Jeff Masters Weather Blog

The U.S. is finally making serious efforts to adapt to climate change » Yale Climate Connections

Like an approaching major hurricane whose outer spiral bands are only just beginning to hit, an approaching climate change storm has begun and will soon grow to ferocious severity. This immense tempest is already exposing the precarious foundations upon which civilization is built — an inadequate infrastructure designed for the gentler climate of the 20th century.

For example, because of sea level rise and stronger storms, some coastal cities that used to flood in a hurricane expected once every 100 years can now flood in a 1-in-20-year storm. Levees and dams built to handle a worst-case flood can now be overwhelmed by rains from a new breed of superstorms. And bridges, roads, runways, and rails are cracking and buckling in heat they were not designed for.

Transformative change will inevitably occur to bring us into balance with the new climate. The big question is: To what degree will this change be planned and orderly rather than chaotic and unplanned, resulting in great suffering?

An urgent, well-organized, well-funded adaptation effort is essential to prepare us for what lies ahead. One recent estimate found that adapting to climate change in the U.S. will cost from tens to hundreds of billions of dollars per year by 2050. For comparison, federal, state, and local governments in the U.S. currently spend over $400 billion annually on public infrastructure.

This is Part 1 of a four-part series on U.S. climate change adaptation. In this part, I’ll document the steps the U.S. has already taken to adjust to our new reality, with suggestions on legislation that could further this effort. I’ll add links to the blurbs below as each post goes online.

  • Part 2 looks at how U.S. climate change adaptation efforts are still fall short of what is needed to safeguard people and property.
  • Part 3 is an essay offering my observations and speculations on how the planetary crisis may play out.
  • Part 4 describes personal actions that you can take to prepare for what is coming, including a discussion of where the safest places to live might be.

What the U.S. is already doing to adapt to climate change

In the past few years, after largely ignoring climate adaption planning and funding, the U.S. government has begun to acknowledge the need to take climate adaptation seriously.

  • The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law: This law provided about $50 billion in resilience funding. FEMA received nearly $7 billion to help communities proactively reduce their vulnerability to floods, hurricanes, drought, wildfires, extreme heat, and other climate-fueled hazards. The Army Corps got $7 billion for projects related to coastal storm risk management, hurricane and storm damage reduction, inland flood risk management, and aquatic ecosystem restoration. The Department of the Interior will spend $8.3 billion over a five-year period for water infrastructure projects, with much of the spending geared toward drought resilience.
  • The 2023 Inflation Reduction Act: This is the most significant piece of U.S. climate legislation ever passed. Although the vast majority of the $400-billion law is earmarked for reducing climate pollution, several billion dollars were set aside for climate adaptation. For example, NOAA got $2.6 billion to improve resilience in coastal communities, the Department of the Interior got $4 billion for drought mitigation.
  • Reform of the National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP: NFIP insures residential properties for up to $250,000, but the program has been widely criticized because it encourages building in high-risk areas. To correct that, the NFIP Risk Rating 2.0 reforms were implemented in 2022. The new policy has led to an increase in flood insurance rates for about 77% of all policyholders. Unfortunately, NFIP rate hikes are causing homeownership to grow too expensive for some, particularly those with lower income (see Tweet below). Home insurance policies rose 11.3% in 2023, according to S&P Global, and the Insurance Information Institute says that 12% of homeowners had no insurance in 2022, up from 5% in 2019.
  • Enforcing the NFIP 50% rule: To stay in NFIP, communities must agree that if a storm causes damage worth at least 50% of a property’s value (“substantial damage”), then it must be torn down and rebuilt to the newest building codes. This policy theoretically prevents the federal government from repeatedly paying to rebuild structures in vulnerable places. Communities that fail to enforce this rule can have their NFIP discounts for good building practices — which can be up to 25% —rescinded. In practice, this rule is regularly flouted, but this may be changing. In the wake of Hurricane Ian’s devastating $117 billion blow in 2022 on Southwest Florida, Lee County, where Ian made landfall, was supposed to send FEMA information confirming that they were following this rule. This has not happened, and FEMA is now threatening to cancel Lee County’s NFIP discount.
  • New HUD rules on rebuilding after disasters: The Department of Housing and Urban Development announced in April (see PDF) that all homes built or repaired with HUD money will be required to be elevated at least two feet above base flood elevation (the 100-year flood recurrence level). The new rule also enlarges the flood zones where the new requirement applies. According to E&E News, the new rule will increase building costs by up to $7,800 for a single-family home.
  • New Community Reinvestment Act rules: In 2023, the Federal Reserve, the FDIC, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency released rules under the Community Reinvestment Act that offer banks incentives to help low-income communities prepare for the consequences of climate change. (Relocation is included, as long as it is not forced.) Thus, banks now have increased incentive to invest in their communities’ adaptation needs.
  • Rebuilding resilient structures after a disaster: In 2024, FEMA announced plans to reimburse state and local governments that rebuild damaged public buildings to be more energy-resilient. For example: installing solar panels on schools, hospitals and other public buildings that are rebuilt after disasters.

