This week, host Kristin Hayes talks with Alice Hill and Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, authors of a new book called, Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption. Hayes, Hill, and Martinez-Diaz delve into the topics covered in the book, including 10 lessons for decisionmakers in building a resilient future. They discuss what resilience means in the context of climate change, how it relates to economic inequalities, and the potential legislation holds in addressing issues of mitigation, resilience, and equity.
Hill is a former US federal prosecutor who began work on climate change issues after joining the US Department of Homeland Security in 2009. As senior counselor to the secretary, she was tasked with helping the department understand how climate could affect its operations. Hill went on to the White House to lead resilience efforts as special assistant to President Obama. She is now a senior fellow for climate change policy at the Council of Foreign Relations.
Martinez-Diaz formerly served as deputy assistant secretary for energy and environment at the Treasury Department. He negotiated finance elements of the Paris Agreement and represented the United States on the governing bodies of major providers of climate finance, including the Green Climate Fund and the Global Environment Facility. He now works at the World Resources Institute as the Global Director of the Sustainable Finance Center.
Listen to the Podcast
Top of the Stack
- Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption by Alice Hill and Leonardo Martinez-Diaz
- “New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding” by Scott A. Kulp and Benjamin H. Strauss
- Ultimatum by Matthew Glass
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Welcome to Resources Radio, a weekly podcast from Resources for the Future. I’m your host, Kristin Hayes. Today on Resources Radio, I’m joined by Alice Hill and Leonardo Martinez-Diaz, authors of a new book released this fall by Oxford University Press, called Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption. Alice spent the bulk of her career in courtrooms, but became immersed in climate change after she joined the US Department of Homeland Security in 2009. She then went on to the White House as special assistant to President Obama and member of his climate team. She’s now a research fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, as well as serving as a life member on the Council of Foreign Relations. Leonardo spent several years as an academic before also joining the Obama administration, where he worked at both the US Agency for International Development and at the Treasury Department, where he was a deputy assistant secretary for energy and environment. He now works at the World Resources Institute (WRI) as the global director for WRI’s Sustainable Finance Center. Two great and experienced guests who are going to delve into the very important topics they cover in their book. They’re going to highlight ten lessons for decisionmakers that they identify, so stay with us for this fascinating conversation.
Alice and Leonardo, thank you and welcome to Resources Radio. It's a pleasure to be here with you today, and in person. You two together have written a book. As I mentioned earlier in the introduction, the title of that book is Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption. So I wanted to start by asking you why you were both interested in crafting this book and in working together on it?
Alice Hill: Well, Leo and I had had a fabulous working relationship when I was at the White House and he was at the Department of Treasury. We had the opportunity to work on an executive order together about climate resilient development. So we learned a bit about each other. And then one day Leo asked me to lunch and said, "Hey, you want to write a book?" And I said, "Sure." And we ended up writing a book together, which focused on what I think we both perceived as a real gap in the work on resilience. That is that climate change impacts will affect virtually everything, and our systems have not accounted for or prepared for the type of change that climate change brings.
Kristin Hayes: Leo, what about you? Anything to add?
Leo Martinez-Diaz: Well, I think we wanted to find a way to capture a lot of what we had seen and learned inside the government and we realized that the focus was very much on mitigation. These were after all the days of the Paris Agreement. And at the same time we were getting all these signals from folks across the country that were looking to solve problems related to climate impacts, and so we wanted to find a place to archive all of those experiences, but also to try to bring to the attention of a bigger group of people how important this challenge is.
Kristin Hayes: One thing, I will say, I really enjoyed about the book was the level of geographic—I hate to call it anecdotal, because it's so much richer than that—but nonetheless the sense of pulling in examples from the communities that you've visited, and we'll get back to that a little bit later, but I want to start with some definitions for our listeners. And in the book you introduced some of those definitions early on. So you write, "We use the term resilience to refer to the capacity of a community to reduce, absorb, and recover from impacts of climate change. This definition covers a wide range of actions from 'no regret' measures that can be taken quickly at little cost and with little controversy, to large scale transformational changes that require sophisticated scenario and cost-benefit analysis."
