On a wintry day in March, residents from Winona, Minnesota gathered around tables with flip charts and markers to develop a plan for how the Mississippi River community could respond to climate change. The plan included strategies to expand local energy production and efficiency, and shift toward land use and farming practices that could slow floods that have plagued Winona over the last decade.
This type of essential community-level climate adaptation planning is happening in various forms around the country, but these efforts are often limited by divisive climate politics at the national level. A new report from the non-partisan, independent General Accounting Office (GAO) examines how other countries are establishing national-level climate adaptation planning strategies and the growing financial toll the U.S. faces by not taking stronger climate action.
The new GAO report is a follow-up to a 2013 report which outlined the rising financial risk to the federal government from extreme weather events caused by climate change. The White House has estimated that the federal government has incurred over $357 billion in direct costs due to 86 weather-related disasters over the last decade. A UN report found the global costs of storms alone exceeded $1 trillion over the last two decades. The U.S. Global Change Research Program projects that these types of disasters, and associated financial costs, will only rise in the future. A 2015 follow-up report from the GAO found that only responding to disasters at the local level is not a good long-term strategy. This reactionary approach “can limit states ability to plan and prioritize longer-term disaster resilience.”
The GAO profiled five countries that have already moved well beyond the U.S. in climate adaptation planning: the European Union, Mexico, the Netherlands, the Philippines and the United Kingdom. Each country has long-term climate adaptation plans firmly in place, in some cases for more than a decade. The plans included cross-agency coordination, incorporating climate-related risk in other domestic policies, and a system of monitoring and evaluating success. Two other important elements of these national level plans are long-term funding commitments and a framework for stakeholder engagement.
In reporting about climate planning in the five countries, the GAO wrote: “This alignment may provide co-benefits, such as infrastructure investments that protect against climate change impacts; enhance resilience to all disasters; and create economic opportunities.”
In the U.S., much-needed action on climate adaptation continues to be blocked by a Republican-controlled Congress. In 2014 and 2015, bills were introduced to strengthen federal level planning for extreme weather, but neither was approved. Earlier this month, the House voted to block a Defense Department plan to address risks to national security from climate change.
Despite inaction from Congress, the Obama Administration has taken some initial steps around climate adaptation. The President has issued an executive order directing federal agencies to develop adaptation plans and established the inter-governmental State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Change Preparedness and Resilience. These are important first steps, but they lack the resources and long-term planning that needs to come from a supportive Congress.
In the coming years, climate considerations will need to be part of a much broader range of policies. For example, the mega Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiated by the Obama Administration ignores climate change completely, despite setting new rules that will affect agriculture, mining, clean energy, forestry and other sectors that deeply impact the climate. In 2018, Congress will take up the nation’s most important bill for agriculture, known as the Farm Bill. Past Farm Bills have failed to even consider how to support climate resilience within its broad-reaching programs.
One of the barriers to taking action on climate is psychological – the global scope of the challenge can be overwhelming. But it’s not true that nothing can be done at the community level. Climate adaptation planning is taking place in various forms around the country; some initiatives are led by forward thinking government planners while others are led by concerned citizens, like those in Winona and in two other rural Minnesota communities IATP worked closely with.
At the beginning of the Winona climate dialogue, community members shared what they loved about where they live: the beauty of the Mississippi River and surrounding bluffs, and the close knit community of people that share that landscape. For many, there’s much more than rising financial costs at stake when it comes to climate change. Let’s hope Congress and our next President are ready to act.