Climate Change Is Not Just for Scientists Anymore: Why Cities Need to Take the Lead in Mitigating Climate Risk
Climate change has been in the news an awful lot lately…and it is about time! In 2020, the U.S. saw 22 separate weather and climate disasters—more than double the average—that each cost more than $1 billion in damages, shattering the previous annual record of 16 such disasters.
These costs far exceed the ability of insurance companies, homeowners, businesses, and communities to pay. Which means the federal government covers the bulk of the costs, albeit exceeding even FEMA’s financial capacity. And that comes from taxpayers.
Arguments for and against a federal fund to address national impacts go both ways: the disasters are so expensive that cities and states couldn’t possibly cover them without pulling funds from their remaining budgets, but disasters are often limited to certain portions of the country, which means that the other regions (and their taxpayers) don’t want to cover the costs.
Things are starting to change, however, with the scope of climate disasters reaching from coast to coast, from forest fires in the west, derechos in the center of the country, and hurricanes in the south and east.
At the same time then, costs will only go up.
So what do we do?
The most obvious-sounding step is to stop climate change. The thing is, it’s far easier said than done, and not only do we have to stop it, we have to reverse it. Because it’s already here and it’s happening.
The next step is to build resilience into our communities.
A typical rule of thumb for maintaining anything is that for every $1 you spend in maintenance, you save $4 in disaster avoidance.
So let’s apply that to our current climate cost crisis. Last year, we spent $95 billion in disaster recovery efforts from 22 events nationwide.
Most simply, then, if we spend $25 billion to begin addressing these issues in advance, we have the potential to save our country—and our taxpayers—$100 billion annually. In doing so, we also reduce economic damages from closed businesses and lost jobs, mental health impacts, school closures, and myriad other impacts that are felt locally.
And because these impacts are felt at home, in our communities, then it makes sense for our cities to start taking the steps necessary to build resiliency into their towns. Cities large and small have developed climate action plans. Many of them focus on mitigating carbon emissions; many more of them need to add steps to build resilience. In the west, focusing on droughts and wildfires. On the east coast, focusing on hurricanes and flooding.
Because when we take a step back, we begin to see that everything is connected: national policy leads to funding (or not) of resilience programs and disaster recovery, and climate change impacts everything from agriculture and the energy grid, to human health, transportation, water, education, finance, infrastructure, and social justice.
While not everyone will agree, public attitudes related to climate risk are beginning to shift toward sustainability. In the U.S., 67% of adults say the federal government is not doing enough to reduce the effects of climate change. With a new administration, I expect these numbers to increase, and the availability of funding to address risk to increase alongside it. Which is exciting! Because we can take steps nationally, regionally, and locally to mitigate impacts of natural disasters while creating jobs and saving taxpayers money.
I look forward to a year (or even a decade!) in which we take steps together to move this forward, while of course taking the steps necessary to reduce carbon emissions while we’re at it. Because together we can absolutely build thriving communities in even the wildest of climates. We just need to start locally, sustainably, and with resilience in mind.