Provide free and equitable access to leading, peer-reviewed climate datasets to support analysis and data-driven planning for future climate risks.
Empower non-technical individuals, organizations, planners and decision-makers at state, local, tribal, and territorial governments to gain awareness of future climate conditions and to conduct climate risk-informed analyses to support decision-making and adaptation efforts.
Enable technical audiences to access to data and apply results to examine infrastructure design criteria, development plans, and other technical analyses that would benefit from the use of robust data for future climate conditions.
Contextualize how climate risks factor into equity considerations and barriers to community and infrastructure disaster resilience.
Provide near-nationwide assessments of the variables affecting future climate conditions and their potential impacts.
As Earth warms due to climate change, people living near the coasts not only face a higher risk of major hurricanes, but are also more likely to experience a subsequent heat wave while grappling with widespread power outages.
Princeton researchers investigated the risk of this compound hazard occurring in the future under a “business-as-usual” climate scenario, using Harris County, Texas, as an example. They estimated that the risk of undergoing at least one hurricane-blackout-heat wave lasting more than five days in a 20-year span would increase 23 times by the end of the century. But there is some good news: Strategically burying just 5% of power lines — specifically those near main distribution points — would almost halve the number of affected residents.
California wildfires that closed down portions of the Union Pacific and BNSF train networks for days. Severe flooding in the Midwest that damaged tracks. The extreme cold temperatures of Texas in February 2021 that caused considerable service disruptions on the freight rail system.
While the rail industry is accustomed to seasonal disruptions such as winter blizzards, the possibility of even more extreme weather events as a result of climate change takes disruption threats to a new level. Furthermore, these extreme weather interruptions come at a time when the height of the COVID-19 pandemic showed how vulnerable the supply chain can be.
“Extreme weather and heat and their aftereffects can have catastrophic impacts,” Karen Philbrick, executive director of San Jose State University’s Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI), told FreightWaves. “It threatens lives, destroys equipment, disrupts service and literally costs billions of dollars for response and recovery to the transport sector in the communities served. And so when I think about freight, for example, we’re already in such a crisis when it comes to the supply chain. If that were to further be disrupted because of different climate-related events then that just exasperates the problem further.”
With this in mind, Philbrick’s organization is seeking to address how the U.S. passenger and freight rail network can become climate resilient.
A multidisciplinary team of scientists will work with city officials and community groups to protect vulnerable residents and communities from extreme weather, flooding, urban heat islands and fossil fuel pollution.
This is our third annual report on funding trends in climate change mitigation philanthropy and covers seven years of funding data from 2015 to 2021.
In last year’s report, we estimated that of $750 billion in total philanthropic giving worldwide in 2020, roughly $6 billion to $10 billion was dedicated to climate change mitigation.
In 2021, we estimate total philanthropic giving by foundations and individuals grew to $810 billion, of which $7.5 billion to $12.5 billion was focused on climate change mitigation. In the last year, growth in philanthropic giving to climate change mitigation (a 25% increase) outpaced growth in overall philanthropic giving (an 8% increase). However, total giving to climate change mitigation from individuals and foundations still represents less than 2% of global philanthropic giving. Considering the ever-increasing urgency of the crisis, it is time for philanthropy to step up its ambition — and to move more funds faster to the places that need them most.
Climate Mapping for Resilience and Adaptation (CMRA) integrates information from across the federal government to help people consider their local exposure to climate-related hazards. View climate-related hazards in real time and use information on past, present, and future conditions to understand exposure in your area in order to plan and build more resilient community infrastructure.
People working in community organizations or for local, Tribal, state, or Federal governments can use the site to help them develop equitable climate resilience plans to protect people, property, and infrastructure. The site also points users to Federal grant funds for climate resilience projects, including those available through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
To reduce federal fiscal exposure to climate change, the federal government needs a cohesive, strategic approach, with strong leadership and the authority to manage risks.
The Big Picture
Between fiscal years 2015 and 2021, selected appropriations for disaster assistance totaled $315 billion. Disaster costs are projected to increase as certain extreme weather events like drought or extreme rainfall become more frequent and intense because of climate change, according to the U.S. Global Change Research Program and the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
We identified five areas in which government-wide action is needed to reduce federal fiscal exposure to climate change. These areas include the federal government’s roles as:
insurer of property and crops,
provider of disaster aid,
owner or operator of infrastructure,
leader of a strategic plan to coordinate federal efforts, and
provider of data and technical assistance to decision makers.
Federal fiscal exposure to climate change can be limited by enhancing climate resilience—that is, taking actions to reduce potential future losses by planning and preparing for potential climate hazards.
