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For decades, scientists have warned that climate change would unleash ferocious natural disasters unlike anything in recorded human history. They predicted that ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions would cause global temperatures to rise, touching off a vicious cycle of longer and hotter heat waves, deeper droughts, and bigger storms. Most decision-makers, however, treated climate-fueled disasters as the stuff of a distant future. And those who actively worked to fight climate change worried primarily about mitigation—reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Adapting to climate extremes received second billing.
In 2021, however, the natural disasters long foretold by scientists arrived with a vengeance. Extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change—from hurricanes to floods to apocalyptic droughts—pummeled the globe, leaving swaths of destruction that underscored the grave inadequacy of vital systems and infrastructure. The United States did not escape the devastation. On the contrary, the storms and other extreme weather events demonstrated that its most densely populated areas are some of its most vulnerable—and that homes, roads, utilities, communication systems, and other essential facilities across the country are not built for the extremes of today, much less the catastrophes of tomorrow.
As Washington reckons with this terrifying new reality, it should give climate adaptation its due. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions alone is no longer enough to stave off the worsening effects of a warming world. Americans must therefore finally begin to make dramatic changes in the way they build, plan, and live their lives—all while continuing to reduce their emissions. The right way to initiate this complex nationwide process is with a national adaptation strategy that identifies the United States’ major vulnerabilities, lays out its shared priorities, and incorporates climate risk into every level of public decision-making. Such a plan would enable Washington to build for the climate of the future rather than the world of the past.
This has been a year of devastating climate extremes. In February, icy storms and freezing temperatures overwhelmed Texas’s electric grid. Power companies had failed to prepare for extreme cold, and five million people lost power. Some froze to death in their beds. Then in June, a terrifying heat wave roasted Portland, Oregon. Temperatures soared to 116 degrees, forcing the city to shut down part of its public transportation system, which had been designed for a climate that never exceeded 110 degrees. That same month, extreme heat in Washington State caused asphalt and concrete roadways to buckle. Researchers eventually concluded that such intense conditions would have been virtually impossible without climate change.
In Alaska, which is warming nearly twice as fast as the rest of the globe, higher temperatures have begun to thaw permafrost—once perennially frozen land. This newly soggy ground is causing infrastructure to sag, sink, and tilt. Along one elevated section of the Trans-Alaska pipeline, shifting ground has begun to undermine the pipeline’s support structure, forcing officials to approve the installation of a cooling system to halt the melting and prevent an oil spill.
In much of the eastern United States, unusually heavy rainfall has overloaded drainage systems designed to handle milder climatic conditions. Earlier this month, Hurricane Ida dumped more than three inches of rain in New York City over the course of an hour. Much of it landed in the city’s sewer system, which was designed to handle a maximum of 1.75 inches of rainfall per hour. Widespread flooding ensued, damaging homes and businesses and leaving 46 people dead across four states. Something similar occurred in Detroit in January, after nearly eight inches of rain fell in just 19 hours—again, more than city facilities were designed to handle. The Detroit area faced similar record-breaking storms in June and August. And in April, after heavy rainfall in Massachusetts, a drainage system failure dumped 84 million gallons of untreated sewage water into the Merrimack River, which provides drinking water for several nearby towns.
As Washington reckons with this terrifying new reality, it should give climate adaptation its due.
Elsewhere in the country, extreme precipitation is combining with climate change–induced drought to inflict still more damage. Heavy rains can trigger mudslides in areas recently wracked by wildfire. In August, Colorado endured this kind of one-two punch when boulders and logs tumbled onto a section of Interstate 70 recently hit by fire and torrential rains. The mudslide closed 46 miles of one of the country’s vital transportation corridors and forced people to take shelter in tunnels. A similar situation unfolded in January, when part of iconic Highway 1 that winds along California’s coast slid into the ocean. Days before the collapse, five to ten inches of rain had fallen on parched earth near the site.
Drought itself can also cause infrastructure to fail. Historically low water levels in Lake Mead and Lake Powell on the Colorado River currently threaten power and water supplies in several western states. In August, extreme drought forced a hydroelectric power plant in California to shut down after more than 50 years of continuous operation. At the same time, wildfires in drought-ridden areas raged across the American West. Some of those blazes sent hazardous smoke streaming across the continent, triggering health alerts as far away as New York City and Philadelphia.