So I pulled out the long version of that definition because I think it speaks a lot and I just wanted to delve with you, Alice, into that language a little bit more. It seems like those words were chosen very carefully and so can you unpack that definition just a bit for the listeners to the podcast? Maybe provide some examples of those no regret or transformational changes.
Alice Hill: Sure. Resilience, it turns out, is a very useful word because so many people see themselves in it, and it has exploded in usage really since the first time identified in about the early 1800s where it was applied to engineering. And now, if you look at a Google chart, it's just exploded in usage. But the reason it's so popular when you're talking about climate change, is that climate change is a very polarizing topic. So it has proven to be something that politicians can use safely as they want to address the future risk. The reason it's so important to address future risk and build resilience is because these impacts are coming quickly, and we can learn from “no more” moments, that is—a particular bad event. Houston had a remarkable one with Harvey, when the hurricane stalled over pancake flat Houston, which had had much development and no building code to protect against flooding for the city.
So they have found resilience, a no more moment after Harvey, and they've gone on to apply a building code that requires elevation of properties, plus Issue A bond that will finance flood mitigation. What our book hopes is that communities will take advantage of those no more moments, but they will also, in advance, understand that the risks are here and that they need to build resilience. I'll just footnote that the definition of resilience is extremely difficult. And recently, Congress directed FEMA to come up with a single definition of resilience for the Federal Government.
Kristin Hayes: Sounds like a tall challenge. But maybe the book can help.
Alice Hill: I hope so.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. So Leo, I want to turn over to you. And the book offers, and again, I quote, "10 lessons for building resilience organized in 10 chapters." So Leo, can you give us an overview of those 10 lessons, including maybe a little bit about how you went about organizing your thinking? Distilling anything into a finite number of things I've found particularly challenging. And so any of your thinking about how you got to those 10 would be really helpful.
Leo Martinez-Diaz: Sure. We divided the book into three sections based on what we thought brought together some of these lessons. So the first section is about those elements, those things that can bring about systemic change. That is change across the country in multiple sectors, in a way that would affect millions of people. And that's ultimately what we're going to need. We're going to need a really systemic change. And so the three things in that section are about that. The first one in there is about rethinking where and how we build. These are the things that Alice was just referring to, so that's the first lesson.
The second is about the law. We were a bit cute and called it Lawyer Up, but ultimately this is a chapter that looks at the legal system, the judicial system in the United States, and how it's going to arbitrate over the coming years—Who pays for the damage, right? On whose plate is this ultimately going to land? And how will the courts struggle with that, with that very difficult question? And hopefully in the process, will the ultimate fear of litigation push and incentivize different types of stakeholders to get resilient, to invest in resilience?
The third lesson in this section is about markets. We called it Making Markets Work for Resilience. And this is about how you use prices in different markets, insurance, real estate, stocks and bonds. How do we get these prices to reflect the risk of climate impact? The second section of the book, the middle, is meant to be practical. It's about the tools, the tools for the decisionmaker. And by decisionmaker, we didn't just talk about government folks, although that's our natural orientation. But also we are thinking about business leaders. We're thinking about local community leaders and nonprofits, all types of decisionmakers who are going to be struggling with this question over the coming years.
So it's about how to raise funding for things that have to be invested in today. And finally, the last tool is about nudging, colloquially known. It basically says, "Look, we have these cognitive biases, right? We have these mental tendencies that often blind us from problems like climate change. And so the question is, how can you apply little framing techniques that allow the different decisionmakers to get over these blocks, these cognitive biases?
The last section of the book is about the upenders. These are the really tough issues. They're the ones that really threatened to upend much of how we organize society today. And at the same time we wanted to be constructive and talk about what things people are doing today to try to address them. The first is health. How can we harden the healthcare system to ensure that it remains functioning during extreme events?
