The risk of wildfires, storms, hurricanes, floods, and heatwaves is growing as the sea continues to rise and the planet continues to warm. And the costs are growing as well. Since 2005, the United States has suffered $1.24 trillion in economic losses from 173 weather and climate disasters, each one inflicting at least $1 billion in damages. These events disproportionately harm lower-income and minority households and communities. In addition, climate has been recognized as a threat multiplier, leading to cascading consequences projected to threaten all aspects of life, including worldwide peace and security.
Public policy plays a critical role in either attenuating or magnifying the economic costs of climate change. It is time to put the United States on a path toward climate resilience. Resilience is our ability to anticipate, plan, absorb, recover, and adapt to adverse events. Currently, our federal disaster programs are insufficient, delayed, difficult to navigate, and fail to prioritize equitable recovery and rebuilding for climate changes. We invest insufficiently in risk reduction and do not incorporate growing risk into our decision-making. We have failed to seriously undertake the hard and necessary work of climate adaptation.
Many have recognized that we need a new culture of resilience, a complete suite of resilience polices that complement each other. The incoming Biden administration and the new Congress have an opportunity to put in place solutions to address these long-standing policy failures. To inform that work, I propose an 8-part federal policy agenda for building climate resilience:
- Provide just disaster mitigation and assistance.
- Make recovery easier.
- Improve the financial resilience of households, small businesses, and communities.
- Annually fund actions to lower our risk.
- Rebuild for the future, not the past.
- Strengthen our infrastructure.
- Harness nature for risk reduction.
- Pay for resilience investments by fighting climate change and inequality.
In addition to the detailed policy recommendations in these 8 categories, the work to build climate resilience should start with two presidentially established groups. First, President-elect Biden should appoint an inter-agency council with an outside advisory board to develop a strategic approach to climate risk management across the federal government. This group would: (i) identify the greatest climate risks facing federal agencies and the federal budget, (ii) identify strategic goals for reducing those risks, (iii) coordinate efforts across agencies, and (iv) identify a unified approach to harnessing public dollars, incentives, regulations, and technical support to improve climate resilience in communities across the country.
Second, the President should establish a permanent inter-agency disaster working group that follows the model of the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force. That group improved communication and coordination, reduced red tape, launched innovative approaches to build resilience post-disaster, and helped ensure consistent rules to guide recovery that incorporated principles of building back better including taking account of climate changes — steps that should be a part of all disaster response. This working group should also comprehensively review existing federal pre- and post-disaster programs to ascertain duplication, overlap, effectiveness and cost/benefit, which can guide reform efforts by Congress and agencies.
And now, the 8-part framework.
(1) Provide just disaster mitigation and assistance.
Lower income and minority households and communities are at greater risk and suffer disproportionately from disasters. Disasters threaten financial security, can consume savings and create poverty traps. Natural disasters can also further exacerbate inequality.
Our federal policies could be designed to protect households; unfortunately, they are not currently providing equitable support, instead often favoring more affluent and white households and communities. Equitable disaster policies must begin pre-disaster and continue post-disaster. There are some commonsense solutions that can be adopted by an administration and Congress committed to fair and equitable disaster relief:
- Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grants, from mitigation grants to recovery assistance, should be means-tested, providing greater assistance to those most in need.
- A larger share of recovery grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and mitigation grants from FEMA’s new Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program should be made available specifically to frontline communities with greater needs.
- Technical assistance and planning support should be increased for communities that need help with hazard mitigation and climate adaptation planning. Many communities will also need additional support to navigate the federal maze of assistance programs.
- Funds should be increased for the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program to help low-income families with utility bills post-disaster.
- As discussed below, insurance is critical for disaster recovery, yet many who need insurance the most cannot afford it. Congress should create a means-tested assistance program to provide premium support to lower-income families to purchase flood and other disaster insurance. In addition, the federal government could subsidize renters insurance for disasters on a means-tested sliding scale to protect families from large losses.
- Mitigation grant programs in FEMA and HUD should allow communities to use funds for establishing public-private partnerships to provide parametric microinsurance for lower-income households, a type of insurance targeted at poorer households to provide fast and flexible funding post-disaster.
- Renters can lose apartments or possessions, or both, as a result of natural disasters. As Senator Elizabeth Warren has suggested, we need a federal commitment to replace any damaged affordable housing. This could be a new program within HUD or achieved with dedicated funding from the Community Development Block Grants Disaster Relief (CDBG-DR) program.
- The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and FEMA should collaborate on ensuring that federal support for climate adaptation is anchored in goals of climate justice.
