Open data can revolutionize the climate fight for vulnerable communities

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Last summer Hurricane Ida threw a harsh light on the impacts that climate change is having, and will continue to have, on our most vulnerable communities. The storm knocked out power for many in Louisiana and, combined with a subsequent heatwave, killed at least 10 elderly people trapped in their apartments. In the Northeast, Ida’s remnants caused widespread flooding, killing at least 11 people, mostly immigrants, in their basement apartments. 

As climate change intensifies, its hazards will be felt most strongly by vulnerable individuals and communities, particularly low-income and minority communities

President Biden has recognized this disparity. He has laid out a path to address it through his proposed Build Back Better Agenda and Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, which include resilience investments geared toward the needs of climate-vulnerable communities, and Justice40, a landmark effort to ensure at least 40 percent of the benefits of federal investments in climate and clean energy flow to disadvantaged communities. To achieve these goals and help vulnerable communities understand and manage their climate risk, policymakers need access to meaningful, timely and authoritative data and information. 

In one of his first executive orders, President Biden recognized the need to expand federal climate data services to assist vulnerable communities in preparing for the extreme weather and other climate impacts that they already are facing. The president asked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the leading source of data on extreme weather events, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the leading source of data on flood risk and other hazards facing communities, to lead the preparation of a report on how the federal government can develop a set of significantly enhanced, timely, authoritative, understandable and actionable climate services. These services will enable agencies, state, local, tribal and territorial governments, communities and businesses to prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change. 

NOAA, FEMA, and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) delivered on this directive with a report released by the White House today titled, “Opportunities for Expanding and Improving Climate Information and Services for the Public.” NOAA, which has expertise in earth system science, is also currently establishing and expanding new and existing partnerships with the U.S. Census Bureau and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to better understand the social and neighborhood factors that determine whether a climate event will be an inconvenience or a matter of life and death.

The nonprofit Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE) has also published a report with recommendations for using data to assess and address climate risk in vulnerable communities. The report is based on a roundtable co-hosted by CODE and NOAA that brought together experts from government, academia, nonprofit organizations, the private sector and communities across the country. (CODE’s work on this project was supported by the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative and Amazon Web Services.) 

The report describes how governments at different levels can work with the communities they represent to create data-driven solutions to climate threats. By collaborating around data on both risks and resilience, federal agencies can provide integrated data sources, standardize data for interoperability, help “downscale” data to apply at the local level and develop citizen science projects to collect data from under-researched areas. 

Fortunately, many models for data collaboration already exist and could be reinvigorated or expanded. For example, federal agencies are planning to better coordinate climate information in an integrated online system by building on efforts such as the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit. This system already has climate information and tools, but can be improved to provide easy access to projections of physical climate information; downscaled projections at resolution scales that are useful for decision-making; derived products that translate scientific parameters into future risk projections of flood, wildfire and sea level rise; and indicators of observed and projected changes in factors relevant to society, such as extreme heat. The report released today by NOAA, FEMA, and OSTP provides further details on recommendations to expand federal data collaboration. 

But to be effective, federal agencies need to fully engage with communities and consult with them in ways that build trust. For example, after Hurricane Sandy, the community-led Occupy Sandy effort was able to effectively serve residents because of their community roots and knowledge. Community knowledge combined with federal data and resources represents a powerful path towards resilience. 

Federal agencies can boost community engagement and data use through direct funding programs like Justice40 and by working with local leaders to provide technical assistance, training and data collection. This summer, NOAA, along with partner scientists, volunteers, and community coordinators, embarked on an urban heat mapping campaign in 11 states. Together, they produced local maps that give city officials and community groups necessary information to protect people from extreme heat. 

Climate change is real, it’s here, and the associated extreme weather events will only get deadlier — and costlier — if we do not act. Fortunately, President Biden took a whole-of-government approach to climate change and mobilized every federal agency to tackle this crisis. As the atmosphere warms and sea levels rise, every community must become a climate-focused community as well. 

As a nation, we have an obligation to provide all Americans, especially the most vulnerable among us, with the data, tools and resources they need to combat this crisis.

Don Graves is deputy secretary of Commerce at the U.S. Department of Commerce and Joel Gurin is president of the Center for Open Data Enterprise (CODE).

Tags Climate change adaptation Climate change mitigation climate resilience Effects of climate change Environmental justice Joe Biden National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Natural environment

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