What GAO’s Work Shows
Congress and federal agencies can enhance climate resilience by pursuing opportunities related to the three guiding principles of GAO’s Disaster Resilience Framework—information, integration, and incentives.
GAO has made numerous recommendations related to these principles. The examples highlighted below have not been addressed as of September 2022.
Congress and federal agencies can help decision makers access climate information that is authoritative and understandable to identify current and future risks and the impact of risk-reduction strategies. A government-wide approach is needed to provide decision makers with the best available climate-related information.
The federal government faces increasing fiscal exposure from climate change, in part because of the complicated crosscutting nature of the issue. GAO’s work shows that opportunities exist for the federal government to develop an approach to manage climate change risks by building resilience into every federal program. In this regard, Congress has taken some actions, like creating programs for water, wastewater, transportation, and electric grid infrastructure resilience projects, in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.
Dallas was hit with nearly 15 inches of rain that turned roads into rivers and poured into homes starting Aug. 21, 2022. Neighborhoods in Jackson, Mississippi, were inundated a few days later as the Pearl River rose and a water treatment plant breakdown left the city without clean drinking water. In late July, extreme storms struck the mountains of eastern Kentucky, sending rivers sweeping through valley towns and triggering mudslides that killed more than three dozen people.
Floods are complex events, and they are about more than just heavy rain. Each community has its own unique geography and climate that can exacerbate flooding, so preparing to deal with future floods has to be tailored to the community.
I work with a center at the University of Michigan that helps communities turn climate knowledge into projects that can reduce the harm of future climate disasters. The recent floods provide case studies that can help cities everywhere manage the increasing risk.
Flood risks are rising
The first thing the recent floods tell us is that the climate is changing.
In the past, it might have made sense to consider a flood a rare and random event – communities could just build back. But the statistical distribution of weather events and natural disasters is shifting.
What might have been a 1-in-500-year event may become a 1-in-100-year event, on the way to becoming a 1-in-50-year event. Hurricane Harvey in 2017 delivered Houston’s third 500-year flood in the span of three years. Ellicott City, Maryland saw catastrophic floods in 2016 and 2018, and the town flooded again in June 2022.
Basic physics points to the rising risks ahead: Global greenhouse gas emissions are increasing global average temperatures. Warming leads to increasing precipitation and more intense downpours, and this increases flood potential.
Communities aren’t prepared
Recent floods are revealing vulnerabilities in how communities are designed and managed.
Pavement is a major contributor to urban flooding, because water cannot be absorbed and it runs off quickly. Similarly, after a forest fire or extended drought, water runs off of soil rather than soaking in. This can overwhelm drainage systems and pile up debris that can clog pipes and culverts.
Failures in maintaining infrastructure, such as levees and storm drains, are a common contributor to flooding.
If the infrastructure is well designed and maintained, flood damage can be greatly reduced. However, increasingly, researchers have found that the engineering specifications for drainage pipes and other infrastructure are no longer adequate for the increasing severity of storms and amounts of precipitation. This can lead to roads being washed out and communities being cut off.
By addressing these issues now, communities can anticipate and avoid damage rather than only reacting when it’s too late.
Four lessons from case studies
The many effects associated with flooding show why a holistic approach to planning for climate change is necessary, and what communities can learn from one another. For example, case studies show that:
It is difficult for an individual or a community to take on even the technical aspects of flood preparation alone – there is too much interconnectedness. Protective measures like levees or channels might protect one neighborhood but worsen the flood risk downstream. Planners should identify the appropriate scale, such as the entire drainage basin of a creek or river, and form important relationships early in the planning process.
In the communities that my colleagues and I have worked with through the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessment center, we have found an increasing awareness of floods and, more generally, the challenges of a warming climate.
Many communities have some capacity to deal with weather-related hazards, but they realize that past practices will not be adequate in the future.
We have found that by focusing on vulnerabilities, discussions about future climate risk become more real. Communities start to recognize the interconnectedness of zoning, storm drains and parks, for example, and the value of clearing of debris from stream beds. They also see the importance of engaging regional stakeholders to avoid fragmented and ineffective adaptation responses.
We use scenario planning to help officials examine several plausible climate futures as they develop strategies to deal with specific management challenges. Examining case studies and past floods provides a way to consider future flooding events from an experience base of known community vulnerabilities.
In most exercises I have participated in, local officials’ instinct is to protect property and persist without changing where people live. However, in many cases, that might only buy time before people will have little option but to move. Scenario planning can bring focus to these difficult choices and help individuals and communities gain control over the effects of climate change.
This article was updated Aug. 26, 2022, with flooding in Mississippi.