Adapting to a Changing Climate
Alice C. Hill, senior fellow for energy and the environment at CFR, and Leslie Chapman-Henderson, president and CEO of the nonprofit Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH), discuss factoring the risks from changing climate conditions into policy planning and building codes that safeguard homes against natural disasters.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials Webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. We’re delighted to have participants from forty-one U.S. states and territories to talk about “Adapting to a Changing Climate.”
So we appreciate your being with us for today’s discussion, which is on the record. CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, publisher, and educational institution focusing on U.S. foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. And, as always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy. Through our State and Local Officials Initiative, CFR serves as a resource on international issues affecting the priorities and agendas of state and local governments by providing analysis on a wide range of policy topics.
So we’re pleased to have Leslie Chapman-Henderson and Alice Hill with us today.
Leslie Chapman-Henderson is the president and CEO of the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, the country’s leading advocacy organization for strengthening homes from natural disasters. She recently developed and launched the award-winning National Hurricane Resilience Initiative, #hurricanestrong, in conjunction with the Federal Emergency Management Association, FEMA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the Weather Channel. She serves as a co-chair for the My Safe Florida Home Advisory Council, enacted by the Florida state legislature, and as a board trustee of Florida International University’s Hurricane Research Center, and as the Florida gubernatorial appointee to the FCC’s Warning Alert and Response Committee.
Alice Hill is the David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment here at CFR. Previously, she served as special assistant and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council staff under President Obama and as senior counselor to the secretary of homeland security, where she developed the department’s first-ever climate adaptation plan. Judge Hill is the author of the book The Fight for Climate After COVID-19. And she is also the co-author of the book, Building a Resilient Tomorrow.
So thank you both for being with us today.
Alice, I’d like to begin with you, to have you set the stage by talking about the primary concerns facing U.S. cities and states today vis-à-vis climate change, and what kind of—I can’t speak today—strategies and policies that you found to be most efficient and effective for dealing with them.
HILL: Well, thank you so much for having me. It’s really an honor and a pleasure to be able to speak with everyone about this very important challenge, which has manifested itself before our eyes this year. Really, Americans can look out their windows and see climate change in action. For many years, we thought that climate change was a matter for the distant future. Most of our efforts focused on the cutting of emissions, the cutting of that blanket—accumulation of emissions around the globe.
That blanket that essentially trapped heat, just as it did when your mom threw a blanket on you when you were asleep at night. And has heated up global temperatures to about above 1.1 degrees Celsius, as a global average. And that’s, the scientists tell us unequivocally, as a result of human activity, the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, forming that blanket, from the industrial times. Pre-industrial times, it was about 280 parts per million. Now at Mauna Loa observatory, an observatory in Hawaii that has been measuring the accumulation of carbon since 1958, unfortunately, this May there was the highest-ever average reported number, 421 parts per million.
And so why do we care about that? Because it brings these devastating impacts that communities across the United States have been experiencing. Whether it’s in the western states with extended drought, the worst drought in 1,200 years, wildfire threats. We’re seeing bigger, hotter wildfires form their own weather, firenadoes, those in the west I’m sure have heard of. Of course, flooding, very dramatic examples of that in terms of Kentucky this year. And just seeing what emergency managers call rain bombs—so much rain falling at once that none of our cities are ready to absorb that kind of rainfall. And we see flooding.
And then, of course, we have seen extreme heat events. Those are the most certain of events, and the most—events most closely tied to climate. We have a whole new area of science called attribution science. And that traces the fingerprints of climate change on various events. And that terrible heat wave we had not so long ago in the Pacific Northwest—heat, of course, is a big killer—scientists told us it wouldn’t have happened for that length without climate change. So we’re seeing all these dramatic effects on the ground.
And the fundamental challenge for all of us is that the environment that we have enjoyed for the last eight thousand, ten thousand years—that time in which human civilization flourished, that climate was a stable climate. And it’s no longer stable. We’re seeing the acceleration of the climate impacts not quite but almost in real-time. And in the decades going forward, we will see more of these impacts. So although we all—many of us assume, oh, that’s the worst it could be. Ian’s the worst it could be. That’s just not the case. We will see bigger storms. We don’t know the frequency, but we’ll see bigger storms going forward.
And the question is then are we prepared? And we have built an environment—our building codes reflect this, our land use choices reflect this, our dependence, our assumptions about what ecosystems we can rely on assume this—assume a stable climate. They assume that the climate of the future will resemble the past. And that’s simply no longer true. The climate of the future will be very different from the past. So if we continue to build as we’ve built in the past and live as we’ve lived in the past, we’re at great risk.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen—in addition to the changing climate—we’ve seen many more people moving into areas at risk. That includes along our coasts. We all like to live near water. It also includes that wildland-urban interface, that area that’s near or in wildlands. And those areas are also more prone to fire. So what we’re discovering is that we have many people who are trapped. Either they’re trapped because they’re in an area of land that’s too soggy or it will burn, or they’re trapped financially. They cannot get out. They can’t pay the insurance premiums in California or in our coastal states. Or their community is trapped. And it’s trapped in a downward spiral as taxes go down, as kids can’t get to school, as people can’t get to work. And there’s a downward spiral for everyone involved.
