Governments, businesses, and communities across the United States are taking action to prepare for the risks posed by climate change. But the lack of an overarching vision and coordination at the federal level could lead to missed opportunities and inefficient use of resources. America needs a national adaptation strategy—and there’s no time to waste.
There is a lot of action, but no national strategy
It seems there is action everywhere these days to help the United States better understand and prepare for the risks from climate change. This is wonderful! In its first few days the Biden administration released executive orders that direct federal agencies to each develop climate action plans, along with a wide range of other activities, including establishment of a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and a National Climate Task Force. States and cities are ramping up their climate resilience efforts. For example, the states of New York and California are providing funding to communities to address climate change vulnerabilities. Action is underway in the private sector too: companies are increasingly assessing and disclosing their climate risks, such as through the use of the framework promoted by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosure..
But without a national adaptation strategy, it will be as if the United States is trying to sprint in soft sand: there will be a big flurry of activity with a significant amount of wasted effort.
There are many essential actors and voices
Several federal departments and agencies have some responsibility—either conferred by Congress or assumed for themselves—to ensure the safety of U.S. communities, including the Departments of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Homeland Security (DHS), Commerce (DOC), Transportation (DOT), Agriculture (USDA), and Energy (DOE), the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and others. These federal organizations need to closely coordinate with each other and with the communities they are serving to ensure that their investments to understand and mitigate climate risks are targeted toward the greatest needs. Many of their programs, such as the HUD Community Development Block Grants (CDBG), the FEMA Building Resilience in Communities (BRIC) grants, the USDA Watershed Protection and Flood Prevention Program, and the DOT Surface Transportation Block Grant Program, have the potential to address climate change, even though that’s not their primary design. As these programs evolve and others emerge to address the risks posed by climate change, it is essential that they be well coordinated to ensure they are targeting the communities most vulnerable to climate change, and that synergies between those programs and state and local efforts are fully exploited.
The government also has an important set of roles to play in promoting private sector engagement. However, the private sector should not be a passive recipient of direction from the government. Businesses need to act in their own interests and that of the communities they serve and upon which they depend. These private sector actions will, in many cases, benefit from coordination with the government, whether for voluntary or regulated action. And the government needs to coordinate its actions with respect to the private sector. For example, multiple reports (e.g., here and here) have suggested that the Securities and Exchange Commission implement stronger requirements for climate risk disclosure. However, this needs to be done in concert with the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC), Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), Federal Reserve, Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), and Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, as well as non-federal entities including the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) and the Network for Greening the Financial System (NGFS) to ensure that any new requirements are not in conflict with each other and to help streamline the ability of companies to navigate any new climate risk disclosure mandates.
These are but a few of the actions underway across the country to address climate risk that need to be coordinated to maximize their potential and to avoid inefficient use of resources. However, a bold strategy should not only knit together existing activities, but also play a central role in catalyzing new opportunities in adaptation that can enhance economic growth and adaptation-related jobs. An undertaking of this breadth and significance will require a diverse array of people and organizations to be meaningfully engaged in the development and the implementation of the strategy.
These efforts need to be in service of our communities, as well as the people in other countries that U.S. agencies and companies serve. It’s important to keep in mind that this is a human issue, not an abstract programmatic one. Coordinated, effective, efficient, and equitable programs are critical to reduce community-scale impacts from the increasing incidence of heatwaves and increasing severity of floods—to mention only a few of the hazards posed by climate change. If well designed, these efforts also have the potential to increase the resilience of the nation to all hazards, not just climate change – including the devastating effects of the recent freezes in Texas and the ongoing COVID pandemic. Irrespective of the cause, these hazards are hitting already-vulnerable people hardest, including poor, minority, and elderly populations.
With reentry by the United States into the Paris Agreement, a national adaptation strategy can – together with the National Climate Assessment – provide the underpinning for this country’s required adaptation communications under the United Nation’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. It will also allow the United States to effectively harmonize with the adaptation planning efforts of other nations and regions, including the European Union and its recently released adaptation strategy.
Key dimensions of a national adaptation strategy
So, what should a national adaptation strategy look like? A few of the elements that should be considered are very briefly outlined below.
- Responsive to greatest vulnerabilities. Which communities and sectors are most exposed and sensitive to climate change? Which have the least ability to cope with the impacts from climate change? These are the places where we, as a nation, should start. The planning and responses described in a national strategy should be fair and equitable.
- Science-based. There is a lot that the scientific community can tell us about how the climate is changing and how it may affect the things that we care most about. But there are many uncertainties. Science can help us navigate this complex landscape and help guide investments to where they are needed most using techniques that embrace these uncertainties to guide cost-effective, equitable investments. In addition to being science-based, the strategy should be linked to the nation’s research and development planning to seek and create new synergies, where possible.
- Built upon existing activities, where possible. Well-established existing programs and networks could be leveraged to support the enhancement of climate resilience, whether the U.S. National Climate Assessment, which provides gold-standard scientific information to the nation, the agricultural cooperative extension network, which has served farmers across the country for decades, the recently released National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, or the countless volunteer-, religious-, and community-based programs that have deep roots with the communities they serve and connect.
- Effectively and inclusively coordinated and led. It’s highly unlikely that the resources and activities required for a national adaptation strategy will be spontaneously coordinated. Instead, this effort will require intentionality and dedicated effort. Leadership from the top is required, including from the president, Congress, governors, mayors, CEOs, and community leaders. However, the stakeholders and beneficiaries of a national adaptation strategy also need to provide engagement, input, and direction. An effective national adaptation strategy needs to be both top-down and bottom-up.
- Adequately resourced. Even the most carefully crafted plan is meaningless if it cannot be executed. A national adaptation strategy needs to have enough implementation resources, not just in the short term but particularly in the decades to come as climate change intensifies. It needs to include criteria for prioritizing action to align available resources with the greatest needs. Effective adaptation will likely require a significant infusion of new resources from both the public and private sectors. Thus, the strategy should be aspirational and not limited to the resources currently at hand.
- Actionable. The national strategy should serve as the guide star for more specific adaptation and implementation strategies developed across all levels of government and civil society. It should identify the types of actors that need to be engaged, as well as their roles and responsibilities, and should provide guidance on the development of plans that are bespoke to their particular needs and capabilities.
- Closely monitored and adapted over time. The strategy should outline how progress may be measured and how actions may be adjusted over time, as we learn more about climate change, risk mitigation measures, and the socioeconomic contexts of communities and sectors that are vulnerable to climate change. Clear evaluation criteria will need to be baked into the planning from the outset. This will allow investments to be tracked openly and transparently. Importantly, as climate impacts emerge across the country there will be a constant need to adapt and re-prioritize over time. It will be essential to define clear triggers for changing paths before adaptation thresholds are breached. This adaptive management process can also help to identify new, currently unimagined opportunities to propel the nation’s resilience forward.
The power of vision
A national adaptation strategy should have all of the elements described above. But, perhaps most important is the need for a vision that it articulates for a nation resilient to climate change: a nation that can equitably prosper in a way that protects our people and natural resources for the long term. That vision can help motivate the types of action that are needed, including actions that transform our ability to prepare for and respond to climate change. As communities increasingly suffer from impacts related to climate change, the science tells us that future stakes are enormous. This is an effort in which we absolutely, positively cannot allow ourselves to fail.