How federal agencies can protect against climate threats

How federal agencies can protect against climate threats
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Last week, 23 federal agencies published climate adaptation plans to help protect their facilities and operations from floods, storms, wildfires and other impacts of climate change. While the plans are agency-specific, universal themes include ensuring new facilities meet tougher construction standards, creating more resilient supply chains and embedding climate resilience into funding support to states, cities and communities.

The concrete climate adaptation plans developed by the Departments of Transportation, Defense Education and 20 other agencies are a good first step. Now agencies are faced with the challenging task of executing these plans as climate change intensifies and climate risks increase.

While throwing “the full financial weight of the federal government” at climate adaptation, as called for in President BidenJoe Biden White House: US has donated 200 million COVID-19 vaccines around the world Police recommend charges against four over Sinema bathroom protest K Street revenues boom MORE’s January executive order, might seem daunting, agencies don’t need to go for the biggest and most expensive solutions right out of the gate — quite the opposite.


They can develop adaptation strategies that ramp up as climate change hits new triggers. Smart, incremental investments now will help protect their facilities and operations in the short-term while providing the flexibility to right-size adaptation investments over long-term as the future impacts of climate change become clearer. There are several clear benefits of this multi-pronged, milestone-oriented approach to addressing critical short-term needs while enhancing climate resilience.

Increased flexibility

Although the new adaptation and resilience plans outline priority actions to be taken across the federal government, individual agencies should consider adaptation pathways that take political uncertainty alongside other societal, economic, environmental and technological change into consideration. In the process, they should work to address, and plan for, early warnings that allow other agencies to change course due to intensifying or altering conditions — allowing for flexibility and decisions tailored to local conditions.

For inspiration, agencies can look to the California Coastal Commission, which developed policy guidance that considers sea-level rise aspects during the length of each new infrastructure project. This pioneering effort makes adaptation standard practice by requiring future sea-level rise due to climate change over the life of any major infrastructure project to be baked into the project design from day one. 


Taking a climate pathways approach to adaptation involves multiple strategies that spread investment risk over multiple assets and actions. This can also translate into long-term planning that benefits from lengthier investment and payment timelines.

The Asian Development Bank promoting social and economic development in Asia, for example, has committed to making new investments in engineering and infrastructure development with adaptation “as its primary purpose.” The goal is to improve or build infrastructure that addresses today’s issues and has the ability to adapt in the future to respond to evolving climate impacts in a few years or decades. U.S. federal agencies can spread the cost of upgrades and actions over a longer period of time while working to boost efficiency across climate actions in the short-term — win-win.

Enhanced transparency

A hallmark of the 23 new agency adaptation and resilience plans is transparency. Biden’s original executive order calls on government agencies to implement change and transparently report on progress, along with publishing climate action plans on government websites when possible. Embracing a climate pathways approach takes this to the next level with self-imposed triggers and thresholds established at the beginning of climate adaptation work that guide it the whole way — and evolve based on changing conditions and demand from federal agencies and other levels of government.

The Biden administration has set an ambitious course for meaningful climate action on a global scale. The release of federal adaptation plans is an important step toward firmly incorporating adaptation into policy and planning. But now comes the hard part for individual agencies: making smart investments and taking strategic actions over time that advance progress in the fight against climate change.

A good first step is ensuring that federal agencies have a clear understanding of the current and future climate risks facing their facilities and operations. Only when federal agencies develop a clearer picture of these climate risks can they fully protect against the risks and plan for cost-effective, equitable responses.

Robert Kay, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at global consulting services company ICF’s Climate Center.