(2) Make recovery easier.
Navigating the system of federal aid after a disaster is confusing and time-consuming at best and a serious impediment to recovery at worst. Recovery for households is generally provided through three different federal agencies — FEMA, HUD, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) — each with their own application procedures and timelines. There are rules in place that households not receive duplicate benefits, but agencies may not provide information on programs they do not administer or how programs interact. Many programs also have inconsistent application requirements and qualifying criteria. Several things can be done to make recovery easier, lower the stress of receiving assistance, and help more people get needed funds sooner.
First, a universal federal dashboard should be created to clearly explain and navigate victims through the aid process. The Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force identified this need, suggesting a user-friendly tool to navigate all programs, through what they called a “no wrong door” approach to information provision. In addition, funding should be made available to community groups and non-profits to help victims navigate the process. This means that data on all applicants, including those denied, must be shared with designated partners so they can provide necessary support.
Second, this integrated approach should to be linked to one single application for all federal assistance. SBP, a disaster recovery non-profit, developed and refers to this solution as OneApp — victims complete one application and then are simultaneously considered for both FEMA and SBA programs. This could be facilitated by aligning eligibility rules and integrating the application process, as well as supported by a modernized data-sharing platform. As Pete Buttigieg has said, “We need to figure out how to bring aid to people, not make people figure out how to access the aid they need.”
Third, the required documentation needs to be quickly tailored to the circumstances of the disaster. For instance, in some places, such as Puerto Rico and some rural communities, appropriate title documentation for homes does not exist, or may be lost in the disaster, preventing victims from receiving aid. Clear policies, like FEMA accepting sworn affidavits, would help those in this situation, as would linking datasets across FEMA and other agencies.
Fourth, Congress needs to make amendments to the Stafford Act in order to better support those recovering from a disaster. One important change is to remove the limitation that FEMA provide only “temporary” housing. This has led to the provision of trailers at extreme cost instead of helping repair homes or harnessing many of the creative solutions to quickly establishing cheaper and more long-term housing, such as innovative modular designs that can be expanded over time. Other changes to the legislation would improve our ability to build back better after disasters, as discussed below.
Finally, Congress has increasingly been using the HUD CDBG-DR program to send flexible recovery dollars to communities devastated by severe disasters. This program, however, is not a standing program, creating unnecessary delays with each disaster appropriation. This can be solved by making the CDBG-DR program a permanent program at HUD. If also given annual appropriations, HUD would be able to vastly speed delivery of recovery dollars to communities.
(3) Improve financial resilience of households, small businesses, and communities.
Repairing disaster damage can be incredibly costly for households. To cover these expenses, there are four primary sources of funds: savings, credit, aid, and insurance. Unfortunately, with the exception of the affluent, households can struggle with access to any of these sources. The majority of American families have very little in liquid funds that can be used to cover disaster losses. Credit may be burdensome or impossible to access for those without sufficient income or credit scores. Aid from neighbors, family, and friends may be difficult when an entire community is hit simultaneously. And governmental assistance is typically insufficient or too delayed, contrary to much popular belief. Insurance provides the needed funds for repair and rebuilding of property, but most households lack disaster insurance — often because it is too expensive. Without the necessary funds to make homes safe again and replace destroyed possessions, people can experience stress and anxiety and be forced to reduce or delay important expenditures, such as for healthcare or education. Having money to repair disaster damage is foundational to all other aspects of recovery.
There are several federal policy changes that could allow more households at risk to harness the benefits of insurance to guarantee their ability to repair and rebuild, with positive impacts for their wellbeing and their communities.
- We can do more to assist lower-income families with the cost of disaster insurance. Disaster insurance can be expensive, resulting in low participation rates among those who need it the most, but are least able to afford it. As noted above, Congress should adopt a means-tested assistance program that provides disaster insurance vouchers to cover the cost of natural disaster insurance for households that meet qualifying income criteria.
- Many natural disasters, such as floods and earthquakes, are not included in standard homeowners policies, and other perils, such as wind from hurricanes can come with coverage limitations, such as higher deductibles. The peril-by-peril approach to insurance in our country confuses homeowners and leads to a persistent disaster insurance gap. We could learn from other countries and mandate that all natural perils be included in standard homeowners policies, while coupling this to a federal backstop to protect against insurer insolvency from large disasters. This would be a model not dissimilar to how our country addressed terrorism insurance.
- The federal government should offer grants to pilot novel public/private disaster insurance solutions, such as community-based insurance, parametric microinsurance, and other government de-risking initiatives.