Planning for the climate of the future

The Biden White House has also called upon climate adaptation experts to develop plans for managing the looming climate extremes.

For example, Chapter 9 of the March 2023 Economic Report of the President, “Opportunities for Better Managing Weather Risk in the Changing Climate,” by climate scientist Fran Moore of the University of California, Davis, presents some excellent ambitions. For example, it advocates “long-term, forward-looking planning that anticipates coming climate change,” citing a 2021 study finding that proactive adaptation efforts could reduce the costs of climate change to the U.S. road, rail, and coastal infrastructure by a factor three to six by 2090 compared with purely reactive adaptation.

The government’s March 2023 Ocean Climate Action Plan acknowledges that for many coastal communities, the best strategy for avoiding the growing risks of more severe storms and sea level rise is to gradually relocate to higher ground. The plan sets this goal: “Develop an approach for sharing government-wide resources and information to support community-driven relocation effectively.”

And in April 2023, the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology put out a report, Extreme Weather Risk in a Changing Climate: Enhancing prediction and protecting communities, which laid out goals for improving models for quantifying future extreme weather risks, better sharing extreme weather data and models, developing a national adaptation plan, and funding adaptation-related research.

Biden’s 2021 Executive Order 14030 on Climate-Related Financial Risk directs the government to “identify the primary sources of Federal climate-related financial risk exposure and develop methodologies to quantify climate risk within the economic assumptions and long-term projections of the President’s Budget.” A December 2023 paper by the Council of Economic Advisors, A Progress Report on Climate-Energy-Macro Modeling, outlined more specific subsequent plans. For example, it recommends “quantify extreme event risk for the next 25 years at a high spatial resolution across the country.”

Three additional proposed legislative efforts

At least three bills before Congress could help improve U.S. adaptation efforts.

1) The bipartisan National Coordination on Adaptation and Resilience for Security Act of 2023. This bill would require the federal government to produce a national climate adaptation and resilience strategy and an implementation plan with federal, state, local, private sector, and nonprofit partners. A chief resilience officer would be appointed by the president and would work in the White House to implement the plan, which would be updated every three years.

2) The FEMA Independence Act, which would move FEMA out of the Department of Homeland Security and make it a cabinet-level organization. According to disaster scientist Samantha Montano, author of “Disasterology” (see my review here), “There is widespread support among [emergency management] practitioners that this is needed to make emergency management more effective and efficient.” However, such a move is controversial, and FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell has not expressed support or opposition to the change.

3) The 2023 bipartisan Natural Disaster Safety Board Act, which would establish a commission to study future wildfires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and other disasters, and advocate for policy changes that would correct bad development decisions, discriminatory policies, and lack of climate change planning.

Other potential legislation

The nation’s entire disaster preparedness and response system needs a significant overhaul, as argued by Samantha Montano in “Disasterology” and in a 2023 New York Times editorial. Three potential ways to do so:

Bob Henson contributed to this post.

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