Alice C. Hill, senior fellow for climate change policy at CFR, discusses risks, consequences, and responses associated with climate change as part of CFR’s State and Local Officials Conference Call series.
Learn more about CFR’s State and Local Officials Initiative.
FASKIANOS: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials Conference Call series. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
We’re delighted to have participants from forty-five states across the country for today’s discussion. As you may know, CFR is an independent and nonpartisan organization and think tank focusing on U.S. foreign policy. Through our State and Local Officials Initiative we are here to serve as a resource for information on how international issues affect the priorities and agendas of state and local governments. We can offer you access to CFR analysis on a wide range of policy topics, Foreign Affairs magazine, and briefings with CFR fellows.
We know that many of you on the call are working to address the risks of climate change and weighing options on how to respond. We’re delighted to have Alice Hill with us, who has a new book out with co-author Leonardo Martinez-Diaz called Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption. In this book they explore practical ways policymakers and engaged citizens can mitigate the effects of climate change.
We circulated Judge Hill’s full bio to you prior to the call, so I’m just going to give you a few highlights of her distinguished career. Judge Hill is CFR’s senior fellow for climate change policy. She most recently served as a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. She was special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council staff, where she led the development of national policy to build greater climate resilience. And earlier in her career she served as supervising judge on both the superior and municipal courts in Los Angeles and as chief of the white-collar crime prosecution unit in the Los Angeles U.S. attorney’s office.
Just to give you a little bit on the format, we will begin with opening remarks from Judge Hill that will be on the record, and then we will have a question-and answer portion that will be off the record so we can have a candid discussion, and we hope that you will also share your experiences and best practices with us.
So, Alice, thanks very much for being with us today. I thought you could start by giving us an overview of the risks and consequences associated with climate change and how you think state and local leaders can respond going forward.
HILL: Well, thank you so much, Irina, and thank you all in the audience for providing me this opportunity to speak with you today.
The United States is heating up, and I don’t just mean politically. Last year was the fourth-warmest year ever recorded in the United States. The World Meteorological Organization has determined that so far 2019 has proven exceptionally warm as well. This year will conclude the warmest decade the world has ever experienced in the nearly one hundred forty years since recordkeeping began.
According to the fourth National Climate Assessment—that’s a consensus report issued by the federal government and it’s mandated by Congress—rising temperatures have already brought to our country more extremes of flooding, temperatures, wildfire, drought, as well as rising seas. The climate assessment predicts that greater extremes are in our foreseeable future. Even if we are able to cut global emissions to zero tomorrow, the nation and the globe would continue to suffer climate impacts as a result of the past emissions that are already baked into the system. For example, we would see sea-level rise continue until the end of the century, bringing with it more flooding and more saltwater intrusion in our freshwater supplies.
So many of you I know are already on the frontlines of dealing with these damaging climate change impacts, be it wildfire seasons that have stretched longer and, in fact, burn more acreage than in the entire state of Delaware; or flooding that has lasted for months on end as occurred in Wisconsin; or sunny-day flooding like what we’re seeing in Virginia, South Carolina, and Florida; or extreme precipitation that’s just no longer measured in inches but now we use feet to describe what we’re experiencing; or extended drought, which we’ve seen in the West, the Northwest, the Southeast, and the Great Lakes region; or record-breaking heat as we’ve seen end-to-end in this country—Alaskans and Floridians have both been on the recipient end of record-breaking heat.
And as you well know, communities across the country are already struggling with how to deal with these impacts. Our infrastructure that withstood extremes for decades are failing. We have roads and bridges that are getting washed out, asphalt and train tracks are buckling in high temperatures, communication systems are going down, wastewater treatment plants are inundated, and power grids are collapsing. It’s time for us to prepare as a nation.
