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Flurry of Climate Action Belies a Major Omission: There’s No Strategy

As Biden’s climate priorities gain momentum, the need for a national climate adaptation strategy is more important than ever.

The global campaign to address climate change benefits immensely from an important new champion—President Biden. The Biden administration has made it abundantly clear that setting and pursuing ambitious climate goals is a top priority. 

Already the United States has rejoined the Paris Agreement and Biden has revoked the Keystone XL pipeline permit and announced plans to replace the federal government’s fleet with electric vehicles. Forthcoming climate-focused legislation, including massive bills to address infrastructure and clean energy development, is expected along with new targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions. Before his 100th day in office, Biden's Leaders Summit on Climate brought together essential climate leaders, clarified global climate goals and served as a key milestone on the road to the UN Climate Change Conference in November.

And yet, this swell of attention, funding, and resources cannot distract from an elephant in the room: up to this point, the United States has not yet articulated an overarching vision and specific goals, particularly at the federal level, for achieving its broad ambitions. America needs a national climate adaptation strategy—and there is no time to waste. 

Many players, But No Strategy

Business leaders and governments at all levels across the United States are taking increased action to prepare for the risks posed by climate change. While there is momentum across sectors, a national climate adaptation strategy is critical. Without one, it will be as if the United States is trying to sprint in soft sand—there will be a big flurry of activity with a significant amount of wasted effort.

What would the ideal national strategy look like? There are a variety of elements that must be considered, however, three components are absolutely essential: the strategy must be science-based, it must address the greatest vulnerabilities, and it must be monitored and adapted over time. Deficiency in any of these categories topples the entire deck of cards. 

  • The national adaptation strategy needs to be science-based. The science community has a wealth of knowledge about the changing climate and how it can impact the things we care most about—this is especially important as leaders grapple with many uncertainties over the near and long term. Science helps us navigate a complex and evolving landscape and guide our investments to where they are needed most.
  • The national adaptation strategy needs to be responsive to the greatest vulnerabilities. The strategy needs to acknowledge the communities and sectors that are most exposed and sensitive to climate change. It should have an articulated vision of a nation resilient against the effects of climate change—a nation that can equitably prosper in a way that protects our people and natural resources for the long term. 
  • The national adaptation strategy needs to be closely monitored and adapted over time. The strategy should outline how progress can be measured and actions adjusted as we learn more about climate change, risk mitigation measures, and the socioeconomic impact on vulnerable communities. Clear evaluation criteria will need to be set, allowing for investments to be tracked openly and transparently. 

How Organizations Can Help

Developing and implementing a meaningful climate adaptation strategy will take time and tremendous effort. Unfortunately, climate change will not pause while we organize. There are a number of initiatives state and local organizations can implement in the meantime.

While the national climate adaptation strategy should encompass the entire nation’s fight against climate change, organizations should take active steps toward implementing this focus into their own strategic plans. Getting some quick wins is key, and organizations should pair low-regret measures with thoughtful, long-term plans to improve resilience in their own backyards. We developed a tool that can help fast track climate adaptation, particularly in situations where the risks are clear and the solutions are well established. 

Building relationships with like-minded partners should be another focus. A wide range of organizations already are implementing resilience investments, and many are willing to lend a hand or share examples of successes and failures. For example, the Global Resilient Cities Network connects large cities around the world, enabling them to collaborate and drive meaningful action, and C2ES has documented the meaningful work that many U.S. cities are undertaking to increase their resilience.

In addition to these partnerships, action is essential from the private sector. Federal agencies can support these efforts; for example, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Commodity Futures Trading Commission are planning to be more active regarding corporate climate risk analysis and disclosure. This is driven in part by the realization that climate change is already affecting companies. And, the major credit ratings agencies, including Moody’s, S&P, and Fitch, are now explicitly taking climate risk into consideration in their ratings. So, issuers of corporate and municipal debt should start now to consider how their assets and revenue streams may be viewed to be at risk from climate change in the eyes of ratings agencies, therefore affecting their borrowing rates.

Climate change has the potential to create between $2.5 trillion to $24.2 trillion in risks to manageable assets globally by the end of the century, according to a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit. To ensure continued growth, it’s important all companies assess physical risks, such as the potential for increased flooding, wildfire, and heatwave impacts, as well as transition risks, such as due to heavy reliance on energy from coal and oil. Companies can begin by following the practical advice available through the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures.

With all of this activity, organizations must remain nimble in order to adapt. There are a lot of factors at play—including changing policy and management environments, climate conditions, and technology innovations. In addition to a management approach, organizations should establish a good measurement plan to know when change is happening and the effectiveness of existing measures.

The power of vision

We are entering a critical window for meaningful climate action and planning; that urgency is reflected by the initiatives and priorities being laid out by the White House. As with any multifaceted endeavor, we will need a unifying strategy designed by leaders at the very top in order to meet any ambitious national climate objectives. 

However, as communities increasingly suffer from impacts related to climate change, we do not have the luxury to stand by and wait for orders. A hybrid of top-down and bottom-up approaches are equal parts effective and essential when it comes to climate change, meaning the stakeholders and beneficiaries of that strategy must act today. 

Peter Schultz is vice president for climate adaptation and resilience at the global consulting firm ICF.