Building resilience on a foundation of solid climate risk information

We live in a world that is already being altered by climate change, so we need to start building a more resilient one. The United States experienced a record-breaking 22 weather disasters with damages of at least $1 billion in 2020. Those are just some of the costs of climate impacts on communities, and they will continue to rise in part because climate change is increasing the frequency of some extreme weather events.

As federal lawmakers consider investing trillions of dollars in the nation’s infrastructure, we must ensure these investments will withstand climate impacts for decades to come. To do so, communities need solid, science-based data from reliable sources. Existing federal information sources like the National Climate Assessment and National Centers for Environmental Information have helped communities better understand their climate risks.

However, the nation’s current system of sharing climate-risk information lacks strong coordination, and often leaves communities with fewer resources behind (in addition to falling short in providing information for certain climate hazards and impacts). To make sure local governments have the information and resources they need to become more resilient, Congress should create and fund a coordinated climate-risk gathering and sharing system in the United States.

With the United States investing in science-based resilience planning, we can not only lead the world in emissions reductions, but also show global leadership for other countries that are working to fulfill adaptation and resilience goals set out in Article 2 of the Paris Agreement. State, local, tribal, and territorial governments need access to quality climate data and experts who can help them incorporate this information into resilience planning.

To avoid climate-related damage to their infrastructure, businesses, and homes, some U.S. communities are already working to enhance their resilience. Community leaders begin by assessing vulnerabilities and risks, including those posed by climate change. This requires data about past weather and climate disasters as well as climate projections, information often accessed through federal agencies like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the US Geological Survey (USGS). This process also requires economic and social data that informs vulnerabilities – here is where natural and social scientists, economists, and health professionals can collaborate to inform a new era of federal leadership on climate policy.

A local and regional example of this kind of cooperation came in 2009, when government leaders in Southeast Florida formed the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact, which allows for the sharing of regional tools and knowledge, increasing public support and political will, and coordinating action on climate resilience. The compact was formed after leaders of nearby communities learned each town was preparing for dramatically different levels of sea level rise, due to uncertainties in the projections. They determined coordination could help them mount a unified response and avoid duplicate efforts. Partnerships with scientists led to the publication of a Unified Sea Level Rise Projection, which lays out the projected sea level rise for the region and provides guidance for how the projection can be used by local governments, planners, designers, engineers, and developers.

The southeast Florida compact addresses the needs of local governments when planning for resilience. The compact ensures the most accurate climate data is used in decision making, and that information is integrated properly into planning. It also brings together similar communities that can then learn from each other about how best to be successful in resilience planning. While the compact works to address challenges in the region, similar barriers need to be eliminated for all states, local governments, tribes, and territories. Regional compacts are not common in the United States, and many communities lack the resources to span these gaps on their own.

Because there is no current system for sharing climate risk information in the United States, data is not adequately accessible to the communities that need it. Climate-risk data is stored in many different locations among many different federal agencies, and certain kinds of climate risk information are lacking. For example, temperature projections can be found through several agencies, including the USGS and NOAA, while important decision-relevant information about other climate impacts, like flooding, is not available for all communities. In addition, information about climate impacts on health, finance, and other social hazards is not widely available. The available resources often don’t spell out how projections should be considered in planning, and how to incorporate the uncertainties. The lack of coordination and data gaps make it hard for resilience planners to determine how to find and best use the available data.

To become more resilient, the United States needs a better climate risk information system. It would make finding key climate risk information simple and guide users in interpreting the data. This system should communicate between users and developers of data, providing each with helpful information about the other. Several groups have written about the importance of improving our federal climate risk information, including the Government Accountability Office, which recommended, in 2015, the creation a national climate information system that would deliver federally-developed authoritative climate projections. The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis 2020 report also recommends a Climate Risk Information Service that incorporates economic and social data, along with a national adaptation program that would provide funding and technical assistance to states, local governments, tribes, and territories. In our Climate Policy Recommendations for the New Administration and Congress, C2ES also recommends increasing the accessibility and usability of climate information through the creation of a Climate Risk Information Service.

President Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad directs NOAA and FEMA to study how the federal government can “expand and improve climate forecast capabilities and information products for the public.” It also calls for exploring the creation of a federal geographic mapping service that would increase public access to regional climate-related information. Fulfilling this executive order will provide a foundation on which to build a climate risk information system. However, the challenge of increasing our nation’s resilience goes beyond the next four years; if we want to see adequate action on resilience, we will need action from Congress in establishing and funding a robust, coordinated, and accessible climate risk information system.