This article is the last in a blog series from Resources for the Future (RFF), released weekly in the lead-up to Inauguration Day. In this series, RFF scholars have weighed in on key challenges facing the new administration and explore the outlook for climate policy in the coming years. A version of this article will appear in the upcoming issue of Resources magazine.
The risk of wildfires, storms, hurricanes, floods, and heat waves is growing as the sea continues to rise and the planet continues to warm—and the costs are growing as well. Since 2005, the United States has suffered $1.24 trillion in economic losses from 173 weather and climate disasters, each one inflicting at least $1 billion in damages. These events disproportionately harm lower-income and minority households and communities. In addition, climate has been recognized as a threat multiplier, with climate disasters leading to cascading consequences projected to threaten all aspects of life, including worldwide peace and security.
Public policy plays a critical role in either mitigating or magnifying the economic costs of climate change. It is time to put the United States on a path toward climate resilience—a greater ability to anticipate, absorb, plan around, recover from, and adapt to adverse events. Currently, our federal disaster programs are insufficient, delayed, and difficult to navigate; they fail to prioritize equitable recovery or rebuild with climate change in mind. We invest insufficiently in risk reduction and do not incorporate growing risk into our decisionmaking. We have failed to seriously undertake the hard and necessary work of climate adaptation.
The incoming Biden administration and the new Congress have an opportunity to put in place solutions that address these long-standing policy deficits. To build a culture of resilience, we need a complete suite of resilience policies that complement each other. I suggest the Biden administration begin by focusing on making it easier to recover from climate catastrophes. In a Resources magazine article that we’ll publish in February, I’ll lay out a more far-reaching plan with additional climate resilience priorities for the new administration.
Navigating the system of federal aid after a disaster is confusing and time consuming at best, and a serious impediment to recovery at worst. Recovery for households generally is provided through three different federal agencies—the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and the Small Business Administration (SBA)—each with their own application procedures and timelines. Many programs have inconsistent application requirements and qualifying criteria. Rules restrict households from receiving duplicate benefits, but agencies focus on their own program and do not help disaster survivors navigate the entire maze of support programs. Priorities for the new administration should include making recovery from natural disasters easier, reducing the stress of receiving assistance, and helping more people get needed funds sooner—and a variety of policies would further those goals.
First, a universal federal dashboard could clearly explain and help disaster survivors navigate through the aid process. The Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force identified this need, suggesting a user-friendly tool to navigate all the programs, through what they called a “no wrong door” approach to information access. In addition, funding could be made available to community groups and nonprofits to help survivors navigate the process. This means that data for all applicants (including those denied) would be shared with designated partners, which could further support survivors and help them access necessary resources.
Second, this integrated approach could be linked to one single application for all federal assistance. SBP, a disaster recovery nonprofit, has developed this solution, which they call OneApp. Through OneApp, disaster survivors could complete just one application and be simultaneously considered for both FEMA and SBA programs. This type of solution could be facilitated further by aligning eligibility rules and establishing a modernized data-sharing platform. As Pete Buttigieg has said, “We need to figure out how to bring aid to people, not make people figure out how to access the aid they need.”
Third, any required documentation to apply for disaster relief would have to be quickly tailored to the circumstances of the disaster. For instance, in some places, such as Puerto Rico and many rural communities, appropriate title documentation for homes does not exist or may be lost in the disaster, preventing survivors from receiving aid. Clear policies, like FEMA accepting sworn affidavits, would help people in this situation, as would linking datasets across FEMA and other agencies.
Fourth, Congress could make amendments to the Stafford Act to better support people who are recovering from a disaster. One important change could be to remove the limitation that FEMA provide only “temporary” housing, which has led to the provision of trailers instead of more cost-efficient solutions such as repairing homes or quickly establishing cheaper and longer-term housing, such as innovative modular designs that can be expanded over time.
Finally, Congress increasingly has been using the HUD Community Development Block Grants Disaster Recovery program to send flexible recovery dollars to communities that have been devastated by severe disasters. This program, however, is not a standing program, and its impermanence creates unnecessary delays with each disaster appropriation. We could resolve some of these challenges by making the HUD program permanent. If also given annual appropriations, HUD could vastly speed up the delivery of recovery dollars to communities.
Climate impacts are hurting American communities and stressing all sectors of the US economy. Too much time has been wasted already. As we begin the urgent work of transitioning to a low-carbon economy, we also must begin the task of building equitable climate resilience across the country. Making recovery easier will be an essential component of that mission.
This blog post is an abridged version of the original article, which was published on Medium.