How federal policy can accelerate community resilience to climate change

Climate change is bearing down on communities across the United States, and the pace of climate disasters shows no sign of slowing. A recent, first of its kind study in the journal Science concluded that today’s children will experience three times as many climate disasters as their grandparents born in 1960. The damage these more frequent events will have on communities is largely up to us, today.

A key player in shaping the outcome is the federal government. While the federal government has some supports for state and local climate resilience activities, the approach has been insufficient to address the expanding set of challenges we face. The most visible strategy is providing grants and loans for resilience-related projects – most often after a major disaster strikes. Federal policies, such as the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), have shaped the way communities approach building and economic development, disaster preparedness, conserving of natural spaces, and numerous other areas that intersect with climate resilience, at times reinforcing investment practices that leave communities vulnerable to the next big climate event.

C2ES looks in depth at the landscape of federal resilience policy, and what can be done to improve it, in a new policy brief, A Federal Policy Action Plan to Accelerate Local Climate Resilience. The brief includes 23 recommendations as the foundation for a strategic and efficient federal resilience action plan.

Community resilience to climate change continues to be impacted by federal policies, some decades old. Federal agencies are also a primary provider of climate data, models, planning tools, and technical assistance that help planners and policymakers assess risks and opportunities for action, although the available data currently misses large parts of the country, is slim on certain climate hazards, and often does not include future climate projections.

The cumulative impact of this uneven approach to climate resilience has been a focus largely on post-disaster action that leaves low-income and marginalized communities behind. In this policy landscape, cities, states, tribes, communities, and their various private partners have had to figure out climate resilience for themselves. In doing so, they contend with market signals that often push the limits on risk-taking, and base long-term investment decisions on short-term thinking and outmoded data. The current federal system is ill-suited to help them prepare for a super-charged climate.

It is time for a better approach. The federal government can and should take steps to:

  1. Work effectively and strategically to administer government resources.
  2. Provide leadership to address gaps and drive the direction of resilience action.
  3. Address inequities that put low-income and marginalized communities at higher risk.
  4. Act as a strong partner to catalyze resilience action by local, tribal, and state governments and the private sector.

While federal agencies and programs have successfully sponsored many local resilience-building projects, these resources must be scaled up significantly and refined to meet the needs of communities already preparing for and recovering from climate-related extreme weather events. Increasing these resources is particularly critical for low-income and marginalized communities, who are disproportionately impacted by climate-related extreme weather events and often face challenges in accessing support to prepare for and recover from these events. This will require leadership from the White House, federal agencies, and without a doubt, Congress.

By engaging stakeholders and reviewing external recommendations to the new administration, C2ES has identified 23 recommendations for federal policy that can build the foundation for a strategic and efficient action plan. It would offer the types of needed resources and ensure they are accessible to help local communities build capacity to pursue and invest in climate resilience.

These recommendations, described in the policy brief A Federal Policy Action Plan to Accelerate Local Climate Resilience, include:

  • Improve federal coordination and local engagement.
  • Make federal tools, information, and services more accessible and robust.
  • Increase and modify federal funding sources for local resilience project.
  • Address financial risks and support disclosure of physical and financial risks.
  • Design or amend federal programs to reduce barriers for low-income and marginalized communities.

There is new hope that federal policymakers are waking up to the need for leadership on this issue. President Biden’s administration is showing promising signs of commitment to addressing resilience, by elevating climate resilience in the Council for Environmental Quality (CEQ) and through executive orders to increase agency adaptation planning and to improve the federal approach to managing climate-related financial risk. Agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Administration are beginning to review their grant-making processes for individuals seeking aid, and the Department of Labor will finally begin developing workplace heat standards to protect the health of heat-exposed workers.

In Congress, a bipartisan infrastructure bill includes significant investments in pre-disaster mitigation, including $1 billion for FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) and $3.5 billion for Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA) over the next five years. The bill also incorporates resilience into critical transportation and infrastructure programs, such as the National Highway Performance Program and the Federal-Aid Highway Program.

More tenuous are the discussions around the federal budget, which could allocate billions to better flood mapping, disaster relief, and energy efficiency, among other areas. Proposals also include establishing a Civilian Climate Corps to advance federally funded climate projects across the country.

There is much focus on the fate of these two budget measures, and funding is indeed a common element of the recommendations we make. These and other steps we outline in the action plan are meant to be transformative, pulling policy levers that are uniquely available to the federal government and can change the calculus of decision-making by federal, state, and local leaders, as well as citizens and the private sector.