The second piece is on migration. We talk about how folks will be displaced from, especially the coasts, as sea level rise and other impacts begin to hit, and we're going to have to think about how are we going to facilitate that process of allowing people to find safer ground? The third lesson here is on inequality. There's all this inequality in the world already. Climate change is likely to make it worse. How can we try to mitigate that process? How do we buffer inequality? And finally national security. This is an area of interest to many folks in concern about military readiness and our ability to protect our national security abroad. And so we look at how climate change is forcing a rethinking of national security priorities. So that's the book in a nutshell.
Kristin Hayes: I'm hoping to delve a little bit deeper into just a couple of those strategies. I will leave the readers to read the book for the full suite, but there are a couple that struck me as, perhaps, and this might just be my perspective, but perhaps less intuitive about when the average consumer of information about climate change thinks about resilience. So if I can just pose to each of you one of those. And Alice, I'll start with you. So the large scale, in the first section of the book, the large scale strategy dealing with the law—I'm intrigued by that one. And you wrote, "As in other areas of social change, the law could eventually help drive large scale resilience." So can you tell us a little bit more about how you think about the role the legal system perhaps plays now, or can play, or should play differently in the future related to climate change? And what are the, you highlight in the book a number of those sort of sensitivities and challenges of relying on the legal system in this case. So maybe if you could just speak to those, that'd be great.
Alice Hill: Sure. The law or the legal system often drives very significant social change. We can think of desegregation, we can think of gay marriage, but also change in terms of reducing public harm—asbestos. And that was through private litigation, people suing for asbestosis harm and recovery. Similarly with cigarettes. And now we're seeing with the opioid crisis. So if there is a strong avenue for finding liability, it can dramatically alter how risks are perceived. There's a class of cases that are working their way through the courts now where litigants are seeking recovery and often it's generally seeking dollar amounts, but sometimes it's a change in behavior for emissions. So suing the fossil fuel giants, Exxon, Chevron, for the emissions that they've caused and seeking either monetary rewards or some help in adaptation.
I'm not sure those lawsuits will be successful. That's certainly a matter of debate among lawyers. But the area I know that will be active is individual decisions of adaptation. And if we have findings from the court that it's, for example, negligent for an engineer to design or an architect to design a building in a floodplain without taking into account either flood mitigation issues or advising the client, that will spur, if there is a finding of liability, a huge change in behavior across the board. Because other engineers aren't going to want to be found liable. And we will see improvements in our decision making. One very small case, but one that speaks volumes, was after Sandy, a couple in Connecticut had a hundred year old home that was very heavily damaged in Sandy.
When they sought to rebuild the home, they wanted to elevate the home and that is a common risk mitigation measure for flood. Just simply make it higher and then the water washes through. Well, they went before their town council in Milford, Connecticut and the town council said, "No, you can't elevate. It violates our aesthetic rules for the town." This'll be common going forward as these impacts come in and people want to make adjustments to be safer. The trial judge in that case didn't have much patience with the town. He said, "We do not check our common sense at the door." But it's that kind of cleanup that will go along and make us safer and then these huge levers of decisions that could prompt others similarly situated to correct their behavior. It's a slow moving process. The law isn't known for its speed, but it's very powerful in getting people to change their behavior over a period of time.
Kristin Hayes: That's great, thanks. And I remember reading that anecdote in the book as well. And living in Washington DC where there are height restrictions abound and historic preservation restrictions, and this sense of competing interests is very palpable, but understanding that climate needs to be a consideration. It seems like a really important first step as you weigh some of those tradeoffs.
Alice Hill: I think so. And I think that, as the climate impacts become more damaging, which they are quickly, the weight given to certain other aspects will lessen in the face of public safety and damaged property.
Kristin Hayes: So Leo, let me turn to you and ask about the chapter titled “Buffer Growing Inequality.” So this is a topic that's frequently, you talked about in policy debates, in the academic literature, and no doubt in communities across the country. And people are increasingly drawing the connection between inequality and climate change. And so, how do the effects of climate change already mirror national and international economic inequalities? And then, in your view, what solutions might exist that might deal with both of those problems, the problem of needing more resilience and the problem of inequality simultaneously? Are there any such solutions that deal with both?
