Risk and resilience: Biden tackles the elephant in the climate action room

Risk and resilience: Biden tackles the elephant in the climate action room
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A menacing reality looms over the deliberations taking place around the world as nations debate and spin pledges to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for our rapidly changing climate. Regardless of what we do now to reduce CO2 emissions, a certain amount of change is already baked into the system because the record amounts of CO2 already released will persist in the atmosphere for decades.

This means that while we must act quickly to get to net-zero emissions by mid-century in order to reduce suffering after that time, we must also act quickly to reduce the oncoming and inevitable risks to communities, infrastructure, ecosystems and the economy in the meantime. In particular, policymakers have become acutely concerned about risks to global financial systems. Climate impacts — such as terrifying wildfires, turbo-charged hurricanes and floods caused by torrential rainfall or sea-level rise — have already disrupted supply chains, threatened agricultural and transport sectors, as well as badly damaged public and private assets. In 2020 alone, climate impacts cost the U.S. economy nearly $100 billion.

As I and others have urged in The Hill in recent months, addressing these inevitable impacts requires a national resilience strategy, substantial investments to reduce risk, and policies that address and communicate climate risk to Americans.

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The Biden administration acted recently to do just that by announcing two groundbreaking resilience initiatives.

On May 20, the White House released an Executive Order on Climate Related Financial Risk. This order directs federal agencies to do two things.

1) It put rules in place that make climate risks more transparent for investors and households. Better understanding risk in advance may reduce exposure and protect jobs and businesses.

2) It directs federal agencies to assess and draw down those risks, whether they threaten life savings, pensions, or the federal budget.

In a follow-up to that announcement, on May 24 the White House announced an additional $1 billion to help communities prepare for climate impacts. This essentially doubled the budget for the Federal Emergency Management Agency program that helps cities and towns reduce vulnerability by funding projects such as seawall construction or the relocation of homes and businesses away from flood-prone areas. This program, known as Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC), was established in August 2020 by the Trump administration. If managed effectively, BRIC can reduce vulnerability for the many frontline and under-served communities hit hardest by climate impacts.

Taken together, these actions represent an important uptick in the White House focus on risk and resilience, but, as always with multi-agency initiatives, the proof will be in the pudding.

For example, an honest assessment of the financial and climate risks of investing in fossil fuels will likely reveal what the International Energy Agency announced last week, “If governments are serious about the climate crisis, there can be no new investments in oil, gas and coal, from now — from this year.” It is unlikely that the U.S. will cease such investments overnight, so this will need to be squared with the risk implications for communities and the economy.

In other words, investments in BRIC will need to increase dramatically if investments in fossil fuels persist.

Also missing thus far is a national strategy that describes a clear vision for a resilient economy and establishes metrics for success. The federal enterprise is endlessly complex and it does not turn on a dime — but describing what a home run looks like, providing metrics to measure progress and guiding agency actions would go a long way toward helping align those actions around a common set of goals.

A national resilience strategy would also provide cities and states with an organizing and collaboration framework as they make difficult investment and infrastructure decisions.

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Despite the hurdles endemic to a vast bureaucracy, however, it is invigorating to see policy actions that address climate risk and resilience directly. Given more clarity on how climate change puts society at risk, I hope society will, in turn, be prudent about infrastructure investments, seek to reduce the vulnerability of marginalized communities and avoid investing in the fossil fuel energy systems of the past.

Risk assessments and insurance experts tell us that every year of inaction is extremely costly to the global economy, to the tune of up to $500 billion per year. With every move to shine a light on climate risk, with every effort to demonstrate what resilience looks like, the Biden administration is nudging us toward an urgently needed transition to existing, safe and renewable energy technologies.

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.