We also need to future-proof the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). Financial protection against floods is not provided in standard homeowners insurance. Separate policies can be purchased through the NFIP, housed in FEMA. But the NFIP is itself billions of dollars in debt to the U.S. Treasury and in need of reform. Several improvements are long overdue:
- Allow Risk Rating 2.0 to proceed. This is an effort to modernize pricing so that rates will better reflect risk, sending accurate price signals to housing markets. It will also undo a regressive cross-subsidy in the current program: since home values are not reflected in most premiums, lower-valued homes are paying too much and higher-valued homes too little. (More still be needs to be done to center equity in NFIP reforms.)
- Enact an affordability program for low-income homeowners and renters.
- Stop underwriting repetitive loss properties. As discussed further below, these properties are too risky and cost more to continually rebuild than they are worth.
- Publicly map repetitive flood claims areas to inform development, as well as the housing and mortgage markets.
- Forgive the current debt, as there is no way to repay it. To prevent unsustainable debt going forward, Congress should formalize a backstop for catastrophic losses at the same time rates are modernized to better reflect risk.
- The NFIP should pilot other approaches to flood insurance, such as community policies and microinsurance as additional products for those households not subject to the mandatory purchase requirement.
The best way to improve disaster finance, however, is to reduce disaster losses, which is discussed next.
(4) Annually fund actions to lower our risk.
There are many actions that can be taken to lower the damages from natural hazards when they strike. A wide variety of building retrofits can lessen the impacts from hurricanes, earthquakes, wildfires, and floods. Green roofs can combat urban heat. Microgrids can limit wildfire risk from powerlines. Solar and storage systems can provide clean backup power for critical services and public buildings after a disaster. Levees, pumps, and green infrastructure can help limit flood impacts. And in the riskiest areas, buildings can be removed and the land returned to open space.
Right now, roughly 90% of the federal dollars that go to reduce disaster damages are appropriated off-budget in supplemental legislation tied to specific large disasters. We need to build on the establishment of the FEMA BRIC program and allocate more public dollars to preventing disaster losses. This can be done through our standard disaster mitigation programs, such as by increasing amounts appropriated or adjusting the BRIC percentage set aside, but should also include a new focus on how a changing climate is escalating disaster risk.
A new climate adaptation grant program is needed and should be overseen by an interagency group with representatives from HUD, NOAA, and FEMA. This new grant program should develop strategic priorities for investing in climate resilience, encourage proposals that cross local departments, and think holistically about adaptation, while setting aside a specific percentage of funding for innovative pilot programs to allow exploration and learning about new approaches. This latter component could be coupled with creation of a regulatory sandbox, in partnership with others levels of government, where innovative adaptation approaches can be developed and refined. In addition, planning support and grants should be made available to tribal communities to plan for climate impacts. Finally, the new grant program should include incentives for state and local governments to radically improve disaster building codes, so that all new construction is built to withstand the growing risk and save billions in future losses.
(5) Rebuild for the future, not the past.
There are areas at very high risk where it is not cost-effective or safe to have people and property, or where it will not be, as climate risks grow and the sea rises. If we fail to address escalating risk in our rebuilding — both where we build and how we build — we will be doomed to repeat the past, leading to mounting losses. In the aftermath of a disaster, there is a desire to “get back to normal.” But normal can be increasingly dangerous and rebuilding decisions will last years. We will create a vicious disaster cycle if we fail to account for a changing climate in disaster recovery. To prevent continued escalation of disaster costs, we need to:
- use disasters as an opportunity to build back better so we do not repeat disasters of the past,
- curtail development in the highest risk areas and assist with relocation for those living in places where it is not cost-effective to keep rebuilding, and
- implement new models of resilient community design.
We need many tools to support this process.
- First, Congress and the administration must eliminate federal rules that prohibit important safety, resilience, and sustainability upgrades during post-disaster rebuilding. For instance, after Hurricane Harvey, HUD rules prohibited use of CDBG-DR funds to incorporate sustainability or resilience retrofits into rebuilding despite clear benefits of doing so. Similar Stafford Act regulations also need modification.
- President Obama had instituted the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard to guarantee that post-disaster federal dollars were used to rebuild to a higher standard, using the best available science on climate impacts. President Trump rescinded this order mere days before Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas. This standard should be reinstated across federal agencies.
- We need to end federal subsidies that support putting people and property in the highest risk areas. Expanding the Coastal Barrier Resource System to areas at extreme risk for multiple hazards would eliminate federal subsidies for areas where disasters occur repeatedly. Note that this would not prevent development — it would just require that any private landowner choosing to build in an extreme risk area bear the full costs of that decision and not be subsidized by taxpayers.