Leo Martinez-Diaz: We started this chapter by looking at the inequality picture and how it is affected by climate change internationally. We first look at what the research is telling us is likely to occur. And essentially to boil down a lot of the complexity, there is a big arc that stretches from parts of South America through Africa, the Middle East and then down to Southeast Asia and Australia, that is likely to face the first and most intense wave of climate impacts that are already happening. And many of the countries in that region, in that big sort of arc that sweeps across the world, already are some of the poorest countries that have the least capacity to adapt.
And so that's the geographic lottery if you will. Where do you happen to be located, is overlapping with where climate change is likely to occur first. Those countries are likely to be more affected because they start from already from higher baseline temperatures. So more warming on top of already warm average temperatures leads to more damage to crops and to human health for example.
We then look at the US and some of the literature there is telling us that climate change is going to affect different parts of the country in different ways. The US's own climate assessment is telling us that there are different parts of the country that are going to suffer from different impacts, and many of the less prosperous States in the union, including for example around the Gulf Coast, are already suffering disproportionately from different types of impacts. And everywhere across the country, regardless of the state or the community, the poor and vulnerable, that is to say those people with disabilities, people who may be elderly and have trouble moving around, folks who don't have access to emergency cash in case of a disaster, all those folks will be suffering first.
And so the overriding theme of the chapter is we've got to look after those communities first and we need to put in place systems that are going to allow us to identify those people early on so that we can get them out of harm's way and provide support when extreme events happen.
We look especially at different types of inequality. There's, for example, inequality of private safety nets, access to a bank account, access to private insurance or renters' insurance if you happen to be a renter. These things are very valuable and they can provide a cushion in case of a major disaster. But many folks don't have that, that type of private buffer zone.
There's also mobility, right? In the immediate aftermath, for example, of Katrina—once public transportation failed, a huge chasm opened between those who had access to private cars and those who had to rely on a now non-functioning public transportation system. And it's those moments when inequality really can mean the difference between life and death. And we have to be able to think ahead and think about what's going to happen when that type of public transportation system is failing or public health as well.
And then finally we look at, you know, this idea of social resilience. And in many places some communities are tightly knit. People know one another, neighbors know each other, they look after those that may be stuck in their homes. There is a degree of solidarity in case of a disaster. That has been documented very well in the case of, for example, heat waves in Chicago, heat waves in Europe in 2003. Isolation kills is the conclusion of this work, and it is crucial that we find ways both to promote more social cohesion and social resilience. But also to use technology to try to find out those folks that may need assistance first.
And lastly, we try to provide a few examples of things that can help. I'll just give you one. If you just try to focus on avoiding losses from disasters, right? What that's going to do is it's going to suggest that you put all your money to protect the places where the assets are located. So we, for example, heard from a resilience expert in New York who said, "Look, if I wanted to avoid the most losses from climate impacts, I would put all my money to protect lower Manhattan because that's where the assets are. And that's where you would be able to protect the biggest amount of economic assets." However, that would obviously mean that you would take money out of protecting other parts of the city where there may be even more people or people who are a greater vulnerability.
And so we have to be able to go beyond simply using this metric of economic losses avoided, and try to figure out—how do we think in a bigger way that incorporates these equity concerns into sort of welfare losses avoided, not just economic losses. And there's various ways to do it and it's a work in progress, but we have to be able to look beyond simply protecting the assets. Because down that road lies only more inequality.
Kristin Hayes: And what struck me, actually, about both of your answers on these specific topics was, circling back to one of the tools that you mentioned, which is data, right—data in order to allow people like that engineer, who doesn't want to get sued, to actually make the decision beforehand, how to better equip that structure that he's building to be resilient in the face of climate change. I can imagine a situation where that engineer would say, "Well, how was I supposed to know what the consequences were going to be?" So giving that data to that kind of person, very important from sort of the legal and liability perspective, and certainly from a decisionmaker perspective, trying to do their best for vulnerable populations, understanding where those populations are, what their constraints are—equally important for building resilience in the face of these challenges.