So the question for all of us is, what are we going to do about this? And those changes will primarily, in the United States, occur at the state and local, tribal, territorial, level of government. The federal government can give incentives, as it has very much so in the recent Inflation Reduction Act. But it really doesn’t make the choices on the ground as to how and where we build. And that’s why it’s so important that state, local, tribal, territorial governments look closely at their risk, and figure out what’s ahead, and then how do we respond appropriately to avoid having people be trapped and avoid having people die as a result of these accelerating climate impacts.
So I’m looking forward to the discussion. It’s such a pleasure to join you.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, Alice.
And, Leslie, let’s go to you. Obviously, with your experience with hurricanes—we just saw Hurricane Ian hit Florida and up the coast so hard. Can you talk about the steps local governments and consumers can take to protect against these kinds of disasters and any trends or shifts you’re seeing in building practices and codes?
CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: Sure. Thanks, Irina. Great to be here to talk about one of our favorite topics, which is building codes. And our organization has been working and talking and advocating and, you know, looking at this building code question for twenty-four years. We just marked the thirty-year anniversary of Hurricane Andrew, when this conversation really began in earnest after 1992. And across the disaster safety and resilience movement, which is very closely allied with the climate resilience movement because we have so much in common, our chief solution being that the foremost thing, which is building codes, we look back over thirty years and all the progress, the technology, the communication advances, emergency management process advances, systems, and everything else we’ve done, the great unfinished business of our movement is building codes.
So approximately three years ago, our very diverse partnership of public, private and nonprofit partners came together under the leadership of DHS and FEMA as well as the private insurance industry. And we said: OK. It’s time to get serious about building codes because you can’t skip over it and have anything turn out better. And with the compounding challenges that Alice so beautifully just laid out, we really have to take a look at how we build, including where we build, and how we’re going to build with disaster safety and resilience in mind, as well as climate.
So one of the things—you know, our role in particular is to put out information and raise awareness and create outreach initiatives because, as we know, behavior change and social change must enjoy the support of the public, because the resources are—you know, we’re always competing for resources. And things like building codes do require resources. So first question we talk about with building codes is why codes? And just to restate some of the obvious—and we’re going to provide some of the great proof points to you as a follow-up for this discussion—there’s tremendous—and I’m going to talk last about probably the most important reason.
But first and foremost, thirty years ago we didn’t have the economic proof that we have today. We didn’t have the long-term studies. We didn’t have the NIBS, National Institute for Building Science, benefit-cost ratio that proves that for every dollar spent on building codes you have an $11 return. We didn’t have the FEMA losses avoided study that says in California alone, just for fire and flood, over the next twenty years they’ll see a savings of $132 billion. These studies looked at buildings, disasters, actual buildings and models. And so we have all the economic proof of what we’ve known really intuitively all along, is that these building codes save money, OK?
We also know, and what we’ve long talked about, is there’s a very strong case for building codes from a social equity standpoint. Why should the basic protections and the innovations that go into the new versions of the model code not be provided to every homeowner? Why should those safety and innovation upgrades that keep the roof on in high wind, keep the fire from igniting in a wildfire zone—why should those be upgrades? Shouldn’t the baseline construction of a home include what we know to keep that home intact? So building codes are very, very important to ensure that all homes, especially affordable homes, are built the right way.
Because no one can—no one is in a position to withstand the—you know, throes and results of disaster, but especially those in the—you know, in the realm of affordable housing. They have the most to lose and they have the hardest time recovering. And sometimes they never recover. And so we know that that’s another really strong case for building codes.
There’s also universal benefits to codes that go beyond our focus on disaster, but just on an everyday blue sky basis—energy efficiency, ordinary fire safety. You know, all the things—plumbing and mechanical, you know, ways that more and more we have to look at things like water. You want all those extras that come with the new versions of the codes that are put forth every three years. But, as I said before, the most important reason for building codes, what we dial into and what we just saw again in Hurricane Ian, is basic efficacy. Building codes work.
They prevent damage. They save lives. They prevent injuries. And they prevent damage. We saw—so I want to walk about Ian, because we have been very engaged in Ian, and our partners have been on the ground as early as the day after Ian. And this spans our NSF-funded teams through STEER and our academic partners as well as private sector and government engineers on the ground. One team recently just coming out of the field yesterday.