- The NFIP should stop subsidizing repetitive loss properties. These are structures that flood repeatedly; the most severe can be paid multiple times more in claims than the value of the property. This is not cost-effective; a private insurer would not continue to insure such properties at a loss and our public programs should not either. Owners should be assisted with buyouts or hazard mitigation through a new, direct-to-household grant program for primary residences. Management of the severe repetitive loss structures will need to begin with an effective data and management approach within FEMA.
- The federal government can help facilitate managed retreat, through legal and regulatory approaches for transferring ownership to the public sector as private property is inundated, financial incentives for relocation, and conservation of coastal ecosystems. Buyout programs, for example, where high risk property is returned to open space, are currently missing opportunities, but there are multiple policy changes that would speed delivery of FEMA grant dollars for buyouts.
- Government sponsored enterprises, such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, should be empowered by their regulator to price climate risk. Doing so would send financial signals to housing and mortgage markets about the riskiness of property.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture should create a task force to develop an action plan for building climate resilience in rural communities.
- We need to assist communities in developing rebuilding plans before a disaster strikes, so that they are ready to execute on a new vision, even in the midst of post-disaster chaos. This would necessitate financial support and technical assistance for planning processes and support for pre-disaster policy actions, such as pre-contracting for buyouts, completing necessary reviews and permitting for buildings and infrastructure slated to be overhauled, and ensuring widespread community support for climate adaptation approaches.
(6) Strengthen our infrastructure.
America’s infrastructure consistently gets failing grades; the need for a massive investment has been recognized for years. In 2018, for example, Senate Democrats proposed a $1 trillion investment to modernize infrastructure and in 2020, House Democrats introduced their own infrastructure bill. A large expenditure on infrastructure now, in the face of the economic downturn from the pandemic, could create jobs, pump money back into the economy, and, importantly, improve our infrastructure to better withstand future climate impacts. Several related actions will be required:
- Grant and loan funding, such as through an infrastructure bank, should be expanded for states, local governments, and tribes to complete needed maintenance, upgrades, and repairs to guarantee infrastructure is built to safety levels that account for climate change.
- Congress and agencies should establish higher standards based on climate projections for construction any new infrastructure — from highways to water treatment plants to levees — that receives federal dollars.
- A new grant program in the Department of Transportation, coupled with use of highway funds, could pay for needed planning and implementation of infrastructure relocation or mitigation when it is at heightened risk of natural disasters or sea level rise.
- We need to expand and prioritize investment in public transportation systems. This should include funding for the backlog of existing maintenance needs, as well as new investments in transit that will lower greenhouse gas emissions, be built to standards to withstand projected climate impacts, and provide equitable transportation access.
- We need to modernize our rail system, with additional funding for Amtrak to upgrade and expand its network.
- Funding for deferred maintenance in our national parks and public lands is urgently needed. The pandemic has led to record numbers of Americans visiting our national parks, proving once again how important they are to American families. We need to invest in their maintenance and also their expansion as part of our country’s important infrastructure.
- Investments in green infrastructure should be expanded, such as through permanent and expanded appropriations to the Land and Water Conservation Fund.
- Support for adaptation planning by water and electric utilities to address risks such as salinization of drinking water from sea-level rise or grid failure from wildfires and storms can increase preparedness. Priority funds should be made available through the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act revolving loan funds and through new funds focused on energy, to communities with workable solutions. Preference should be given those that also help lower greenhouse gas emissions, such as investments in solar microgrids, to provide clean power when the grid is down.
- Dams and levees need to be evaluated and, when necessary, upgraded to maintain safety. In addition, funding for dam removal when they are no longer useful or for changes in operation to improve ecological impacts should be appropriated. Before new investments in levees and dams are undertaken, they should be compared with nature-based solutions.
- School districts should receive grants to ensure all schools are built to the highest building codes for disaster safety.
- We need to increase the amount of affordable housing built in safe areas. Lower-incomes families should not be trapped in hazardous areas.
- Federal actions need to respect tribal sovereignty by requiring “free, prior, and informed consent of the Tribal Nations” for any project that would impact their lands.
(7) Harness nature for risk reduction.
Conservation and restoration of natural areas can make us more resilient to disasters. Coastal wetlands and mangroves can buffer storm surge. Vegetation can stabilize slopes. Reforestation can sequester carbon. Riparian wetlands can store floodwaters. And while lowering our risk of disaster damages, natural areas can provide us with an array of additional benefits: beautiful areas for recreation, habitat for native species, improved air and water quality, and higher property values. Unfortunately, we have insufficiently conserved natural areas; many ecosystems are degraded and polluted, or stressed by climate change; and nature-based solutions are too often not prioritized.
