What actions must we take now to live in a changing world where sea level rise, wildfire, and flooding are increasing in both frequency and intensity? Moving forward, Resources for the Future will explore the strategies and policies that can help build more just and equitable resilience in the face of disproportionate climate impacts, along with the steps required to build resilience into an effective policy package that incorporates climate mitigation.
Decisionmakers across the globe are grappling with how to account for risk and uncertainty about the impacts of climate change, even as communities already are experiencing significant impacts. Global average temperatures have increased significantly since the turn of the twentieth century and produced the warmest period in modern history. Even with aggressive greenhouse gas mitigation and the most optimistic outlook for future emissions, scientists predict that average temperatures will continue rising through 2100. Global average sea levels have risen by seven to eight inches since 1900, a trend that scientists predict will deliver one to four feet of additional sea level rise by the end of the twenty-first century. Along the US Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, the rise is expected to be even higher, accelerating tidal flooding and worsening hurricane storm surge.
We live now in a period of climate-related weather extremes, too: the frequency and intensity of extreme heat and heavy precipitation events has risen in most parts of the world, including the United States. The western part of the United States, for example, has been in a “mega-drought” since 2000, and the hot, dry conditions in the region have contributed to a significant increase in wildfire frequency and intensity.
These manifestations of climate change are having impacts on people, neighborhoods, and communities in myriad ways. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 600 people die each year in the United States from exposure to extreme heat. The country has been hit by 291 major climate and weather disasters since 1980, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, imposing costs in excess of $1.9 trillion. The number of days with tidal flooding in the United States—often referred to as “nuisance” or “sunny-day” flooding—has reached an all-time high in recent years, causing roadway and parking problems, saltwater intrusion in farmlands, degradation of septic systems, and many disruptions to daily life. A recent study found that smoke from wildfires now is responsible for approximately half of all air pollution in some parts of the western United States, creating serious respiratory health problems and interrupting daily activities. Typically, the most vulnerable members of society—those in the lowest income groups, senior citizens, people with underlying health conditions, racial and ethnic minorities, and others—are most hurt by these weather extremes. Climate change exacerbates these underlying inequities.
The Climate Risks and Impacts Program at Resources for the Future (RFF) aims to improve our understanding of climate change risks and impacts across sectors and regions. This better understanding will lead to better decisionmaking by federal, state, and local governments in their design of adaptation policies, disaster mitigation programs, infrastructure financing, zoning and land use regulations, and other policies that can increase resilience and promote adaptation. Effective resilience and adaptation policies, informed by RFF research, ultimately will improve the lives of individuals in communities at the front lines of climate change.
We will quantify the economic and social impacts of climate and weather disasters, weather volatility, extreme heat events, floods, wildfires, and sea level rise.
Research in this area takes a deep dive into the impacts of climate change on people, property, businesses, and communities. RFF researchers will assess how various climate risks are manifested in property markets, labor markets, local economies, and at-risk populations. We’ll provide policymakers with important baseline information about the extent of climate risks and the underlying causes of various climate impacts. This analytical information will help industry leaders understand the impacts that climate change has on businesses, which ultimately informs employment, investment, and where those businesses are located. This work also can drive policies that help communities cope with change and build resilience.
For example, communities now are confronting whether and how to allow further residential development in high-wildfire-hazard areas. For homeowners in these areas, insurance premiums have ballooned, with insurers refusing to renew coverage in some cases. Increased exposure to wildfire risk also increases the costs for electric utilities—which may be held liable when their equipment ignites a fire—and electricity consumers, along with the federal and state agencies that manage wildfire incidents. We’ll analyze the extent to which housing markets are incorporating wildfire risks and document whether households are choosing locations based on those risks, which often are highly correlated with environmental amenities. We’ll also evaluate policy options that could reduce household exposure to wildfires.
RFF’s work on updating the estimate for the social cost of carbon has great relevance to quantifying these types of climate impacts. The social cost of carbon provides an estimate of the economic damages that result from an incremental ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere, and this number can help assess the benefits and costs of US policy actions. We will integrate our latest estimate of the social cost of carbon into RFF’s research efforts when evaluating the social impacts of climate change–related risks and disasters.