I told the news, the media, before Ian struck that what I expected we would see is that the damage to the homes would track very closely with the age of the home, ergo the use of, you know, which building code was used. And of course, I wanted to make sure that I knew what I was—you know, that I validated what I predicted. And I talked with the NSF-funded team first. And they said—they described the difference between building performance of older, pre-Andrew building code-era homes and post-Andrew code homes as a bright red line. And this is true for the water and the surge as well as for the high wind. Homes that are elevated and constructive with higher wind standards, they fared better. In fact, many of them survived even on Sanibel Island.
So building codes work. And we know they work. And for disasters—for the benefit of codes today and for climate resilience tomorrow, there’s a tremendous, you know, logical case for codes. But there are some practical challenges with codes that come up. And I want to address a couple of those things to you, because we do have some new resources, as well as some new tools, and then after that we can talk about, you know, some of—you know, dig into some of those issues.
So when we started really—you know, when we embraced this three years ago and said, OK, it’s time once and for all, we did a two-year study, qualitative and quantitative study, to try to check in with the public and say: Where is the public on building codes? And I bet you can guess. Nowhere at all. The public is not concerned about building codes, to a point, because they assumed that building codes were already handled. They likened building safety to car safety, and they are highly confident that their local, and state, and federal leadership are taking care of them. In our work, when we tested that presumption, it was eight out of ten that said, no, no, I’m not worried about codes at all because no one would let you build me a home if it weren’t just right.
So then we introduced the notion that what would you say and how would you feel if you found out either, A, that you didn’t have a code at all, or that your code didn’t have the hazard-resistant provisions necessary to protect you from something like a flood, or a high wind event, or a wildfire? Everything changed at that point, with both the attention level of those that we worked within the project as well as their expectations of their leadership.
So I pulled a couple of the statements from the research because I think they’re very important. As we probe through the question and the attitude level shifted and people became very engaged with codes. We realized the breadth of our challenge included education of codes, so that they’re not confused with, you know, some of the other historic preservation or zoning or different things. Because codes address the building itself, not where it’s placed. Although those questions are important too, for everything in this realm.
One of the things that people told us is we asked them who they—you know, who they were counting on the most. And 90 percent responded their local officials and their state officials to get the building codes in place to protect them. And then we talked at length about the top two groups they were counting on. And it’s logical, they were counting on their builders and their leaders. So the research guided us to an important piece, which is codes are kind of a mystery and nobody even knows what code they have.
So out of that work, we decided that one of our first orders of business was to create transparency on the status of codes. Because how do we fix a problem when we don’t even know what our starting point is? So we have two wonderful resources out there now for expert audiences. We have the BCAT portal, the Build Code Adoption Tracker, manned by FEMA and quarterly updates by engineering review of hazard-resistant provisions in codes.
And then we have the inspect to protect.org transparency solution that we host, with the continuously updated and improved dataset that is consumer-facing, where you can go online to get a red, yellow, green analysis of the building codes where you live. You can get historic codes. And you can also find out, oh, OK, my house was built in 1998. It’s going to give you some recommendations based on your hazards of things you can do to improve the existing home you have.
So we have different solutions. We have transparency emerging. What else do we need to enact codes? Well, obviously we need resources. There are now—there’s a newer program through FEMA that followed the DRRA enactment called BRIC. There are building code set-asides. It’s very new. And so it hasn’t had time to really sink in yet, but there are resources there for communities that want to adopt and administer codes. There are also different kinds of—when you have a disaster, you get your other kinds of federal dollars that even with COVID after disaster, or HMGP, dollars can be used for building codes. So there’s increasing flexibility there, recognition that communities that want codes and don’t have them need the resources to support the training and everything else that goes with them.
So those are some of the solutions for codes. I wanted to talk about before we go to Q&A is just talking about some of the typical concerns. The chief concern that you will always hear about codes is that they’re nice to have, but they make the house or the building too expensive. Back to the FEMA multi-year study, the cost of code compliance is 1-2 percent. And that is across a very significant dataset. It is something that pays for itself over time in durability, not to mention the inevitable disaster that comes along.
Another concern we’ve heard before is that small communities can’t adopt codes. But I really, places like Fayetteville, Texas, population 258. They have the building codes, the 2018 models. They use permitting fees to pay for up to about half of the fees necessary to have them. But they do so successfully. Hampshire, West Virginia, population 24,000, they outsource their codes to an engineering firm—or their enforcement—to a firm in Virginia. And there are places in Tennessee and other states where they get together regionally to do mutual aid to adopt and enforce and administer the codes.
So codes work. They didn’t used to be cool, but I will tell you they’re cool today because everyone’s seeing in very vivid sense the success just avoiding the disruption—first of all, the life safety and the prevention of injuries—but the idea that, you know, in Hurricane Charley we have many case studies over the year where we go in and look at the relative building performance up or down of homes based on codes. And the idea that, you know, even if you have to evacuate, if you’re able to come back and resume your life, and your community is still intact with its tax base and its potential for growth and quality of life, codes are key to making that happen. So those are my comments on code. And I look forward to the discussion.
FASKIANOS: Thank you very much to both of you.
