Plan for climate change's worst impacts while working to prevent them

Plan for climate change's worst impacts while working to prevent them
© Ian Waldie/Getty Images

The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report made it clear that climate mitigation and resilience measures will both be necessary to stave off the worst of the impending climate perils.

Reviewing thousands of scientific studies, the authors concluded that, even with the most fervent efforts to reduce greenhouse gases (GHG) in the atmosphere, it is very likely that for at least the next three decades the world will experience a rise in sea level, extreme heatwaves, heavy precipitation, intense flooding and bigger wildfires. For some of these threats, the likelihood is virtually certain. And that’s under the best-case scenario.

A report in July by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that global spending on climate mitigation measures currently falls far short of what is needed to reach this best-case scenario.

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Given these warnings, it is clear that the extreme weather events that have plagued the world this year — July being the hottest month on record, wildfires devasting the West, flooding across the globe, a polar vortex freezing Texas — are just a taste of what is to come.

We no longer have the luxury to focus solely on mitigation. The world must adapt to and build resilience against these climate threats. Resilience measures such as fortifying electric power grids to withstand wildfires and other natural disasters or restoring tidal marshes and reefs to protect coastal communities from storms and flooding will save lives, safeguard homes, protect livelihoods and maintain ecosystems. Importantly, since climate risks are borne disproportionately by disadvantaged and vulnerable populations, well-targeted resilience measures will aid those in greatest need of assistance. Put simply, resilience investments are necessary and just.

Despite the clear need for investments in both climate mitigation and resilience measures, a tension exists within the climate community between those promoting mitigation and those promoting resilience. For the last three decades, environmentalists directed most of their energies toward preventing future climate change — mitigation.

Admitting that communities should also plan for rising sea levels, more intense flooding and wildfires, or changing agricultural conditions was seen as a cop-out. They feared that the promotion of building resilience to a changing climate would be exploited as an alternative to taking the hard steps to halt rising global temperatures. Although recognition of the importance of climate resilience has grown in recent years, a sense of competition for limited dollars and political attention remains.

This notion that mitigation and resilience investments are at odds with each other is largely a false dichotomy. Resilience measures do not usually compete with mitigation efforts; in many cases, they do the converse, that is, increases the effectiveness of mitigation.

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Mitigation and resilience measures are largely carried out in sectors with different missions and different stakeholders. While mitigation is the primary climate concern of agencies focused on energy and transportation, climate resilience is more the purview of those addressing housing, health and water. Consequently, research and development grants for emerging green technologies such as batteries or hydrogen fuels rarely competes for funding with training programs for pre-disaster preparedness. Likewise, the exercise of revising the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards is fully distinct from that of reauthorizing and reforming the National Flood Insurance Program.

For the agencies that extensively engage in both mitigation and adaptation, there is often congruence in their efforts. Climate measures within the agriculture and natural resources sectors tend to both build resilience and abate GHG emissions. For example, resilience projects that use water-efficient technology in drought-prone communities also benefit climate mitigation through reduced power consumption. Similarly, natural resource agencies that manage forests to diminish vulnerability to wildfires also reduce forest acres burned — and carbon emitted.

The IPCC report clearly establishes that neither climate mitigation nor resilience can be ignored. They are now joined at the hip. The Biden administration initially focused its climate attention predominantly on mitigation but has now begun to also raise the profile of resilience. The White House has increased resilience funding and established five interagency working groups to address resilience strategies tied to drought, wildfires, extreme heat, coastal and flood risks.

The administration’s next steps will be much more daunting: Integrating both mitigation and resilience considerations into the country’s rebuilding of its infrastructure. This requires efforts not just of the federal government alone, but in consultation and coordination with state, local and tribal governments as well as civil society and private sector.

A comprehensive climate approach that integrates both climate mitigation and resilience will reveal that climate planning is not a zero-sum game. The climate community (both those focused on mitigation and those on resilience) should coordinate accordingly.

Elizabeth Losos is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and leads a research program on sustainable infrastructure.