More people are talking about adapting to climate changes while figuring out the next step to dig society out of the carbon hole it’s created.
As the Gulf Coast learned from Hurricane Katrina and the New York region was taught by Superstorm Sandy, climate events can rack up huge costs. Scientific consensus says those kinds of weather events will only get more frequent as climate change intensifies. Not taking steps to adapt could drive disaster costs even higher.
The Obama administration has focused resources on infrastructure, convening a task force of state and local government officials to advise federal agencies on how they can better support local resilience.
Infrastructure upgrades in communities need local support above all else. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a longtime environmental advocate, said there is no shortage of public officials at the community level who recognize the challenges of dealing with climate impacts.
On a recent tour of the Atlantic coast in several Southern states, the Rhode Island Democrat said he found that “mayor after mayor after mayor in all of these red states, both Republican mayors and Democrat mayors, understand what climate change is doing to their coasts.”
That could drive up costs for localities and the federal government. The National Flood Insurance Program now owes the Treasury $24 billion, the bulk of which was spent post-Katrina. Rising sea levels would only increase the incidence of flooding and drive the program further into debt.
Some steps for adapting to climate change don’t necessarily cost a lot, said Jay Gulledge, a senior adviser at the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, an independent group formerly known as the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. City planners, he said, will be central in determining how metropolises grow, from deciding where to put things to picking what building materials to use.
“It’s more about ways of building and living that are more comfortable, that have lower greenhouse gas emissions, and that would withstand potential impacts of climate change in a better way,” Gulledge said.
Beyond the regulations he can oversee, the president’s strategy has been to stay engaged with other countries and with state and local officials from both parties at home, who will bear much of the burden in adapting to climate change.
“My theory,” said Daniel J. Weiss of the Center for American Progress Action Fund, “has been that focusing on the impacts of climate change, building bipartisan support to address the impacts of climate change, is a very important piece of” the strategy.
But adaptation has its limitations. Conflicting signals from different levels of government, insufficient resources and problems with anticipating risks unique to particular areas can all impede planning.
Nevertheless, reports such as the National Climate Assessment make it clear that both mitigation and adaptation must be pursued as complementary climate strategies for society to stand a chance of dealing effectively with the changing planet.
“We need to do a lot in both,” Obama adviser Holdren said. “There are enormous opportunities on both fronts.”