So now we want to go to all of you for your questions, comments. You can share what you are doing in your communities. You can either raise your hand on your iPad or your desktop, and when I call on you accept the unmute prompt and state your name and affiliation. Or you can write your question in the Q&A box. I already see we have several there.
So I’m going to start first there with Mike Hays. It’s a two-part question. From a policy standpoint, do you think states and cities should continue to take the lead on greenhouse gas reductions and other measures, or should the federal government continue taking steps such as the Inflation Reduction Act? It’s probably both, but with the politics the way they are which is the fastest? And two, should FEMA and the federal government start telling people where they cannot rebuild? So, Alice, do you want to start with that?
HILL: Sure. Very important questions. The first question about the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, this is an all-in project. We need all states, all governments, looking at how greenhouse gases can be reduced. Unfortunately, we are seeing these events accelerate. And the scientists on a consensus basis tell us, in our International Panel on Climate Change reports, that every tenth of a degree of increase in heating carries much larger impacts.
So all of us need to have the goal of reducing carbon emissions. And I think governments can play at the local level, just as the federal government is with the Inflation Reduction Act, giving a lot of carrots to drive greater emissions. But that act won’t take us all the way. It will take us to about 40 percent reduction in our greenhouse gas emissions. But we’re shooting for a 50 percent. And so we need to have private industry and others step up as well to contribute to this effort.
And then, as to the issue about FEMA and where people live, you know, we have a challenge here. We’ve all assumed that the climate will be stable. It’s no longer stable. And we’re discovering that some land that we thought was at one time safe to build on is no longer safe. I think that the federal government needs to provide clear assistance on vulnerability analysis that includes flood maps that are accurate. And if it doesn’t provide them, at least provide the source that others should go to.
There are philanthropic sources now where you can type in your address, First Street Foundation, and you can find your risk for your property. But we need that level for communities to understand, hey, this is the kind of heat events you’ll see—flood, drought. We know that these events come in on a very localized way. But we need to share that information across the board. And to the extent we don’t have it, it needs to be created to help planning on the local level.
And I think the federal government also needs to stop subsidizing new development in areas that we know will flood or burn. I do not see the federal interest. It’s not to stop development there, but I do not see the federal interest for taxpayer dollars to subsidize new development in areas at risk. And this is a pattern that the federal government has turned to in the past. We have these highly vulnerable barrier islands that are off our Atlantic Coast. They’re constantly changing and shifting.
And in the ’60s the federal government said: You know, maybe we shouldn’t be pouring money into those barrier islands, because they’re so vulnerable. So we’re going to say, hey, we’re not going to stop your development, but you won’t get federal resources to help you out. And I think that needs to be a clear signal to local governments that they can’t count on the federal government to bail them out of choices that aren’t wise going forward.
We have a lot of built stuff already in these areas at risk. And the federal government needs to identify the risk and then figure out different programs to help people move away from risk. And then as we face rebuild, frank discussions about what the risks are going forward, and whether the federal government, for example, would continue to subsidize long-term flood insurance for properties that are therefore repeatedly flooding. Very hard discussions, but if we don’t have those discussions we will find, as we have, that more people have moved into coastal regions than out in recent years.
And more people—it’s the fastest-growing form of development—have moved into the wildland-urban interface, which is prone to burning, than out. We need to have frank discussions about accumulating people there, because there’s risks to health and safety, and then there’s huge economic risks just mounting as we’re placing more people in regions that are hazardous at this point. So I think it’s a very good discussion. A very difficult discussion to have. And a good place to start is new development, in my opinion.
FASKIANOS: And I should have said that Mike Hays is the constituent services advisor for Pennsylvania Representative Joseph Ciresi.
Leslie, do you have anything to add to that? Or shall I continue on?
CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: No, I just agree. I think this is a very—I think it will be a very big conversation out of southwest Florida as well, to be thoughtful about what is rebuild and where, and what kind of solutions can be put in place, just like we saw after Sandy.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
I’m going to take a spoken question from Washington Senator Jesse Salomon. If you can unmute yourself.
Q: There we go. Thanks. And, Alice, you kind of just touched on it so I lowered my hand but still got called on. So I will just go ahead and say that I agree with your position.
So here in Seattle, rain city USA, rain is fifty days later. It’s still summer-like conditions. The rivers are extremely low. We have wildfires. And we are living in a campfire air environment—unhealthy for all groups. This has been something that showed up about four years ago and is now a regular part of our summer. Tends to show up August/September. So it’s kind of scary. And it’s for hundreds and hundreds of miles, where you just can’t get away from it. So I just want people to know that that’s what we’re experiencing here, and that’s clearly climate change.