So, I want to take a step back and talk about sort of something thematic throughout the book. And you actually opened the book with an anecdote set in Norfolk, Virginia, and a number of the points in the book are illustrated with examples from there. So why Norfolk, Alice? Why that particular venue and how did you go about connecting with people there?
Alice Hill: We chose Norfolk as an example throughout the book. It appears in every chapter because of its importance to our national security as well as its resemblance to the rest of the nation. In national security terms, it has about 30 military installations plus an additional large federal presence. It has the largest Naval base in the world. We build some of our nuclear submarines, some of our major ships there. It's a center of commercial activity as well, but it also suffers from great inequality. About 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and it's facing a crushing risk from sea level rise. The seas are rising very quickly there.
One of the things I didn't appreciate when I started in climate change is that sea level rise isn't uniform. It's not like when you step in a bathtub and the whole thing just rises. It varies according to location. Norfolk is in a location that's suffering a rapid rate of sea level rise, plus the land is subsiding, so they are seeing what we call sunny day flooding. That means flooding occurs just during a high tide event. One of my very first days in the White House, I was at a meeting with the Norfolk City Manager, and he had come, hat in hand, to beg for help. He said, "We have all these military assets there, but our town is not ready. 90 percent of the people who work on the bases, I did not realize this, live in the surrounding towns. So in order to have full military operational readiness, we need to be able to get those people on base."
But they're suffering from sunny day flooding. And the town had just recently, Norfolk, had just recently completed a light rail system called the tide. A little irony in that. But the city manager said, "Look, we didn't consider sea level rise when we built that light rail,” by the way, using a lot of federal money. “And because we didn't, it's at risk of flooding. And so that route that civilians would use and others to get on the base may not be available." So from a national security perspective as well as the long-term health of the town, they needed help.
And we began, at the White House, with a series of events with them, and formed a pilot so that the town could plan. During the course of that, we saw many typical reactions. We were doing a planning scenario about future sea level rise with approximately 200 people from Norfolk. And the first response was, "Well, let's just build a seawall," which is often the first response. You'll see that in Boston, you'll see that in New York, you'll see that in San Francisco. But a seawall in many locations, particularly one like Norfolk, will not be viable. There's just too much coastline there with the inlets and other things.
Then we … heard discussion of managed retreat. The Republican Mayor in Norfolk claims to be the first mayor, much less Republican mayor, who ever uttered in public the term managed retreat, meaning that people would have to move away from the coast, and then they have public housing that's already at great risk of flooding as decisions are made about relocating those folks. That reflects a decision that will be made in many areas of the country. We have about, well at least a half a million units, public housing units, in floodplains currently. So Norfolk and its challenges can be a guiding light, as they resolve their path forward, for many other communities. But it's also of critical interest to the nation because of these national security assets.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. So, Leo, a question back to you. How do you think about resilience in the context of the many actions that humans are going to have to take to combat the worst effects of climate change? So I think you guys have emphasized both in the book and on this podcast that this requires systemic change, and that's a tall order. So how do you think about resilience—is it on equal footing with mitigation activities? Is it more urgent? Should more money be put into resilience? And I'm asking a bit of a provocative question. I know I'm probably, I'm offering you what is probably a false dichotomy, but can you give our listeners any flavor of how you think about these, with the scarce resources with which we're operating now?
Leo Martinez-Diaz: In the book, we're pretty clear that there's no way around it. You have to do both. We have to be able to address the urgency of mitigation, of cutting greenhouse gas emissions, as well as building resilience today. The thing is though, they're very different problems, and they require very different kinds of solutions. Mitigation is ultimately a centralized, a more centralized problem. You can address, for example, the emissions from power plants through some type of centralized solution, be that a cap-and-trade system, a regulatory approach, a carbon tax, something like that.