But as you know, these preparations for the most part have to take place primarily at the community level. We know that taking steps to prepare can save a great deal of money and potentially save lives. A recent study found that for every $1 spent to reduce risk, $6 is saved in damages. Those savings can increase even more depending on the particular resilience or preparation measures taken. For example, it’s estimated that increasing just the size of a drainage culvert could carry a cost-benefit ratio of over $200 for every $1 spent.
Despite the urgent need for resilience, the fourth National Climate Assessment recently concluded that the United States’ efforts to date to prepare for climate change impacts have simply not reached the necessary scale to avoid substantial damage to our economy, our environment, and to human health. Decisions made by state and local leaders could help change that result, as well as decisions within the private sector could make a significant impact in reducing the level of losses. Improving decision-making about the design, construction, and maintenance of structures and systems upon which our communities depend can really help us withstand these worsening climate impacts.
Obviously, this is a large task, and sometimes may—communities may simply feel at a loss about where to even begin. I recall hearing from one mayor from a small town in Alabama. Her community faces coastal erosion from sea-level rise and the prospect of more intense hurricanes. She lamented to me that—she said, I don’t have a big planning staff. I don’t have grant writers or really any resources. So how can I even know the size of the threats my town is facing or what I can do to protect the people who live there?
This mayor is not alone. Communities and businesses across the nation need help deciding how to best prepare. In my opinion, the federal government could and should be doing a lot more to help, including providing technical assistance, better access to data, better information, and most of all more money to prepare. But in the absence of greater federal action on climate resilience, there are four immediate steps that communities can take to reduce risks from climate impacts. Those are build infrastructure more resiliently, invest in early warning, develop heat action plans, and harden healthcare systems.
So let’s start with resilient infrastructure. Almost all of our existing infrastructure was designed and built to withstand the historical extremes that we’ve experienced; so, for example, the strongest windstorm or the highest storm surge or the hottest wildfires of the past. But as new extremes are fueled by climate change, those extremes are pummeling that infrastructure and it’s proving to be not up to the job in many instances. Some of it just inevitably fails. Given the long service life of infrastructure—fifty, eighty, or a hundred years or more—and the estimated low cost of adding resilience, at least initially as we build infrastructure anew, resilience seems like a very wise investment. Building the bridge to survive future flooding, not just the flooding that we’ve experienced in the past, could save that bridge from being washed out in a future storm.
It’s estimated that from 2015 to 2030, $90 trillion of new infrastructure investments will be made worldwide. That’s an amount equivalent to the world’s current existing stock of infrastructure. Virtually none of our existing model building codes in the United States account for the future risk from climate change, however, This means that those engaged currently in the designing, construction, and maintenance of American infrastructure must make a concerted effort to incorporate considerations of climate change. But doing so promises to reach—reap enormous long-term benefits. And without significant improvements in infrastructure resilience, annual economic losses from natural disasters—damage to urban infrastructure alone is estimated to increase 250—from 250 (billion dollars) to $300 billion annually now to 415 billion (dollars) by 2030. So we need to make sure that we build wisely going forward.
We also need to invest in early warning. It’s estimated that early warning systems not only save lives, but also assets worth at least ten times their cost. With just twenty-four hours’ warning, the damage from a heatwave or a gathering storm can be reduced by almost a third.
But the design of those systems must incorporate the latest research on how to increase the likelihood that people will respond to the warnings. Emergency managers tell us all the time that some people at risk simply aren’t persuaded by the warnings to evacuate even when they warn that the most dire of storms is approaching.
Government officials must also ensure that the warnings they issue actually reach those who need to receive them. During the deadly Camp Fire in Paradise, California, in which eighty-eight people died, emergency phone calls failed to reach more than a third of even the minority of residents who had signed up to receive them. As climate impacts worsen, early warning systems are an essential tool for reducing risk.
Another thing that communities can do to reduce risk is to develop heat action plans. Among the most certain impacts of climate change are greater heat extremes. Two summers ago, Montreal, Canada, suffered a heatwave. The city’s public health authority concluded after the fact that sixty-six people, most of them seniors or chronically ill, died as a result of the extreme heat. Montreal learned in that summer what other communities across the globe have also learned when they’ve seen their temperatures rise to new heights, namely that certain urban areas retain much more heat than others, and it is the most vulnerable and isolated who are at greatest risk of dying.