And so we have a growth management act where we do regulate, to some degree, what I think is irresponsible building, wildland, wildfire interface. We have fires that are burning out of control right now. So we would—you know, I think there are other state governments unrelated to the degree of danger that don’t have as much oversight about where building occurs. And I find that frustrating. And so I’m wondering if private insurance is backing away from wild—you know, building in wildfire interface areas, not—as well as flood-prone areas. And any more thoughts on that? And thank you.
FASKIANOS: Alice, do you want to start?
HILL: Oh, I can—sure, I can jump in. All very important points. I do think insurance will be a barometer of how we’re doing. Not so much in the flood insurance world, because the flood insurance is a federal program. And that program is trying to get to what we call actuarially sound premiums so that—let’s say you live right next to a river, and it’s in a flood plain, and we know, everybody knows, it’s going to flood. Theoretically, if it were private insurance, you would pay—you would be offered a very high premium, if you could get insurance. That hasn’t been how we’ve done it with our National Flood Insurance Program.
And, by the way, that program was born, again, in the ’60s. Private—we had a bunch of flood events. And private insurers said: We don’t like this risk. This is too risky. We’re going to move out of the private flood insurance for residential—we’re just not going to offer that kind of insurance. And so the federal government stepped in. Unfortunately, as the political process, there were some recommended guardrails for that program, and they weren’t put in place, perhaps for political reasons, that you wouldn’t reinsure repeat flooders. Private insurance won’t do that for you, or the premium is out the roof, and that you would charge actuarially sound rates. That really hasn’t happened.
FEMA, who runs the flood insurance program, is driving towards that. But it’s very politically sensitive to actually charge people the cost of what insurance is needed, because the risk is so high. So we have that program for insurance. And then we have private insurance for home property insurance. And that would be, for example, in Florida, or would be for wind and some other kinds of damages to your property. And then in California, we have property insurance, which includes wildfire insurance.
I chair a working group for the California Department of Insurance. We issued a report about things that we can do to help preserve the private insurance market, but we have seen insurers say even though California is the world’s sixth-largest insurance market—so there’s a lot of incentive for companies to want to remain there—hmm, this wildfire is getting too risky. In fact, I think in the wildfires of 2017 and 2018, twenty years of profits were wiped out for property insurers in California, those fires were so big.
So we’ve seen pressure on premiums. We’ve seen the California Department of Insurance tell private insurers: You know what? You’re trying to drop people or non-renew people that live in homes that are near areas that are recently burned. We’re not going to let you do that. You have to stay—you have to continue to offer them for another year. That’s not sustainable in the long run. And this will be a challenge for California, how does it get affordable wildfire insurance?
We’re seeing the same thing play out in Florida, Texas, Louisiana. What we’re seeing is that the premiums are going up. In Louisiana they’ve gone up 63 percent. And there are some backup government programs, the citizens programs, often called. Again, I think those were created—started in the ’60s, but some—a response when it gets too expensive there has to be a backup insurer you can’t—simply can’t get insurance because your property is deemed too risky by private insurers, and there’s a backup government-subsidized insurance. But in Florida, we’ve seen exponential growth in the number of people who have to resort to that plan.
So this is a brewing crisis. I will say that the Department of Treasury just yesterday said they’re issuing questions to property insurers to try to get to the bottom of how big this risk is and what kind of preparations they’re making. But for those of you in state, local, tribal, territorial governments, you’re going to feel this most acutely right away when homeowners start describing how hard it is for them to insure their property.
And of course, if they go bare and they have no insurance, that has—and it’s widespread that people don’t have insurance—it has very serious consequences for the economic health of the community, because people walk away from their properties, they go into default, the tax base goes down, and they don’t rebuild, they go someplace else because they’ve got to get their lives back in order. And we need to look at the consequences of having an uninsured or diminishing insurance within our communities. It’s not just at household. It has ramifications for adjoining households, because that household is empty, or it's destroyed and never built back.
So really excellent point. And we are at the—frankly, at the beginning of the discussion. And the challenge is that private property insurance only write policies for one year. So they have a big hit, they can say, hey, next year we’re not so interested in offering insurance going forward. And that’s really tough on the real estate market when insurance isn’t available. And it’s often discovered right at the end of the transaction, I’m told, which makes it even more disruptive to closings and just the steady operation of the market.
FASKIANOS: Thank you.
So we—Leslie’s team just dropped into the Q&A box the resources, the links to the resources, that she mentioned. And we’re putting in the chat. To answer the question, we are also going to send, as a follow-up to this webinar, the link to the video and transcript as well as links to those resources mentioned, so you can get it in various places.
So I’m going to go next to Joseph Brooks, county mayor in Claiborne County, Tennessee. While the points made for building codes are all good, how do you suggest rural counties can move in that direction? There is a vast majority of individuals who see building codes as limitations on their property rights. I am in favor of building codes, but I’m looking for insight as to how to move in that direction from others who have faced a similar challenge.
Leslie, can—you might want to take that.
CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: Definitely. So part of the research that was because of that very question because we—again, we started with validating that people are not worried about codes. So how do you advocate for something that people don’t want or don’t understand? And we have to—the political will has to be derived from people wanting it, because it takes resources. So one of the key challenges is communicating the benefit of codes and showing it. This we did the research in 2017 and 2018, and we’re going to retest. Because of the compounding effect—the things that Alice was just talking about with insurance.
I once chaired the Florida Hurricane Catastrophe Fund, which is the rainy-day fund for Florida—the multi-billion-dollar fund that now there are some who project that it will be used up from Hurricane Ian, which will precipitate an even more compounding insurance challenge, I should just say crisis, for Florida. But if you start talking about building codes in the context of the solutions they provide, by preventing the losses in the first place on the individual level for you and your life and what it means for you as well as your community, because your neighbors are still there. Their jobs where—the buildings where they work are still there.
You know, communities that have gone down because of disasters that, you know, are not recoverable. And you start demonstrating the benefit of codes from that standpoint and taking away some of the fear of codes in terms of costs. That’s a key, important factor to show that permitting fees, balanced with cooperative agreements, can make codes affordable even for the smallest communities. And there are many who are doing it. We’re running an analysis right now in rural communities and building codes. And many, dozens and dozens, of successful administration of building codes in very small places that are not in larger states with bigger budgets but are in smaller states.
And it gets done through a variety of ways. A lot of the resources for building codes—in the old days, you had to buy books. You had to buy them every three years. They were expensive. You had to have personnel. They had to work for you, in your government jurisdiction. That’s just not how it works anymore. The codebooks are available to code officials digitally. They can outsource to—through cooperative agreements. They can either outsource, like West Virginia outsources to an engineering firm in Winchester, Virginia. This is done all the time, and the economies of scale have kicked in and increased.
I think that the International Code Council is working very hard on this. And there’s probably a good case here, Irina, for the peer-to-peer kind of conversations specifically about how to administer codes. And then things like the federal grants, that are just coming on, to help with building codes and the standing up of a building code system for a state or local government. There is recognition that you can’t just wave a wand and all of a sudden administer the building code, but the old way that was much harder and more expensive, there are other ways to do it today, and communities are doing it.
The asker of this question I think you said was from Tennessee. I remember reading in an article after the Whitesboro, Tennessee flooding disaster, the mayor said: You know, we’d love to have building codes, we just don’t have the resources. And that’s very much the case in many places. But we can overcome the resource gaps, and then I think we communicate effectively to people who benefit from the codes. And in some places—like, right now in Alabama, the homebuilders, which are often opposed to building code enactment, are supporting the application of a statewide building code because they’re recognizing that building codes level the playing field. And if you have one set of codes, you don’t have to change what you learn and do or don’t do when you cross a highway into a different town.
So there’s some tremendous benefits there, and through the course of articulating those, minds are changing as well. If there’s any follow-up work to that conversation, I’d be more than happy to help broker those conversations and post and get people together. Because that’s what helps solve it.
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Let’s go to Hawaii Representative David Tarnas.
Q: Well, hi. I’m David Tarnas, state representative. I chair the Water and Land Committee in the statehouse.
Building codes are very effective, and usually get carried out here through the counties. What do you find to be the most useful thing that the state-level statutory support for building coded option—what’s the most effective way that the state legislature could facilitate that happening? Because it’s usually done, like I say, at the county level, right? So do you have model legislation that could help implement building codes effectively?
CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: Yeah. There are thirty states that have statewide adopted codes. They have different levels of opt-outs and enforcement, but they’ve adopted it at the state level, then they drop down to the counties, as you said. Often the ideal practice is to adopt the statewide code, allow jurisdictions to exceed it, but the best-case scenario is they can’t reduce it. And that’s really critical for flood insurance, and for flooding, and for flood elevation because the state of Louisiana adopts the model codes on time. I was actually on the commission after Katrina to create a statewide residential building commission, but unfortunately, they X-ed out the flood elevation for a number of years. But based on Ida and Laura and Delta and Zeta, and all of these events, they’re now strongly considering putting it back in.
Statewide adoption is the best way to go with the floor. And one of the things that we used to hear in these policy discussions of code adoption is, “Show us some economic proof.” Well, the good news is, like I said, we have that now. There have been—there’s some great academic studies out there. Wharton has a four-to-one return on building code efficacy for Florida. You’ve got that losses avoided that’s looking across the country. So we have the proof points. We didn’t used to. We do now. Anything we can do to support you in those conversations, you’ve got experts at the Insurance Institute for Building and Home Safety has tremendous research. And we have people that will come and testify to support it. You know, third-party experts. So there’s a lot more ammunition to get those codes in place.
FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to take the next question from Breda Krebs, who’s a resilience communications specialist for Miami-Dade Country.
