A Climate Resilience Roadmap for the Next Administration

  1. Provide just disaster mitigation and assistance.
  2. Make recovery easier.
  3. Improve the financial resilience of households, small businesses, and communities.
  4. Annually fund actions to lower our risk.
  5. Rebuild for the future, not the past.
  6. Strengthen our infrastructure.
  7. Harness nature for risk reduction.
  8. Pay for resilience investments by fighting climate change and inequality.

(1) Provide just disaster mitigation and assistance.

  • 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.

(3) Improve financial resilience of households, small businesses, and 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.
  • 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.

(4) Annually fund actions to lower our risk.

(5) Rebuild for the future, not the past.

  1. use disasters as an opportunity to build back better so we do not repeat disasters of the past,
  2. 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
  3. implement new models of resilient community design.
  • 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.

  • 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.

(8) Pay for resilience investments by fighting climate change and inequality.

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Carolyn Kousky

Carolyn Kousky

Dr. Carolyn Kousky is Executive Director at the Wharton Risk Center at the Univ. of Pennsylvania. She has a BS from Stanford Univ. and a PhD from Harvard Univ.