Encouraging Climate Resilience with Really Big Carrots

Last week, the federal government has announced the results of a year-long, billion-dollar competition that has brought plans for disaster recovery into the 21st Century.
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Last week, the federal government has announced the results of a year-long, billion-dollar competition that has brought plans for disaster recovery into the 21st Century. Potentially lost in the buzz around the winners and their plans to recover from natural disaster might be the import of the competition itself: Could this innovative approach be used more widely to foster increased climate readiness and a greater return for every federal dollar invested? With the recent announcement that 2015 was the hottest year on record, preparing for climate change is more urgent than ever.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development's National Disaster Resilience Competition challenged eligible states, counties, and cities to come up with an innovative recovery plan that is attuned to the next natural disaster, not based on the last one. This is extremely important, given that so many natural disasters, like flooding and fires, are changing in pattern and extent as a result of climate change. HUD challenged applicants to integrate relevant science and strategic thinking to design plans for rebuilding that jump ahead of this shifting curve.

A great example is flood protection. Whether coastal flooding from an event such as Superstorm Sandy in New York or river flooding such as occurred in Minot, North Dakota, local governments are recognizing the need to establish more generous and effective buffer zones since flooding will be worsened by a warming climate.

My organization, The Trust for Public Land, has seen this firsthand in our work with the City of New York. There we're mapping areas where future flooding could threaten vulnerable infrastructure, such as subway entrances, and neighborhoods where residents will be least able to escape rising waters. New York's projected flood zones for 2080 are dramatically more extensive than those inundated by Superstorm Sandy. Mapping these areas allows the city get ahead of the curve by investing in flood buffers for future vulnerable neighborhoods.

These investments need to use next-generation designs to provide the maximum range of protection against different kinds of flood events. Hurricane Irene, for example, created very different flood patterns in New York than Superstorm Sandy, because Irene's flooding was more driven by rainfall and less by rising seas. Higher floodwalls or bigger coastal wetlands could help defend against the next Sandy but not the next Irene.

To address rainfall-driven events, New York (and other innovative cities, like Chicago) are experimenting with new designs for "green infrastructure" that would capture four times as much rainwater as rain gardens, green catchment areas, and other sponge-like features currently in use. This is the kind of "outside the box" approach that will prepare our cities for a changing climate.

The HUD competition challenged applicants to develop solutions to serve multiple beneficial functions--sometimes jokingly referred to by applicants as "flood berms with benefits." Such plans wisely combine protection from natural disaster with other public benefits, like creating new parkland along flood-prone rivers or adding protected bike lines to streets rebuilt after engineers place flood-protection features underground. This approach assures that the public gets the maximum benefit for every public dollar invested.

The more than sixty jurisdictions in the HUD competition were not on their own in developing these climate-ready, multiple-benefit disaster plans. A parallel technical assistance program from The Rockefeller Foundation provided applicants with access to national experts in climate resilience. I had the opportunity to serve as a technical advisor at these Rockefeller-sponsored Resilience Academies, and it was remarkable to see the applicants' shift in thinking over the nine-month process.

Each applicant was required to form a team of personnel from various agencies, and it was encouraging to see team members breaking through "silo walls" to discuss how they might combine expertise and resources across agencies. Applicants also discovered new resources they might not have been aware of--for example scientific and technical support from federal agencies, academic institutions, or nonprofits that could help them create climate-ready proposals.

Finally, the ongoing encouragement in the Resilience Academies for applicants to think about resilience holistically led proposals to evolve from a list of independent projects seeking funding to long-term systems for identifying and implementing solutions. While proposals listed specific projects, these were almost universally integrated into a longer-term strategy to build off these immediate investments.

So let's celebrate the winners of this historic competition--but let's also think about its larger implications. Federal grant programs allocate billions of dollars each year. What if more of them included at least some competitive component encouraging this kind of innovation? This strategy could help unlock the creativity that has always been a hallmark of our country. With so much innovation needed to keep up with the shifting challenge of climate change, an approach of this sort has never felt more urgent.

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