Will there be more federal government support for risk mapping open to all? For example, floodfactor.com used to be such a useful resource for average residents, and now it is a paid service called Risk Factor. Alice, do you have any—
CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: I don’t know—yeah, I don’t know what their plans are for that, but I think, I guess, with the risk rating 2.0 program that’s coming in through FEMA, one thing they’ve been trying—they have done, and to Alice’s point, is to diversify the factors upon which the risk is calculated. So it’s not simply a matter of how high anymore. It may be whether or not the home has proper elevation, plus things like flood vents, you know, to allow for flow-through. Just sidebar on that, there’s some stories coming out of Ian where people had flood vents that didn’t understand why their building survived, because the flood vent allows—you know, evens out the hydrostatic forces, so the walls don’t collapse in a flood. And they were mad that the water came through.
But that was a success story because that’s how they’re designed. Just again, to me, it points up, we have so much educating to do so people really understand: If you’re going to be in those zones, you have to have these features. And this is how they work. People just aren’t as curious about their homes beyond the aesthetics. They’re naturally looking at paint colors and all the pretty, shiny things in the kitchen, and other items. And this is a shift that’s taking time. But I think the disasters that are striking us are opening eyes.
FASKIANOS: Well, that brings up an interesting question from Betty Arnold. I serve on the State Board of Education in Kansas. From an education point of view, for public education—she’s looking—talking specifically about K-12—what should our takeaway be? And how would we incorporate the subject into our curriculum? Maybe we need to start younger to educate.
CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: Well, I’ll take first on that. I would tell you, one of the most effective things we’ve ever done—we’ll go anywhere for any audience. We’re a certified provider of professional training and accredited courses for design professionals. But the most impactful thing we ever did is we were—joined forces with our nation’s perhaps greatest storytellers at Disney. We were in Epcot for eight years and we created one of their edutainment experiences called “Storm Struck: A Tale of Two Homes.” And it was a 3-D experience with the glasses. Five-point-eight million people came through “Storm Struck” before we finished. And Carnegie tested it. And we changed people’s opinions, we changed their behavior. And it was through storytelling. But you’re right, we do have to get the kids.
There are a lot of different resources for—that can be absorbed into education. You know, we have the NOAA Hurricane Awareness Tour that goes out. Not to Kansas, but to different efforts. There’s no single effort, but I think that we have to touch every audience. And what “Storm Struck” taught us is that we create a value for things like how homes are built. It was—it was a foreign concept in the beginning. And through the testing and the one-year follow-on study validating, people were shocked to learn that not all homes were built to the same standard. But once they did realize that, they wanted to learn how they could be—make a difference.
So we’ll look at additional kid-focused programs and different elements that you could adopt into your curriculum. They do exist. We created some through our work with Disney. And that, on the disaster side, we could be happy to share those.
FASKIANOS: Alice, is there anything happening at the, you know, federal level?
HILL: I’m not aware of anything at the federal level, but I will make an observation that one of our greatest challenges making good decisions around climate change is that we don’t have a well-educated workforce about climate change. You know, anyone who got their degree in the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, maybe even in the 2000s, probably didn’t get much education about climate change. And it’s still hit or miss. You know, if you go to a college or a university and type in the English curriculum, they’ll give you a whole lineup about what you need. If you type in climate change, it could be a jumble of classes. And that kid has to have a lot of initiative if they want to learn about climate change.
Unfortunately, this plays out at the highest levels. I think that our federal workforce still lacks sufficient numbers of people who understand the challenges posed by climate change and how it could affect their decision-making. And a recent study by a risk management company looking at the CFOs and CEOs of hundreds of companies doing $100 billion in revenues, determined that 77 percent of those were ill-prepared for climate risk. So many of our companies are ill-prepared. And then a separate study by NYU’s Stern Business School in 2019, the Fortune 100 top companies, their board members—1,188 board members—found that only—in a review of their resumes that were publicly available—only two listed anything to do with climate change.
So we may have—be asking people to make decisions about an area for which they haven’t had an opportunity to learn about what’s at stake. And I think making more opportunities easily available will help us. These events will continue to worsen, even if we’re very successful in cutting our emissions, which I very much hope we do, because there’s a delayed response. It’s kind of like that blanket that you mom put on, there’s going to be a delayed response. We will see worsening events. And we need people who understand how those events could unfold, how we could better protect ourselves, what are the choices we could make now that would reduce our risks.
You know, we’ve heard about the $1 to $11 for building codes. We know just generally, for every dollar we spend now in risk reduction—from that same National Institute of Building Sciences Study—we save somewhere between $4 and $6, likely, in recovery costs. So we need a paradigm shift to help people understand that you need to prepare for disasters, because more of them are coming. And we also need to shift away from just focusing on life safety, which is very important, but also how do these buildings perform. Because it’s one thing if we get everyone out and they’re safe. It’s another thing if we have a school that the kids can go back to. Because if we don’t, what’s our plan? So we need a workforce that understands these risks. So I am in favor of greater education. It will be affecting all of us during our lifetimes, but it will affect the kids even more than it’s affecting us now.
