When it comes to preparing for and responding to climate-related disasters, we cannot continue business as usual nor disregard recommendations by experts. With the frequency and cost of disasters rising, it’s well past time for the U.S. to have a clear, coherent, and coordinated approach to building the climate resilience communities need.
Congress currently has an opportunity to put the nation on a better path. Before the 117th Congress comes to a close, it needs to pass the National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy (NCARS) Act by including it in a disaster supplemental spending package. To be clear, NCARS is not a spending bill. It’s a “get your federal risk reduction house in order” bill that would actually result in better use of taxpayer money. Here are answers to some critical questions that readers may ask themselves as to why NCARS is a smart investment for the nation.
What is National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy Act (NCARS)?
Introduced at the start of this year by U.S. Senators Chris Coons (D-Delaware) and Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and U.S. Representatives Scott Peters (D-California) and María Elvira Salazar (R-Florida), the NCARS bill would improve how the federal government prepares and responds to extreme weather and climate-related disasters. It would do this by creating a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) under the White House with the task of bringing federal agencies together, as well as a non-federal “Partners Council,” to develop a national climate adaptation and resilience strategy for the nation. The bill has strong bipartisan and bicameral support because members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, understand that a federally integrated strategy will guide wise investments in preparing for climate and natural hazards and increasing the capacity of communities to adapt to future conditions.
Would NCARS ensure more fiscally sound federal risk reduction spending?
First, let’s take stock of how the financial risks and costs of disasters are increasing. Over a decade, from 2007-2017, the direct costs of extreme weather events to the federal government was $350 billion. However, during half that time, from 2015-2021, the direct costs to federal government for disasters was $315 billion. A broader calculation of disasters exceeding a billion dollars each by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reflects the overall losses to the US economy:
- This year, there have been 15 billion-dollar extreme weather and climate change-related disasters (as of October 11, 2022);
- Over the last three years (from 2020–2022), the US has experienced more “billion-dollar disasters” than it did during the entire decade of the 1990s;
- Overall, 2021 was one of the costliest years for the US with total damages from disasters at approximately $145 billion; and
- These types of billion-dollar disasters are on an upward trend.
Representing NOAA, Adam Smith states: It is concerning that 2021 was another year in a series of years where we had a high frequency, a high cost, and large diversity of extreme events that affect people’s lives and livelihoods—concerning because it hints that the extremely high activity of recent years is becoming the new normal.
For almost a decade the watchdog for the federal government, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), has raised concerns over the need for the federal government to reduce its fiscal exposure by better managing climate change risks. GAO noted that climate change could increase recurring costs to the federal government by roughly $12 billion to $35 billion annually by mid-century.
In its latest assessment, GAO recommends the “federal government needs a cohesive, strategic approach, with strong leadership and the authority to manage risks.”
Given these worrisome trends in the cost and frequency of extreme events the passage of the NCARS Act would help integrate federal agency resilience efforts and provide metrics and milestones to help guide pre-disaster mitigation investments where and when they’re needed most. So how would a strategy help reduce future costs? The NCARS Act would charge the CRO with developing and coordinating a national, integrated strategy to reduce damages before disasters hit which would help save money in the long run
- Investments in climate adaptation and resilience actions can reduce the potential damages in the future by preparing ahead of time of climate change and natural hazards. The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) provided a wealth of data on how federal grant investments in hazard mitigation are extremely cost efficient for the nation. For example, on average, every dollar the federal government invests in hazard reduction measures, such as building codes, has a six-dollar return in disaster reduction savings due to the prevention of property loss, lives saved and less disruptions in daily activities.
- The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) assessment of the bill finds that “enacting S. 3531 would have an insignificant effect on direct spending and no effect on revenues over the 2023-2032 period.”
How would NCARS help state, local, tribal and territorial governments help themselves?
This past October was the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Sandy, one of the most destructive hurricanes for the New York and New Jersey area. In many cases, billions of dollars have been spent to make the region more resilient, billions more have yet to be spent. Barriers to spending federal grant funding range from issues regarding federal grant flexibility and the municipal level government’s resources and policies in place to check the boxes needed to receive federal funding. Even cities with resources like New York City have faced multiple barriers when it comes to spending and implementing resilience measures. Given the complexity of implementing hazard risk reduction projects, lessons from Hurricane Sandy show that many communities remain without the adaptation measures they need to keep them safe.
NOAA has captured how disaster damages to states compare to the state’s Gross State Product (GSP). This year, cost of damages for North and South Dakota represent 2-3 percent of GSP, Minnesota 1-2 percent and for Michigan, Kansas, and Arkansas, 0.5-1 percent. Louisiana’s damages from Hurricane Ida and other storms in 2021 represented an eye-popping 15-20 percent of the state’s GSP.
The best way for the federal government to help state, local, tribal and territorial governments when it comes to building for resilience on the ground, is for the federal government to involve these representatives in a national climate resilience and adaptation strategy. The NCARS Act would advance stakeholder involvement by:
- Creating a non-federal “Partners Council on Climate Adaptation and Resilience” to bring together various levels of government, nonprofit organizations, private sector and academia to inform and guide targeted federal investments in pre-disaster mitigation.
- Inform, “simplify, and harmonize” planning and application requirements to access federal funds.
Is NCARS needed to coordinate, integrate and target pre-disaster mitigation funding?
In one word, yes.
With the recent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) bill this year and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) bill last year, Congress has allocated tens of billions of dollars for climate resilience and adaptation over the next decade, which implicates roughly 17 federal agencies.
NCARS would ensure a climate resilience officer sits within the White House to bring federal agencies and stakeholders together to develop a strategy to ensure these investments are assessed under one federally coordinated strategic plan. Such a strategy would help prioritize funding for the communities with the greatest vulnerabilities and the least capacity to adapt to a range of different climate hazards, including compound and cascading hazards.
In addition to developing a national climate adaptation and resilience strategy, the bill would also require the White House Climate Resilience Officer to develop an implementation plan with goals and metrics, which are critical for staying accountable to stakeholders and Congress and to the notion of adaptive management. The bill would also ensure the CRO develop and submit operations reports to advance transparency and accountability.
Congress must act to pass NCARS before the end of the year.
A national strategy for federal investments in resilience and adaptation is long overdue. Roughly 45 countries have national adaptation plans in place. Costly climate-related and extreme weather disasters are increasing, and the federal fiscal risk continues to climb. Something has to change.
The good news is, Congress has a chance to vote for advancing a national comprehensive strategy for climate resilience and adaptation. By passing NCARS into law, members of Congress will meet the calls by GAO, NOAA experts, and more than 500 local leaders and organizations to get this bill passed into law. As Congress contemplates a disaster relief and spending package before the end of the year, it makes dollars and sense to include NCARS.