In the wake of its losses, Montreal got serious about dealing with heat. It has created a registry of vulnerable people so that officials can reach them quickly. Officials have also taken steps to keep people cool within the city, as well, by, for example, extending the hours of pools or air-conditioned buildings during heatwaves. They have also determined that they should plant more trees to reduce the so-called urban heat island effect caused by asphalt, unshaded development, and waste heat generated by energy usage, among other things.
All communities, really, should have robust action plans already in place. With climate change it’s not a question of if, but when a killer heatwave will strike. It shouldn’t take a deadly disaster to spur better preparedness for heat.
Finally, communities should pay close attention to their healthcare systems. Superstorm Sandy showed New York City just how important it is to have a healthcare system prepared for new extremes. That storm brought a fourteen-foot storm surge. The wall of water quickly overcame existing storm barriers in Lower Manhattan, causing a substation to explode and plunging the city that never sleeps into darkness. The storm barrier protections for Manhattan were designed to withstand a twelve-foot maximum storm surge. The city had not incorporated the almost foot of sea-level rise it had experienced since 1900 in its planning.
As a consequence of the flooding many systems failed, including healthcare. About sixty-five hundred patients had to be evacuated from hospitals and nursing-care facilities, some down darkened stairwells simply with handheld flashlights to illuminate the way. Auxiliary healthcare providers also struggled to provide services to patients that were dependent, for example, on electric-powered devices. More recently, as we’ve seen large swaths of California have to deal with preemptive shutoff of power to curtail the risk of wildfire, that state has discovered that healthcare delivery can be particularly hard hit when it—power is lacking.
Communities must seek to harden their healthcare systems so that they can withstand climate impacts while continuing to deliver health services. Fortunately, we have examples of healthcare facilities that have demonstrated that it can be done. For example, the Texas Medical Center, a two-square-mile medical district in Houston, Texas, decided to get itself prepared seriously after Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 caused widespread damage and basically halted all of the center’s operations. In the years after that storm, the center invested in flood prevention. It widened drainage culverts, installed watertight doors, raised electrical equipment, and created a flood alert system, among other things. And when Hurricane Harvey dumped about four feet of rain on Houston, Texas, in 2017, all of that center’s hospitals remained open except for one.
So climate change impacts we’ve already seen will upend life as we know it. It will change—they will change familiar weather patterns. They will stress systems and buildings to their breaking points. And they will cause coastal lands to fall into the sea and, frankly, burn unprecedented amounts of acreage. And they will also cost people their lives.
But as state and local officials, you have the opportunity to help your communities reduce their risk and better prepare, to be resilient. We of course must cut our emissions. That’s the best way to keep ourselves save from the impacts of climate change. But we also must make sure we take steps to protect against worsening extremes because we know that those extremes will continue even once we successfully cut emissions.
So I want to thank you for your time. I’m very much looking forward to our discussion and answering your questions. Thank you so much. I’ll turn this back to you, Irina.
FASKIANOS: Great. Well, thank you again, Alice Hill, for today’s call and to all of you for your questions and comments. We will be circling back on this issue because it is very important. As I said at the outset, Alice Hill has just joined the Council, and will be continuing to do a lot of work here on this topic.
So you can follow Alice Hill on Twitter at @Alice_C_Hill, so hope you will do so. And also go to our website, CFR.org, for additional information and resources on this topic, as well as others beyond climate change and resilience. Again, you know, if there are topics or resources that you need from us that you’re interested, please do email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We have stood up this initiative to be a resource for all of you, so we want to be here and help where we can.
Look forward to continuing the conversation with all of you. And, Alice, look forward to your next book.
HILL: Well, thank you. What a pleasure.