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Climate Action for Resilient, Livable, and Equitable Communities

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Climate Action for Resilient, Livable, and Equitable Communities

Skyline view of Salt Lake City, Utah with snow-covered Wasatch Mountains in the background.
Intergovernmental collaboration has been essential for consensus building as the Salt Lake City region responds to changes in snow pack melt.

Climate change is increasing the incidence of severe weather, hastening changes such as rising sea levels and temperatures that threaten life and property, and deepening socioeconomic divides through its disproportionate negative effects on low-income households. Lower-income households are more likely to live in vulnerable areas and have the fewest resources to evade, mitigate the risks of, or recover from natural disasters and other shocks. “[T]hose who have the least stand to lose the most when the next storm comes through,” said White House Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan, speaking on July 9 at “Building Climate Resilience for Equitable Communities: City, Federal, and Tribal Perspectives,” an event sponsored by the Center for American Progress and the National League of Cities. Donovan called climate action — the measures communities take to adapt to and mitigate threats posed by climate change —“the defining environmental challenge of our time,” and is vitally necessary on those grounds alone. But, he added, if we make equity a priority, climate action can also combat inequality by creating economic opportunities for all.

The Obama administration has focused on empowering communities to respond to climate change and enhance their ability to quickly bounce back from a disaster or economic shock. Harriet Tregoning, principal deputy assistant secretary of HUD’s Office of Community Planning and Development, said that communities desire a return to normalcy, often rebuilding their communities exactly the way they were. Increasingly, however, communities are looking forward, either building back better after a disaster or investing in resilience before a disaster. Such investments can create job opportunities, incorporate other desirable goals such as livability, and save money over the long term. Donovan announced a series of new federal actions that build on these goals:

  • Resilience AmeriCorps. In partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation and Cities of Service, the Corporation for National and Community Service, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) have launched a 12-site pilot program in which AmeriCorps VISTA members will help communities develop resilience plans, organize volunteer networks, and conduct outreach, making a special effort to engage low-income communities.

  • National Disaster Resilience Competition technical assistance funding. The Rockefeller Foundation has pledged $3.2 million in additional support for the 40 applicants entering the second phase of the competition for a total of nearly $1 billion in Community Development Block Grant Disaster Recovery funds.

  • Tribal climate change adaptation and planning. The U.S. Department of the Interior has awarded $11.8 million to tribes and tribally chartered organizations for training and capacity building that addresses climate change.

  • Some threats and corresponding adaptations are specific to particular areas; Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Chairwoman Karen Diver spoke of the need to manage wetlands and preserve food security by protecting traditional food sources in Minnesota, and the Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker said that his region focused on water quality and quantity in light of reductions in snow pack melt. Several guiding principles, however, apply to communities across the country. Prominent among these shared principles are effective communication and collaboration across jurisdictions and levels of government. Becker said that partnerships have been critical for building consensus on decisions of generational as well as regional impact. Tregoning pointed out that federal grant programs now expect collaboration and cooperation among applicants, noting that regional entities are well positioned both to respond to disasters and to seize opportunities for resilience. On communication, Diver said that social media has been an important tool for identifying needs and connecting people with temporary housing and other aid, and Becker added that communities can tap into existing social networks such as churches to ease postdisaster response and recovery. Mustafa Santiago Ali, senior advisor to the administrator for environmental justice at EPA, stressed that with both collaboration and communication, policymakers must take care to ensure inclusivity and equity.

    Communities nationwide are discovering that improving their resilience can also present economic opportunities, including for low-income households. In Minnesota, Diver said that an initiative to put gutters on every home became a source of jobs, and Tregoning highlighted the “clean energy economy” as an area for job growth and opportunity. She noted that the White House had recently announced a goal of producing 300 megawatts of renewable energy for federally subsidized housing by 2020. The U.S. Department of Education, DOE, and HUD have together launched STEM, Energy, and Economic Development (SEED), a five-site pilot program that trains public housing residents for jobs in the solar industry. Resilience investments also offer long-term fiscal benefits. Donovan cited research estimating that every dollar spent on mitigation saves $4 in future costs.

    “What I see us doing around climate change are exactly the same things that create livable communities,” said Becker. This synergy creates tremendous opportunity, as Tregoning put it, “to spend a dollar and get many dollars’ worth of benefit,” particularly if jurisdictions and levels of government are collaborating. With inclusive community engagement and a concerted effort to prioritize social equity, climate action can not only improve climate and disaster resilience but also improve economic resilience, foster livability, and combat economic inequality.