It is time to change all that. 2021 launches the UN Decade on Restoration. In line with the goals of this effort, and to harness the power of nature to promote climate resilience, the new administration should launch a Restoration Corps. Such a Corps, inspired by both Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps and our modern AmeriCorps program, could help young adults find meaningful employment during the COVID-19 downturn, provide training and education on environmental restoration, and direct much needed assistance to restoring America’s ecosystems. In addition, some portion of the restoration work should be focused explicitly on efforts that help manage climate risks. For example, Corps teams could expand urban forests in our nation’s cities to combat urban heat island effects, thin forests in the wildland urban interface in the West to reduce wildfire risk, restore coastal mangroves along the Gulf to buffer storm surge, or install myriad forms of green infrastructure to absorb heavy rainfall. Communities and states could request restoration corps teams to assist with their priority projects.
Other federal actions will also be needed. Any new climate adaptation grant programs, or modifications to existing programs, should explicitly prioritize nature-based approaches. For example, we should increase funding for NOAA’s Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program, as well as other efforts focused on protecting coastal ecosystems. As discussed above, we need to expand the Coastal Barrier Resources System and FEMA mitigation grants must include restoration and cleanup of buyout lots. The public sector should work in cooperation with the private sector on financing approaches that can be successfully scaled. And finally, we must imagine new ways of living that heighten our climate resilience, while enhancing our wellbeing, such a Florida community that lives behind its mangroves, benefiting from recreation, storm protection, and the full beauty of the beach and mangrove ecosystem.
(8) Pay for resilience investments by fighting climate change and inequality.
Many of the actions needed to improve our climate resiliency require public funds. How we, as society, pay for the investments and improvements we need matters — our revenue raising approaches can either enhance our goals of an equitable and sustainable world, or undermine them. How we collect taxes can, in and of itself, make substantial contributions to social goals.
When something is taxed, it becomes more expensive, lowering demand for it. Taxes are therefore not just a tool to raise revenue, but can act as an incentive to discourage harmful activities and promote beneficial ones. For example, we quickly need to lower our carbon emissions to prevent the intensification of devastating climate change impacts. Right now, when carbon is emitted, harming everyone on the planet, the firm or person who emits that carbon doesn’t pay for the damage they have caused. A tax on carbon would make those external harms paid for by the polluter, making it more expensive to emit carbon and thereby creating a powerful incentive to emit less. And the revenue that is raised can then, in turn, be used to support the activities discussed above to promote climate resilience.
Taxes on harmful activities, such as emitting carbon, are only one part of creating a system of tax justice. Inequality in America is at its highest peak in the last fifty years. Between 1989 and 2018, the top 1% increased their net worth by $21 trillion (yes, trillion), while the bottom half — a full 50% — of Americans saw their net worth decrease by $900 billion. Inequality in income and wealth spills over to create inequality in health and disaster recovery and also hurts the economy. But such astronomical levels of inequality are not inevitable or natural: they are the result of public policy choices, influenced by quiet lobbying. We can improve equality and support a resilient society by adopting a wealth tax on the ultra-rich, a policy supported by growing chorus of stakeholders (listed here).
A small tax on the ultra-rich would generate substantial funding since the amount of resources they control is enormous. For example, Senator Warrens’ ultra-millionaire tax would have applied only to those with a net worth over $50 million, the top 0.1in%. They would pay a mere 2% of every dollar of net worth over $50 million and 6% of every dollar above $1 billion. This tax — which would apply to only 75,000 households — would bring in over $3.75 trillion over 10 years. Another complementary approach would be to undo the Republican tax cut from 2017; over 85% of that tax cut benefited of the top 1%. Some of the richest people in America have signed an open letter supporting a wealth tax on the top 1/10 of 1% of income earners.
Combining a carbon tax and a wealth tax on the ultra-rich can generate the funds needed to support all other 7 aspects of the plan to build climate resilience, while also creating the incentives that help us solve the pressing challenges of climate change and inequality.
Too much times has been wasted in the essential task of lowering our greenhouse gas emissions. Now, climate impacts are rapidly hurting our communities and impacting all sectors of the economy. As we begin the urgent work of transitioning to a low-carbon economy, we must also begin the task of building equitable climate resilience across the country. This 8-part plan is a roadmap to begin that journey.