America needs a climate adaptation strategy

Posted by Lauren Hertel on Monday, January 25 2021


Linda Shi

Editor's note: The following opinion piece by Linda Shi and Sierra Woodruff first appeared on The Hill's website.

President Biden has an ambitious climate change and energy plan to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. Yet, his agenda offers little on how to prepare for climate impacts, even after wildfires ravaged the West Coast, a record number of hurricanes churned in the Atlantic, and early freezes and drought devastated crops in 2020. Alongside societal decarbonization, we must simultaneously plan for an already changing climate. The Biden administration should develop a national adaptation strategy that prepares us for accelerating climate impacts, steers market and local responses, and promotes justice.

Even with rapid and deep reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, we are locked into continued warming for decades. Like COVID-19, climate impacts — and adaptation measures — will not affect everyone equally. Higher temperatures disproportionately impact poorer and minority communities. Renters can lose everything in a disaster, but receive little support from FEMA. Cities have been leading climate adaptation, but progress is uneven within and across metros. Urban adaptation responses, such as securing additional water suppliesdiverting floodwaters, and migration, can shift risk to rural regions and other jurisdictions.

Leaving markets and local governments to engage in ad hoc, uncoordinated, and competitive adaptation will not add up to the scale of necessary change and will exacerbate existing inequalities. Urban and regional planning can inform federal policy reforms and funding that help communities envision and implement adaptation strategies across sectors and scales.

The Obama administration responded to climate impacts by requiring federal agencies to develop adaptation plansconsider future flood risk in federal investments, and encourage local governments to make climate-informed decisions. Reviving these policies, which the Trump administration rolled back, is a first step. However, climate impacts have become more pronounced over the last four years and the urban adaptation field has evolved, requiring more holistic and justice-oriented federal re-engagement.

Past federal efforts primarily focused on climate-proofing and reducing disaster risks, which problematically framed climate impacts as solely an infrastructure problem. But the impacts are too severe and widespread to fund infrastructure fixes everywhere.

Many shovel ready infrastructure projects can cement development in the wrong place, even if made resilient. Greater attention must be paid to the location of infrastructure and development. “Managed retreat” from floodplains, coasts, or wildfire zones will require federal leadership and regional cooperation. Federal funding, such as Obama’s DOT-EPA-HUD-backed Sustainable Communities Initiative, can be structured to encourage regional cooperation on land use, housing, and transportation planning.

Reshaping the built environment also requires changing the financial instruments that dictate when, where, and how new urban development happens. Recently, financial industries have changed lending and investment portfolios by dumping risky mortgages. They’re incorporating climate risks into property values and bond ratings and seeking “climate oases” for speculative investment. Market shifts profoundly impact household wealth, local governments’ tax revenues and borrowing costs, and migration trends. Comparably safer communities and those receiving infrastructure investments are seeing climate gentrification, while others fear becoming climate slums. Cities and households need a strong federal voice in industry discussions to advocate for humane and equitable reforms.

But adaptation planning is about more than readying the built environment. Tackling climate adaptation is compelling when it meaningfully builds communities’ ability to improve housing quality and affordability, food security, livelihoods, and health. Investing in our health system, strengthening and creating new social safety nets, and building more democratically accountable institutions are fundamental to addressing root drivers of climate vulnerability. 

Adaptation also requires us to confront how climate change inflicts new trauma through the loss of landscapes, communities, and homes. These new traumas are layered on top of historic and ongoing forms of oppression through environmental injustices, land appropriation, police brutality, disinvestment, and displacement that tear apart communities and create distrust in government. Enacting dramatic climate actions requires grappling with affective aspects of loss, racism, faith, healing, and hope that are necessary to motivate collective, inclusive change. These actions will not only help prepare us for future climate change but also create thriving communities today.

In these efforts, “vulnerable communities” should not only be targeted as recipients of funding but also be seen as adaptation thought leaders. Community movement builders, like the Climate Justice Alliance and their member organizations, have tried to bridge urban-rural, racial, class, and partisan divides by focusing on shared learning, dialogue, and mutual aspirations for healthcare, safe environments, and food security. Their perspectives and strategies can help inform federal action.

Preparing for climate change must be a central and unifying piece of Biden’s policy agenda. A national climate adaptation strategy must address the implications of climate change for regional population and economic growth, and how social, financial, and infrastructural adaptation can promote more just communities.

To start, the Biden administration could designate a deputy advisor for climate adaptation and create a platform for leading experts from cities, community organizations, and the private sector to inform the development of a national adaptation strategy. Alongside reducing carbon emissions, climate impacts should be considered in infrastructure, housing, economic, agriculture, and health policy. Agencies like HUD, CDC, NIH, and FEMA — currently absent from President Biden’s climate action plan — should be critical partners to the climate agenda. The next National Climate Assessment should include an assessment of adaptation needs and options alongside synthesis of biophysical change.

Federal leadership on climate adaptation is critical as the country rebuilds its economy and communities. This is a key area where the Biden administration can bring transformative leadership to accelerate just climate adaptation at a national scale.

Sierra Woodruff studies how cities plan for the impacts of climate change as an Assistant Research Professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Urban Planning at Texas A&M University. Follow her on Twitter @WoodruffSierra

Linda Shi researches how to equitably adapt to climate change as an Assistant Professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University's College of Architecture, Art and Planning. Both serve on the American Collegiate Schools of Planning’s Task Force on Climate Change. Follow her on Twitter @_lindashi

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