This laundry list of disasters demonstrates the need for climate adaptation, not just mitigation. Many of these catastrophes resulted from a now antiquated assumption: designers and builders based their plans on a belief that the past offered a decent guide to the future. That no longer holds true. Climate change means that last decade’s flood is no longer a reliable indicator of next decade’s deluge. Policymakers, planners, and ordinary citizens must begin to adjust accordingly.
The $1 trillion infrastructure bill currently working its way through Congress is a good place to start this process. Among other provisions, the legislation includes historic levels of investment in programs designed to help communities and citizens prepare for climate change–induced disasters such as flooding. The bill also focuses on rebuilding and modernizing roads, bridges, and electric grids to make them more resilient.
But the infrastructure bill is just the beginning. Policymakers need to start considering the effects of climate change in every decision they make. Doing so, however, is easier said than done. Accounting for climate risk will require a wholesale shift in how institutions at every level of government and society plan for the future. Communities will need to rethink how and where they build, businesses will need to reevaluate their supply chains, and emergency managers will need to plan for new kinds of cascading crises. Owners and operators of infrastructure will need to account for potential climatic shifts over the 50- to 100-year lifespan of any given structure.
Climate change is an all-hands-on-deck problem, and escalating crises will not wait for Washington to adapt.
Such a comprehensive reevaluation of the United States’ climate response needs to start with a national strategy. Although no proposal for adaptation will ever anticipate every eventuality, a national strategy could identify the country’s biggest vulnerabilities and set out its shared goals and priorities. It could also provide a framework that state and local leaders could build on and customize according to their particular needs—all while ensuring that adaptation efforts do not undermine efforts to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.
To help develop such a plan, Congress should form a new climate adaptation commission that would map out the essential elements of a strategy. Central to this program would be a series of nationwide vulnerability assessments, identifying locations at particular risk for climate disaster. State, local, and tribal leaders could then use these assessments to guide their planning, and federal leaders could use them to decide which large-scale investments to prioritize—building a seawall along the Atlantic coast to block storm surges, for instance, or initiating controlled burns in the American West to reduce the long-term risk of large wildfires. This strategy could also help identify and bolster weak points across different types of infrastructure. Doing so would decrease the risk that a single event, such as an electrical substation collapse, might cascade into a transportation, communication, and public health disaster similar to the one that engulfed New York City after Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
A national adaptation strategy should also encourage policymakers to promote better choices about where and how to build. Today, 65 percent of counties, cities, and towns lack modern disaster-resistant building codes (which force builders to protect property against damaging winds and flooding) even though simply improving such regulations has been found to save $11 in damages for every $1 invested. A plan could also help encourage more prudent land-use choices, scaling back new developments in areas that are destined to flood or burn. This is a particularly urgent task, since one in three Americans currently live in a county that has been damaged by a weather disaster in the last three months. Finally, national planning could address the legacy of discriminatory practices such as redlining—the systematic exclusion of Black residents from neighborhoods across the United States—which has left many predominantly nonwhite communities more vulnerable to climate risks, including extreme heat and flooding. At root, a national adaptation strategy would help decision-makers consider and account for future climate risk.
National adaptation planning is not a new idea. A decade ago, the Government Accountability Office, the federal government’s watchdog, called for a plan to guide the country’s response to climate change. A year later, in 2012, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine concluded that without a plan to improve U.S. resilience in the face of natural disasters, climate change would lead to the loss of lives, homes, and jobs. Three years later, countries across the globe formally recognized the importance of adaptation planning in the Paris climate accord. In 2021, the GAO once again urged the federal government to develop a national climate adaptation plan, if only to stop the fiscal bleeding caused by climate change–induced disasters.
It is past time to finally heed these calls to action. Climate change is an all-hands-on-deck problem, and escalating crises will not wait for Washington to adapt. Although the United States must continue to cut harmful pollution, it must also begin to prepare for the inevitable impacts of climate change. Creating an adaptation plan is the right place to start.