they need to thrive through change.

We can honor and support Indigenous treaty rights, tribal sovereignty and land, as well as respect Indigenous knowledge and solutions to build resilience.

We can protect the forests, rangelands, rivers and coasts that our economy depends upon.

We can ensure that taxpayer dollars are wisely spent only for climate safe investments, reducing the need for disaster response.

And we can improve access to the science that supports our decision-making and innovation.

By developing a national resilience strategy, scaling up existing efforts and investing in innovative solutions, we can finally start to build a climate savvy future. 

Lara Hansen is chief scientist, executive director and co-founder of EcoAdapt, an environmental non-profit meeting the challenges of global climate change through adaptation research, training and knowledge sharing. Follow the organization on Twitter: @EcoAdapt.

Joel Clement is a senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a senior fellow with the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Prior to joining UCS and the Belfer Center, Clement served as an executive for seven years at the U.S. Department of the Interior. Since resigning from public service in 2017, he has received multiple awards for ethics, courage, and his dedication to the role of science in public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @jclementmaine.

Tags Climate change climate resilience Drought extreme weather Flood Global warming heat Joe Biden Joel Clement Lara Hansen Wildfire
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