And ultimately it's about making sure that we make those important cuts in emissions. That's the only thing that ultimately is going to help us stabilize the emissions, and ultimately temperature. With adaptation and resilience, you're dealing with local problems. Ultimately, they're going to be manifested in very unique ways depending on where you are. Just as Alice talked about in Norfolk, there's a very particular set of risks having to do with that geography in that particular community and how it's evolved historically. And like that, in every part of the country, in the world, the specific challenges of resilience are going to relate to the local situation, and the solutions will have to be local as well because they will involve choices, political choices and economic choices, by people who live there.
Many times difficult choices, and those will have to come ultimately from a dialogue with that community. And that community will have to make those decisions. And so the room for federal action in greenhouse gas emissions cutting is pretty clear. The role for federal action with resilience is more complicated. The federal government is one of many players. It can certainly support and provide assistance through financing and data and so on. But you'll need a very strong combination, collaboration between business, local government, mayors, states certainly as well as the federal government to be able to get solutions going.
Kristin Hayes: Great. Well, I know that we are coming to the end of our podcast time. Well, thank you both again, this has been a really very interesting, fascinating conversation. I want to close by asking you both what is at the top of your stack? So what would you recommend that our listeners might want to read, listen to, watch, something related to these issues that you would particularly recommend to our listeners? Alice?
Alice Hill: Well, I know what's on top of my stack.
Kristin Hayes: Okay, great.
Alice Hill: And that is to understand better a recent study that came out about sea level rise, done by Climate Central. And unfortunately it discovered that the data that we had been using to determine sea level rise was inaccurately measuring actually where the sea would end up and many, many more cities will be inundated far earlier than we expected. The reason why I think that is so important is it shows you how quickly this topic is evolving and our understanding of it, and the importance of recognizing that what we have assumed will be a steady state is no longer a steady state. And also, it could be far worse than what we initially imagined. So I enjoy learning what the latest analysis are because it greatly informs the decisions I believe the nation needs to make in the very near future.
Kristin Hayes: Leo, what about you?
Leo Martinez-Diaz: I'm a big fan of what's now known as Cli-Fi, Climate Fiction. And increasingly, I think we need to turn towards literature and to fiction to try to help us understand a future that we're having trouble visualizing because it is going to be so different. And some of those visions are apocalyptic and dystopian, and that's not particularly helpful, to be honest, as interesting and fascinating as it might be for a certain audience. But there are fiction books that can actually provide some insight into how our future politicians, perhaps even our future selves, might grapple with this question.
One that comes to mind, it's called Ultimatum. It's a fairly obscure novel, about 10 years old now. He talks about how a future president of the United States, in the 2030s, has to grapple with this question of managed retreat. And it's, I think, quite useful to imagine what that president's conversation with his advisors would be like, and what kinds of solutions would come from that. So I think we have to think very broadly here about how to imagine that future so that we can get a better handle on the present.
Kristin Hayes: Great. And maybe that can be your next book if you feel like taking a foray into a different kind of authorship. Well, thank you both again so much for joining us. I want to remind our listeners, the book is called Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption. I've been joined by the authors of that book, Alice Hill and Leonardo Leo Martinez-Diaz. Thank you again.
Leo Martinez-Diaz: Thank you.
Alice Hill: Thank you.
Kristin Hayes: You've been listening to Resources Radio. Thanks for tuning in. If you have a minute, we'd really appreciate you leaving us a rating or a comment on your podcast platform of choice. Also, feel free to send us your suggestions for future episodes. Resources Radio is a podcast from Resources for the Future. RFF is an independent nonprofit research institution in Washington, DC. Our mission is to improve environmental, energy, and natural resource decisions through impartial economic research and policy engagement. Learn more about us at rff.org. The views expressed on this podcast are solely those of the participants. They do not necessarily represent the views of Resources for the Future, which does not take institutional positions on public policies. Resources Radio is produced by Elizabeth Wason with music by Daniel Raimi. Join us next week for another episode.