April 28, 2021

Resilience Leaders Discuss Path for US to Plan for Climate Change's Effects

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions
Resilience Leaders Discuss Path for US to Plan for Climate Change's Effects

Last week, President Joe Biden met with more than 40 world leaders at a virtual summit to discuss how they could take stronger action on climate change. During the summit, Biden announced a new nationally determined contribution (NDC) for the United States under the Paris Agreement—a 50 percent reduction in 2005 levels of greenhouse gas pollution by 2030.

While tackling the causes of climate change drew the most attention at the summit, the Biden administration is also working to address its effects. In his first week in office, Biden issued an executive order that, among other things, commits the United States to “move quickly to build resilience, both at home and abroad, against the impacts of climate change.”

The Resilience Roadmap is a nonpartisan project convened by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and Susan Bell & Associates to recommend actions the federal government can take to improve national resilience and help communities plan for the present and future of climate change. The project released its initial, high-level guidance for the administration ahead of the summit.

As part of U.S. Climate Action Week, the Resilience Roadmap hosted a virtual conversation with a panel of resilience leaders inside the administration, as well as from tribes and regional voices. Here are some highlights from the conversation:

ON THE RESILIENCE ROADMAP

Mike Connor, Partner, WilmerHale

“What the Resilience Roadmap is focused on is, to be blunt, repairing the connectivity that needs to exist between the federal government and its work on climate resiliency, and the vital work that hasn't taken any time out at the state, local and Tribal levels. There is a need to once again marry up those efforts with the new priority at the federal level. We know that many federal agencies have done their climate work in the background over the last several years, so we see this as a unique moment—an opportunity—for presidential leadership. Our goal is to help translate that into practical actions.”

ON WORKING ACROSS GOVERNMENT FOR RESILIENCE PLANNING

David Hayes, Special Assistant to the President for Climate Policy

“The president is acknowledging in that executive order that this is not only a whole-of-government approach on the federal side. I like the notion of verticality because this is inherently a place-based issue. If you don't have the local folks, state folks and Tribal folks involved, this won't work.”

ON RESILIENCE AS PART OF THE FEDERAL CLIMATE AGENDA

Hayes

“We are focusing tremendously on mitigation and emissions reduction since we have to. That'll probably be the top line this week as the President announces the NDC. But I think resilience is going to measure up, and I think the Resilience Roadmap that you have put together will help show us the way.”

ON THE ADMINISTRATION’S ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE FOCUS

Cecilia Martinez, Senior Director for Environmental Justice, Council on Environmental Quality

“From my perspective, equally important and equally bold and innovative as the climate agenda is the environmental justice agenda. The White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC) is the first time in the history of the United States that environmental justice community members—community members that represent the most vulnerable communities, racially diverse communities, income-diverse communities—have a federal advisory council of this nature situated at the level that it is.

“I can say that the environmental justice community sees this as a momentous occasion and sees the WHEJAC as a critically important tool for communities to be able to offer their thoughts, their recommendations, their ideas about what we need to do with the federal government, but also to enlighten the situation that they are in.”

ON THE CONNECTION BETWEEN ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTICE AND RESILIENCE

Martinez

“One of the critical pieces that we've seen throughout history is that oftentimes the intersections of these very important environmental issues have not done well in terms of understanding the realities of our most vulnerable communities. The environmental justice movement began to try and provide those intersections. Its mantra is that we all need to live in a healthy environment where we live, work, play, pray, and learn. I don't know of anything that's more intersectional than that—the idea that communities need to be whole. They need to be healthy; they need to be at a level where the pollution isn't harming their families; and they need to work in places that are safe. Climate resilience, in many ways, is just a next level of the work of environmental justice.”

ON EQUITY CONSIDERATIONS FOR TRIBES

Karen Diver, Director of Business Development, Native American Initiatives at the University of Arizona

“Tribes have a unique political status, as well as racial and cultural status, that changes things a little bit when we look at what environmental justice and resiliency looks like for indigenous communities. It was noted earlier that people are placed-based, and tribes no more so. We have treaty-defined areas that really aren't subject to renegotiation. As climate impacts are felt, they aren’t going to move reservations or ceded territories, and so much of our culture and our identity is tied to the terrestrial landscape.”

ON RESOURCES FOR TRIBES TO ADDRESS RESILIENCE

Diver

“Tribes have been traditionally under-resourced for normal government functions—whether its housing roads, schools, etc.—just to meet current-date demands. They certainly aren't resourced enough to look at resiliency efforts. When we are increasingly seeing different climate-related events, our infrastructure takes a battering, our facilities take a battering, our people take a battering. We're less able to respond to those crises.

“The Biden administration has been great in responding to the pandemic of realizing those inequities and providing extra resources. Certainly with the climate crisis, this would be an opportunity to say where can we ramp up Tribes’ capacity and their planning efforts. Nearly all of them have shovel-ready projects that could be implemented, whether it's around natural resources, water capacity or alternative energy.”

ON HOW THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT CAN WORK WITH LOCAL COMMUNITIES

Jainey Bavishi, Director, New York City Mayor's Office of Resiliency

“The thing that we're hoping we can partner with D.C. on going forward—and with the Biden administration, in particular—is more money so that we can take proactive action to address these challenges. I think there are some promising trajectories for programs like BRIC [Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities]. We’re excited about the focus on pre-disaster mitigation, but we need those programs to be flexible enough to address the range of hazards that we face and to make sure that we can allocate those dollars to the most vulnerable communities and those who are most impacted.”

ON INCORPORATING RESILIENCE INTO INFRASTRUCTURE PLANNING

Bavishi 

“We actually just passed a local mandate [in New York City] to take all of our climate hazards and projections into account in our entire $90 billion capital portfolio. This is really big because it will shift the paradigm from thinking about climate resiliency projects as being in their own silo and really start embedding a climate resilience perspective across everything that we're doing. We're excited about that and hope that we can continue conversations with the Biden administration on how to take that model and apply it at the federal level.”


ON THE NEEDS OF DIFFERENT COMMUNITIES

Hayes

“Not all communities are in the same situation when it comes to their vulnerability to climate impacts. We need to prioritize our attention on those communities that are most at risk—Tribal communities, disadvantaged communities, other communities of all kinds that have different risk profiles.”