Obama Commits to Building Resilience – From the Ground Up

President Obama announced on July 16 new federal resources, grants and tools specifically intended to help local communities prepare for climate impacts. Citing direct threats to US infrastructure outlined by the White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, the series of actions will help Native American Tribes, rural communities and cities across the US assess vulnerabilities, deal with current impacts such as drought and develop strategies and plans to increase resilience in the future. The funding will also support development of three-dimensional mapping of the US to improve our ability to mitigate floods and erosion.

This unprecedented support for resilience building provides valuable opportunities to pilot new strategies and technologies as well as to share best practices across state lines. Adaptation strategies must be informed by local conditions and site-specific data in order to be successfully implemented – one of the reasons this new federal funding is so critical.

Wednesday’s meeting marked the last of the 26-person White House Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which will submit their final recommendations to the President this fall. The task force is made up of mayors, governors, county and Tribal officials.

Focused Funding from Multiple Sources

This week’s announcement follows the Administration’s June launch of a $1 billion investment fund for climate resilience. Any state, city or tribe that experienced a federally declared major disaster in 2011, 2012 or 2013 – approximately 200 of which hit the US over that three year period – is eligible to compete for the resilience funds. New details for the competition outline two distinct phases over the year-long competition beginning with risk assessment and planning, followed by design and implementation. Not all communities who are awarded funding for the first phase will continue to receive support for implementation efforts. Instead, phase two funding will be limited to those proposals that show the most potential for success and replicability across the US – a big incentive to inspire creative proposals that seek to partner across sectors.

Other new funding announced this week includes $10 million for Federal-Tribal Climate Resilience Partnership and Technical Assistance Program focused on preparation through the delivery of adaptation training to Tribes nationwide. Rural communities that are already struggling with drought, especially in the West Coast, will also receive additional funding to improve current coping mechanisms. The Obama administration also committed an additional $236.3 million to rural communities in eight states to support efforts to improve rural electric infrastructure to both increase economic competitiveness in these areas and build resilience – a huge boon for energy assurance planning which is key to successful adaptation. Additionally, $1.5 million of competitive funding will be available to states and Tribes to improve coastal management programs by taking climate impacts into account.

New Tools, Guidance and Pilot Projects

USGS Lidar MapObama’s pledge of new funding is coupled with strategic investment in innovative mapping data and tools, new guidance for Hazard Mitigation Planning and the launch of two preparedness pilot projects in the City of Houston and the State of Colorado.

The 3-D Elevation Program Partnership will advance 3-dimensional mapping data of the US through collaboration between the public, private and academic sectors as well as local communities. These data and tools will be designed to enhance a community’s ability to predict and respond to floods, coastal erosion and storm surge impacts and to improve water resource planning and identification of landslide hazards – all essential aspects of adaptation planning and local resilience. New, more sophisticated 3-D maps will also help state governments comply with new guidance from FEMA requiring consideration of climate variability within State Hazard Mitigation Plans.

Key Federal agencies including NASA, the Energy Department, Department of Defense, Department of the Interior, Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will all play a role in the “Preparedness Pilots” to be launched in both the State of Colorado and the City of Houston. The goal of the pilots are to enable each community to assess and prepare for region-specific climate vulnerabilities and interdependencies as a way to demonstrate new strategies and programs and provide models for other areas nationwide. These cross-agency partnerships will also help to shed light communication gaps and needs between the agencies to improve their ability to continue partnering going forward.

Ahead of the Curve in the Golden State

The President’s suite of tools and resources will undoubtedly enhance regional and national capacity to assess and plan for climate vulnerabilities. In California, home of the nation’s only multi-sector carbon cap and trade program, state leaders are already starting to step up to this challenge by assessing governance structures and needs for climate impacts above and beyond greenhouse gas mitigation.

LittleHoovercommission report coverIn “Governing California Through Climate Change” a recent report released by the State’s Little Hoover Commission, the author’s outline current weaknesses and gaps within California’s governance infrastructure as it relates to adaptation planning and implementation of resilience building strategies. The Commission ultimately asks the State to take on the same role and responsibilities in climate adaptation and risk assessment that it has for managing the state’s greenhouse gas emissions – a big ask but one that has been anticipated by many at both the state and local levels.

The report was informed in part by three public hearings held by the Commission beginning last August 2013 where local and state officials, private sector representatives and adaptation experts shared their experience in local resilience building efforts as well as their recommendations regarding the role of the state.

These varied testimonies pointed to the alarming fact that there is currently no clear, state-level authority or structure to develop statewide adaptation policy. The lack of a consistent and authoritative source of data and climate information at the state level was also cited as a major concern. This lack of data coordination and consensus is coupled with a state governance structure that, by nature, isolates accountability for specific climate impacts in different departments, agencies and budgets.

Because there are numerous state agencies whose jurisdictions touch on aspects of resilience building – such as the Coastal Commission – responsibility to address the multiple risks posed by climate impacts is at best, widely distributed among agencies and, at worst siloed within inflexible bureaucracies of state government.

Key report recommendations include:

  • Establish a new state entity, or enhance the capacity of an existing entity, to establish and share the best-available state science and risk assessment procedures for anticipated climate impacts.
  • Expand the focus of the California Strategic Growth Council to fund non-conflicting adaptation and mitigation efforts in cities, counties and regions.

Looking Ahead – Who’s on Board?

Like the President’s nationwide commitment to resilience, the Commission’s report acknowledges the importance and necessity of local knowledge and data to inform a successful statewide adaptation strategy. Climate change will affect each of California’s cities, counties and regions based on location specific vulnerabilities – therefore, any statewide strategy, according to the Commission, must be informed by local risk assessments.

The President’s announcements and new, targeted funding sources are a direct response to inaction from the Congress on critical climate issues – as such, enthusiastic opposition from Republican leaders is anticipated. Similarly, in California, efforts to streamline and accelerate vulnerability assessments and adaptation planning will likely be met with resistance from some local communities fearful of potential regulatory and budget implications at both the state and local level.

However this unprecedented support for resilience building provides valuable opportunities to pilot new strategies and technologies as well as to share best practices across state lines. Both of these efforts also highlight the importance of engaging the private sector to enhance the development of new tools and strategies and to better understand our local economic vulnerabilities. Unlike greenhouse gas mitigation, adaptation strategies must be informed by local conditions and site-specific data in order to be successfully implemented – one of the reasons this new federal funding is so critical.

Ultimately, states, communities and private sector companies that have invested in understanding their specific climate risks and vulnerabilities will be well positioned to capitalize on these new opportunities. Climate impacts are already affecting communities nationwide – these changes present huge challenges and require immediate response to avoid catastrophic impacts. This new federal level support presents multiple opportunities to not only increase climate and economic resilience, but to better understand how we can work across sectors and communities to capitalize on the opportunities that our changing climate presents. It’s clear that anyone not yet ready to take a realistic look at their own climate risk will miss out on many near term opportunities and, ultimately, end up suffering much larger economic and social costs in the long term.

By Aleka Seville

Images courtesy of USGS and Little Hoover Commission.