For those of us who work on climate change, progress at the federal level can feel impossible sometimes. According to the latest science, we need to cut emissions sharply to help limit the severity of future impacts and enhance our ability to withstand the consequences of global warming that we are already facing—and fast. That’s why bicameral (S. 3531 / H.R. 6461) and bipartisan congressional support for the National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy (NCARS) Act is something to celebrate.
The legislation would create a Chief Resilience Officer (CRO) to serve under the White House and authorize the development and implementation of a comprehensive, government-wide national climate adaptation and resilience strategy. The NCARS Act directs the CRO to establish working groups and a partners council to help develop a national strategy, authorizing $2 million annually to help support this work. The CRO and working groups are required to develop a national climate adaptation and resilience strategy within two years of the enactment of the bill and update it every three years afterwards.
Five reasons why we need Congress to pass the NCARS bill
The legislation would require the federal government to:
- Strategically address worsening climate impacts. The latest science finds that extreme weather and climate change-related disasters are increasing in severity and frequency. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Working Group II impacts, adaptation, and vulnerability report includes grim findings for observed and future climate change impacts. The report confirms with high confidence that in North America, our cities and communities have been impacted by the increasing severity and frequency of climate-induced hazards and extreme events, and that they are contributing to cascading damages on infrastructure, cultural heritage, economic activity, and livelihoods. The NCARS legislation would, for the first time, help to bring the current, siloed federal actions on climate adaptation and resilience under one unified strategic plan. By doing this, my hope is that the NCARS legislation will ensure resources are benefiting and advancing the adaptive capacity of frontline communities that are getting hurt first and worst, and have the least amount of resources to prepare and respond to climate impacts.
- Improve equity. With very high confidence, the IPCC authors underscore that climate impacts are particularly pronounced for Indigenous people, that climate change has negatively impacted human health and well-being, and that high temperatures are increasing morbidity and mortality. Urban flooding will be the dominant risk for city centers and will displace people, damage economic activity, and disrupt transportation and other infrastructure. All of these impacts will disproportionately affect historically disadvantaged communities. The NCARS bill would establish a partners council so that the federal government is able to hear from a diverse group of local, state, tribal, territorial and private sector people. The partners council will play a critical role in advising the Chief Resilience Officer, working groups, and the federal government as a whole on how to improve programs, policies, technical assistance, and funding structures to be more equitable. My hope is that the NCARS legislation will help to correct and avoid past wrongs (for example disaster assistance under FEMA) and meet the goals of Justice40 by ensuring 40 percent of federal investments benefit those historically disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, under-served, and overburdened by pollution.
- Invest wisely in climate risk reduction. We can’t afford to continue to do the same thing again and again and expect different results. Extreme weather and climate change-related disasters are costing lives and billions of dollars every year. Last year, there were 20 extreme weather events exceeding a billion dollars, each at a total cost of $148 billion, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The federal watchdog, the Government Accountability Office, has been raising an alarm for about a decade regarding the significant fiscal risk climate change poses to the federal government. The NCARS bill would direct federal agencies to account for the dollars they’re spending on climate adaptation actions, ensure resources are going towards adaptation measures that help communities and the federal government reduce climate risks, and task agencies to look for redundancies and inconsistencies.
- Strategically plan for a climate-fueled future. We can limit the worst of many of the climate change-related risks if we take immediate actions to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Take for example the Union of Concerned Scientists’ analysis on sea level rise and extreme heat. We find that with no action to reduce heat-trapping emissions by mid-century, more than 300,000 coastal homes in the lower 48 states—with a collective 2018 market value of almost $118 billion—are at risk of chronic inundation from high tides. And the average number of days per year with a heat index above 100°F in the contiguous United States will more than double, while the number of days per year above 105°F will quadruple—threatening the well-being of outdoor workers, older populations, pregnant people, children, people with disabilities, and those with underlying conditions. The NCARS bill would require the Chief Resilience Officer to develop a comprehensive adaptation and resilience strategy based on the latest science, and on assessments of vulnerability to rapid-onset and slow-onset climate hazards, compound climate hazards, and cascading climate hazards.
- Respond proactively to calls for action. Government and non-government experts alike have been calling on Congress and the White House to develop a government-wide climate resilience strategy. In the latest High Risk Report, GAO recommends that the Executive Office of the President establish a federal strategic plan to coordinate the nation’s efforts on adapting to climate change. The IPCC also pointed to how governments’ ability to develop and implement integrated and equitable policies to address these impacts is being hindered by fragmented responsibilities for planning, disaster management, and mitigation and adaptation activities. And a broad group of climate resilience experts under Resilience 21 called on the Biden-Harris administration to move forward on these resilience actions over a year ago. Congress has the opportunity to meet these calls to action by passing the NCARS legislation.
What UCS is doing
We understand that the NCARS bill is simply a first step to advancing climate resilience. We’ll continue to call on Congress to do much more—including appropriating robust funding—to actually ensure communities are better protected. Better protections are needed particularly during the time our scientists are calling “Danger Season,” roughly from May through October in the Northern hemisphere. During these months, climate change impacts—including deadly heatwaves, extreme drought, water shortages, catastrophic flooding, rapidly intensifying tropical storms, raging wildfires—are at their peak, likely to collide with one another, and exacerbate socioeconomic challenges and racial inequities.
While we recognize that this is a first step of many additional policy efforts that Congress must advance in the near term, the Union of Concerned Scientists is enthusiastically supporting the NCARS bill because a national adaptation and resilience strategy is long overdue. A Chief Resilience Officer and a national strategy will help the federal government focus on and prioritize federal programs and resources for those inland and coastal communities that are already suffering from climate change-related impacts, and for those communities that have experienced a history of redlining, racism, and environmental injustice. As we reach out to Congressional offices regarding this legislation, we’ll speak to the urgency to act on both rapidly reducing emissions and advancing adaptation measures to help close the resilience gap. We will also ask that they listen to their constituents, environmental justice organizers, and other relevant groups. We are working in concert with our members and supporters as well as organizations like Resilience21, the American Society of Adaptation Professionals, and others to encourage Congress to move this important legislation forward. We hope you can join us in this effort.
What you can do
Urge your members of Congress to cosponsor and continue to support the NCARS bill, to invest in a strategic federal plan that will better target resources to frontline communities, and to build a more resilient nation that can better withstand extreme weather and climate change-related impacts now and into the future.