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OPINION: As Joe Biden pushes emissions cuts, what about climate change adaptation?

by Jesse M. Keenan | Tulane University
Monday, 1 February 2021 11:23 GMT

Downed trees and flooding are seen after Hurricane Sally made a landfall, on Dauphin Island, Alabama, U.S., September 16, 2020. REUTERS/Kathleen Flynn

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Before, we wrote laws to protect the environment from people. Today we also need laws that protect people from the environment

Jesse M. Keenan is an associate professor and social scientist at Tulane University’s School of Architecture, whose research focuses on climate change adaptation and the built environment.

As climate policy is starting to take shape in the Biden-Harris administration, there is one piece of the puzzle that has not yet found a clear home—climate adaptation.

There are two interrelated approaches to addressing climate change. The first is climate mitigation, which is focused on reducing greenhouse gases and advancing a transition to a no-carbon economy and society.

The second is climate adaptation, which is centered on the responses and preparations that address climate impacts. Popular concepts such as resilience and hazard risk reduction fall into this broad category of public policy and practice.

While we are only days into the administration, it is never too early to build a bipartisan coalition around climate policy that resonates in the here and now.

There are some very tough political questions concerning adaptation. Mainly, how are we going to protect people and who bears the cost and burdens of such interventions?

These questions are politically fraught and offer little immediate political upside, particularly among an influential cohort of younger climate justice advocates who have been laser focused on a just and socially equitable energy transition.

Yet, the pioneers of environmental justice have long engaged with post-disaster recovery through the lens of engineering and community resilience that offer the opportunity to advance more robust infrastructure services and public health outcomes.

Whether it is moving to a less risky location or simply finding a new insurance policy that you can afford, wealthy and poor communities alike are already adapting in subtle and unequal ways that often fall under the radar of policymakers.

One universal in this process is a reliance on our local governments to help us recover and to help us prepare. However, without a coordinated national adaptation plan, states and communities will continue to aimlessly search for the resources and mechanisms that define efficient, effective and just adaptations, particularly for their most vulnerable and least resourced communities.

There are over 19,000 municipalities in the U.S. and only a few hundred have completed a basic vulnerability assessment - only a few dozen are actively implementing critical adaptation investments. 

Climate adaptation forces us to have difficult conversations about how much longer we can afford to live in high risk areas and which communities will be left adrift to sink or swim. There is little immediate political upside to having these conversations, but part of climate leadership means being transparent about the trajectory that we are on.

Indeed, a major part of environmental justice is about engaging people to participate in shaping their own climate destiny. One part of our shared destiny is coming to terms with the financial cost of adaptation with the recognition that we are better-off making many of these public investments much sooner than later.

We now recognize that climate is a systematic financial risk that resonates from Wall Street to Main Street. The private sector is racing to adapt and build organization resilience. They are not doing this for posterity’s sake.

They are doing this because - for many - you either adapt or you go out of business. Extreme events increasingly attributable to climate change are disproportionately impacting our local economic engines and our global supply chains.

Closer to home, communities face the constant threat of destruction on a seasonal basis, and for many communities and small businesses building back simply is not an option - much less building back better.

The good news is that many adaptation policies have broad bipartisan and private sector support for everything from coordinated capital financing for states (such as we saw in the recent STORM Act) to the streamlining of some outdated environmental regulations.

Some have observed that in prior generations we wrote laws to protect the environment from people. Today, we also need laws that protect people from the environment.

Adapting our regulatory state to work together with the same urgency and accountability that state and local governments have is going to require a coordinated national adaptation plan. 

In recent days, executive action has advanced organizational and engineering resilience of federal operations and facilities, respectively. Secretary Kerry has made it clear that a key component of foreign climate policy is advancing adaptation financing, particularly for the global south.

A national adaptation plan can help us transpose both of these initiatives to the benefit of state and local governments who severely lack the resources and the institutional capacity to engage existing models of support.

From government accounting standards to environmental justice screens on flood walls, there is a well-articulated range of opportunities that are within the existing authority of the administration.

Yes, the local politics are brutal, but the opportunities for catalyzing workforces and reducing inequality are without parallel.

If we are going to utilize federal resources to serve as a catalyst for responsible investment that transforms our economy and our most vulnerable communities, we are going to have to sit down and ask ourselves some tough questions about our capacity to adapt together as one country.

Science and experience tells us where we stand. We simply need a vision for where we want to go when the next hurricane and fire season comes around.