FASKIANOS: Yeah. And I just want to commend to you, Brenda, we have launched here at CFR a World 101. It’s a library of free multimedia resources to provide an immersive learning experience in a variety of settings. And we have, on all sorts of topics, but we have a module on climate change. So you can go to world101.cfr.org and look specifically at our climate change module. And maybe that’s something you could pull into your curriculum in Kansas. So I’ll just give that shout-out.
OK, so let’s see, going next to—I’m going to go to Diana Hopkins Manuelian. And Diana is—I’m trying to pull it up—a city council member in Atherton Town, California.
Our California city is interested in banning leaf blowers during—on specific days. What agency do we have to aid in exploring creating this type of policy? Bay Area Air Quality Agency says it’s a good idea, but they don’t track particulates after they leave the air. Alice, since you are—you were in California, do you have any—
HILL: I don’t—I am not familiar with this issue. I am familiar in the District of Columbia, where I live, I believe that we have banned—and the ban may not have come into place yet—fossil fuel-powered leaf blowers for electric, because they reduce the noise. But I don’t know fully this issue, so I can’t offer any insight at this time.
FASKIANOS: OK. All right. So getting in another one from E. Keith Colston, director of the Ethnic Commissions Governor’s Office of Community Initiatives in Maryland, Commission on Indian Affairs.
Two-part question. How are state-recognized tribes being engaged directly or indirectly in Maryland or this region? How can our commission assist with the approval of commissioner consent? I don’t know if either of you know that specifically. It might be a little bit too—we’ll have to—Leslie.
CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: I don’t. But I did want to mention the—and, Alice, you probably had a hand in this anyway, but the new White House national initiative to advance building codes was kicked off on June 1. And I know that as part of the implementation and outreach for that we are in a—I serve on the building code secretariat and working group for that under FEMA. And the outreach includes workshops. They recently completed a workshop on the initiative for tribal and state and other partners. And so there’s an outreach effort underway right now that’s very robust, and I think will be continuous, to help everybody understand the goals, the resources, some of the things we’ve talked about here, and it does include all the different states and territories and tribal partners.
One of the other things on resources, we do have a host of additional FEMA-produced resources, including adoption handbooks for jurisdictions and for states. And we’ll include those in the follow-up as well. They understand this—going back to the challenge—communication and helping people see the benefit, overcoming the concerns about cost and all these different resources. So there’s a lot moving out, and we’ll make sure that you have all of those, because the different pieces that can be addressed—this is a tricky one. It’s a very tough challenge to get these things in place.
But once they’re there and well-maintained, the benefits for insurability and affordability—not just the availability of insurance, but how affordable it is and some of the returns you get every year on savings. So I’ll make sure that we get all those to you, Irina.
FASKIANOS: Great. Alice, any final remarks before we close?
HILL: I will say, as distressing as these events are, I view this as also an exciting time. There’s huge opportunity for innovation, for rethinking our approaches, and for collaboration. One of the things about climate change is that humanity, humans, haven’t really confronted this challenge before, where the future does not resemble the past in terms of natural disasters. So we can all learn from each other. We can share best practices. It will be incumbent for us to reach out across regions because, of course, none of these disasters honor our jurisdictional boundaries. And we’ll be a lot better off if we plan together, resource together. So I see it as a moment of innovation, even as we are saddened to see the changes that climate change brings. But for each of us who engage in this area, I think it brings great excitement that we can produce a better future if we put our minds to it now and prepare.
FASKIANOS: Leslie, you get the final word.
CHAPMAN-HENDERSON: Well, thank you so much. I think what I want to say—I want to echo your sentiment. I think there’s a lot of hope that comes out of our concerns for how we build, because in my experience over these thirty-plus years, I’ve never seen so much focused effort on helping the states, the locals, the citizens, and others get the building codes that they need in place.
And let’s not forget, building codes are minimum. So we need to help bring everybody up. But I see across all the different potential ways to help I see solutions coming online, I see resources. They are pre-disaster, not post-disaster. And I have great hope that this is—the great unfinished of our movement is about to get a checkbox. It’s going to take us a couple more years, but I really believe that we’ve got the right people and level of attention, resources, and effort in place to get it done.
FASKIANOS: Well, thank you very much, both of you, for this hour, and to all of you for your questions. We really appreciate it, sharing your expertise and all the research that you have done to—and the work that you’re doing in your communities.
So we will send a link to the webinar recording and the transcript, as well as links to the resources mentioned. You can follow Leslie Chapman-Henderson on Twitter at @lchenderson. And you can follow Alice Hill’s work at CFR.org and on Twitter at @alice_c_hill. We also encourage you to come to CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for more expertise and analysis. And please do email us, [email protected], to let us know how CFR can support the important work you are doing in your communities.
Stay safe and well. Thank you for your time today. And we look forward to our next conversation.