We will assess the environmental justice implications of climate-related weather events and identify equitable solutions for mitigating the effects of those events.
The impacts of climate change are a function of the frequency and severity of weather events, exposure of people and property to those events, and underlying vulnerability of the exposed populations. Vulnerability, often a function of underlying socioeconomic factors, is now recognized as especially important.
RFF researchers will measure the extent of inequities in climate impacts and identify who bears the burden of weather extremes, flood risks, and wildfire risks. We’ll analyze climate impacts on minority-owned businesses and jobs in disadvantaged communities. Our research will help decisionmakers understand the nature of these inequities and how to address these issues by, for example, designing policies that implement disaster recovery and infrastructure investment. The new Justice40 initiative from the Biden administration holds agencies in the federal government responsible for ensuring that 40 percent of the benefits of federal investments go to disadvantaged communities; RFF researchers will help determine where investments are needed and how to meet the Justice40 goals.
One such project will identify environmental justice–focused strategies for addressing coastal septic failures caused by sea level rise and increased flooding. Increased flooding and sea level rise will cause septic systems to fail, both mechanistically and in terms of nutrient and pathogen removal, which can lead to gastrointestinal illness and parasitic infections in people. We will evaluate a range of policy interventions that can feasibly, equitably, and cost-effectively reduce risk and improve health outcomes for households and communities that rely on septic systems in flood-prone areas.
Septic failures are acutely problematic in areas with higher proportions of people of color and comparatively lower incomes, who are more likely to reside on flood-prone land and less likely to be connected to municipal sewer systems. With our collaborators, we’ll look in detail at which populations are at risk of septic system failures now and in the future, while addressing conditions (some systemic and some historical) that may exacerbate this exposure. Ultimately, by using empirical data and community input, we’ll evaluate where and how specific policy and technology solutions can address the compounded risk and ensure that the benefits accrue in a way that addresses past discriminatory practices.
We will evaluate the benefits and costs of policies that enhance resilience to extreme weather events and encourage effective community adaptation.
Reducing exposure and vulnerability to climate change will require creative policy approaches at the federal, state, and local levels. We want to know which policy options are the most effective, efficient, and fair. We will analyze reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program, which will improve the financial viability of the program and increase coverage gaps. We’ll assess options for financing investments in resilient infrastructure, including natural and nature-based solutions. We’ll evaluate forest policies and management strategies for mitigating wildfire risk. And we’ll directly engage with communities directly to get a sense of the local feasibility of potential options—what works on the ground, for all communities, including historically disadvantaged ones.
As natural disasters grow in frequency and intensity under climate change, limiting populations and properties in harm’s way will be the key to adaptation. In one crucial project, we’ll examine an approach to discourage development in risky areas: eliminating federal incentives for development. We’ll use the Coastal Barrier Resources Act of 1982 as a natural experiment to study whether removing government incentives for development can provide a cost-effective policy option for discouraging overdevelopment in areas that are at risk from climate change. The Coastal Barrier Resources Act designated certain areas along the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts as a Coastal Barrier Resources System within which federal funding for infrastructure, disaster relief, mortgage guarantees, and flood insurance are banned. We’ll figure out whether the act has effectively discouraged development in coastal areas and reduced flood damage to nearby properties and neighborhoods. And we’ll assess the overall effects on property tax revenues in jurisdictions that contain Coastal Barrier Resources System lands.
Getting to a Net-Zero Resilient Economy through Assessing Climate Risks and Strategies for Community Resilience
Armed with data and analysis from RFF experts, state and local governments can better target land conservation and infrastructure investments to improve resilience, design more effective zoning and land use regulations, and understand the trade-offs involved in alternative approaches to adaptation. Our work on local economic impacts and financial risks from climate change also provides critical information to the business community, with which firms can develop their own plans for improving resilience. RFF research will tackle all these considerations, from various angles, in the months and years to come.