Tackling climate resilience by building on the Inflation Reduction Act

Anyone concerned by the threat of climate change should be invigorated by the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 announced Wednesday by Senate Democrats. The bill represents a potentially important step forward in tackling the climate crisis. By providing tax credits and investments for clean energy projects, the bill has the potential of a 40 percent carbon emissions reduction by 2030.

Yet, while significant and important, this legislation provides only a small amount of relief for those already exposed to the increasingly intense and frequent megadroughts, heat waves, wildfires and flooding caused by climate change. Scientists warn that even if we act urgently and decisively to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we have already changed the climate and will feel the consequences for decades to come.

In light of this reality, we need a two-pronged approach for addressing climate change. Like every country, the U.S. needs to continue working on reducing carbon emissions to mitigate the future effects of climate change and limit the extent of future damage. In the meantime, steps need to be taken right now to adapt to an already altered climate and alleviate the suffering Americans are experiencing from record-breaking extreme weather events. Most critically, the federal government should embrace a national strategy to build climate resilience and ensure the policies, tools and capacity are in place to implement it.

A multitude of resilience-building efforts are already underway within the federal government to enhance climate resilience, more than under any past administration. For example, FEMA is providing more funding than ever before to help communities with pre-disaster preparedness grants. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has released new sea-level rise projections to help communities improve coastal development plans. The White House Council on Environmental Quality has also developed an online screening tool that governments can use to ensure that disadvantaged and vulnerable communities receive an equitable amount of the funding dedicated to building climate resilience.    

States are also increasingly taking action to build climate resilience. For instance, 18 state legislatures have created “chief resilience officer” positions, to coordinate resilience efforts across state and with local governments. This focus on climate resilience is taking place in both red and blue states. 

And yet, despite the historic nature of these resilience-building efforts at both the federal and state government levels, they are not enough. The scale and pace of intensifying climate change is outstripping actions taken so far. Agencies are still responding to weather events in a piecemeal fashion, with each agency acting incrementally and independently. The U.S. lacks a national climate resilience strategy and plan that could provide clear and consistent directives and the ability to mobilize federal dollars so that they assist communities in preparing for and responding to the climate impacts. 

As a result, opportunities are missed to get ahead of the changing climate. Many highways, dams, bridges and wastewater infrastructure projects are not being designed and built to withstand climate-related risks. Flooded homes can be reconstructed in floodplains where they will continue be at severe risk from the next catastrophic flood. Many ecosystems essential for protecting against coastal erosion, flooding and wildfire are not properly maintained and protected. Many disadvantaged communities, which are the most vulnerable to climate change, are not obtaining resources they are eligible for due to complex and demanding requirements from multiple agencies. Without systemic changes, Americans will experience increase suffering from climate change for many decades to come. 

Several vital steps, outlined in a new report by the Resilience Roadmap project, hosted by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy at Duke University, could be taken by the federal government right now to amplify and accelerate the work underway.  

Most immediately, the federal government should focus on better communicating the financial risks that climate change presents to community leaders, investors, businesses and homeowners. Doing so will stimulate policies and investments that are more resilient to climate change.  

Second, federal agencies should expend greater effort partnering with local and tribal governments and community organizations to ensure that federal programs and funds are reaching their intended targets — especially communities that are already vulnerable and marginalized. Wealthy communities are well-positioned to protect their members but disadvantaged communities are extremely vulnerable to floods, heat and wildfires. Focused effort to assist them are urgently needed.

Third, federal agencies should modernize its spending standards and performance measures so that taxpayer dollars can only be invested in infrastructure and programs that are designed and built to withstand future climate threats.

Finally, to address the need for coordination, the current administration needs to develop a national resilience strategy and assign a high-level czar to oversee efforts.

While a lot needs to be done, the good news is that there is bipartisan support for building climate resilience. Polls show that most American support government interventions to address climate change impact, such as requiring that infrastructure be flood resilient. And 21 bipartisan bills have been introduced in Congress that address a wide range of climate resiliency issues from strengthening the electrical grid to wildfire prevention to creating a national resilience strategy.

These efforts are not a replacement for the need to transition to a low-carbon economy. However, while we are trying to prevent the worse impacts of climate change many decades from now, we also need to act immediately to protect Americans from the ravages of the climate change impacts we are experiencing now.

Elizabeth Losos, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and leads a research program on sustainable infrastructure. She is a co-convenor of the Resilience Roadmap project.