Webinar

Climate Resilience Strategies

Thursday, December 16, 2021
A USPS mail truck is seen badly damaged after a devastating outbreak of tornadoes ripped through several U.S. states, in Mayfield, Kentucky, U.S. December 11, 2021. Cheney Orr/REUTERS
Speakers

Chief Resilience Officer, City of Honolulu

David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and the Environment, Council on Foreign Relations

Presider

Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Alice C. Hill, CFR’s David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment, and Matthew J. Gonser, chief resilience officer and executive director of the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resiliency for the City and County of Honolulu, will discuss resilience policies to prepare for the effects of climate change and best practices for implementing them. 

 

FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR. We’re delighted to have participants from forty-three U.S. states and territories with us. We thank you for taking the time to join us. This discussion is on the record.

As you know, CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher focusing on U.S. foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. Through our State and Local Officials initiative, we serve 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.

We are pleased to have Alice Hill and Matthew Gonser with us to talk about climate resilience strategies. We’ve shared their bios with you so I will give just a few highlights.

Alice Hill is a David M. Rubenstein Senior Fellow for Energy and Environment at CFR. Previously, Judge Hill served as special assistant to President Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council. She’s also co-author of Building a Resilient Tomorrow and her latest book is called The Fight for Climate After COVID-19. So I commend that to all of you.

Matthew Gonser is the executive director and chief resilience officer for the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability, and Resilience in the city and county of Honolulu, Hawaii. Before that, he served as the office’s coastal and water program manager for three years. Mr. Gonser is responsible for developing and launching Honolulu’s climate resilience initiatives including the Oahu Resilience Strategy Climate Action Plan and Climate Ready Oahu Adaptation Strategy. And Matt, you’re going to have to correct me on how to pronounce that correctly. (Laughs.)

So, Alice, let’s turn, first, to you to talk about the trends that we’re seeing in extreme weather events. We just saw the horrible devastation that the tornadoes wreaked havoc in Kentucky, and what’s in the infrastructure bill in terms of helping with climate change, resilience, and adaptation?

HILL: Well, thank you so much for having me here today, Irina, and I’m so delighted to join Matt on this important panel. I don’t think I have to tell anyone in the audience that 2021 has been a year full of disasters for the United States as well as across the globe.

As you mentioned, we saw the really saddening pictures of the devastation of the tornadoes that had appeared in areas where, traditionally, we wouldn’t expect tornadoes, certainly, not at this time of year, and in some of these geographic regions. We also just yesterday had enormous wind events occurring in large swaths of the nation.

Earlier in the year, Hurricane Ida caused $65 billion in damage and killed ninety-six people as it swept from Louisiana all the way up to New York. You’ll recall last February a cold snap in Texas caused massive power outages. A hundred and seventy two people lost their lives, 21 billion (dollars) in damage, and some people simply died of cold in their beds.

The tornadoes that we’ve seen will likely be the nineteenth billion-dollar disaster chronicled by the National Association—National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration. NOAA has been keeping records since 1980 of billion-dollar disasters within the nation. That is a disaster that caused us at least a billion dollars’ worth of damage.

2021 will rank second, but we’ve just had additional damage from these windstorms so maybe it’ll rank first. But, certainly, it ranks second in the number of billion-dollar disasters since 1980 and it’s only coming in behind last year, which had twenty-two billion-dollar events.

Unfortunately, the science is clear that worse is ahead because of human activity and, recently, in this summer a report was issued making clear—a consensus report—scientists across the globe agreed to and the report was agreed to—virtually agreed to, at least its executive summary, by virtually every nation in the world and that report found that, unequivocally, that human activity, agriculture, transportation, building, was causing harmful greenhouse gas emissions, carbon dioxide, primarily, to accumulate in the atmosphere, which is causing the Earth to heat up beyond pre-industrial times, and we have heated up about 1.2 degrees Celsius since pre-industrial times and that’s what’s bringing us these types of events.

Now, you can’t always find the fingerprints on every event. We don’t know if tornadoes and, particularly, these tornadoes were influenced by climate change. But scientists now can, essentially, determine how much different events are made worse by climate change and we know that heat events like we saw in the Pacific Northwest earlier this year and some increasing storm intensity are very closely tied to warming temperatures.

Just yesterday news that we may have underestimated the amount of heating that’s already going on. The Arctic and the Antarctic, both polar regions, are very important for the world’s weather, and scientists have identified that we have heated up four times—the Arctic has heated up four times more than the rest of the world.

So we are, it’s predicted, facing many more extremes, going forward, and that’s why it’s so important that we have some relief on its way to state and local, tribal, territorial governments to help them in addressing these impacts. It’s important to realize that virtually all of our built-in systems—our infrastructure, our built environment, our housing—they’re all built to the extremes of the past, to the weather of the past, and now we’ve seen we’re getting these worse and worse events. So we’re going to have more damage in the future and that’s why it’s so important to begin to think about how are we resilient to climate change.

The Biden administration pushed the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which did pass Congress. It was billed as a once-in-a-generation investment in America’s infrastructure and it aims to rebuild transportation systems, strengthen supply chains, and expand funding access to communities that have historically been excluded from reaping the benefits of many government programs, and it has $550 billion dollars in new federal spending over the next five years coming with that legislation.

So the hope is that, as during the coronavirus we’ve seen many infrastructure gaps appear across our nation—unstable access to broadband services, poor road maintenance, utilities that fail in the face of extremes, and other infrastructure challenges—it’s hoped that this Act will help state and local officials in making the necessary changes that can improve their communities’ quality of life and, importantly, their safety.

So I’m happy to later on to go into more detail on that. But that will be a significant investment in on-the-ground improvements that, I think, will be important for any state, local, tribal, territorial leader as they plan to help their communities thrive in a warming world.

FASKIANOS: Thank you, Alice.

Let’s go now to you, Matt, to talk about what you’re doing in Honolulu and the ways in which you would share best practices with your colleagues on what cities, counties, and states can be doing.

GONSER: Great. Thank you, Irina, and thank you, Alice, for that important introduction, and also just thank you to CFR for the opportunity to join in this discussion. It was really overwhelming, quite frankly, to see the registration list, including my state representative, who’s here on the call today, Della Au Belatti. Great to see you here as well, including other state and local leaders across the counties of Hawaii and the state of Hawaii, and also individuals from my home state and my home island of Long Island, New York, and above, below, and everywhere in between.

As much as I’m pleased to share our perspective from our perch out here in the Pacific, obviously, context matters and your local conditions are, really, what’s going to be important, and you should all feel proud that you are stepping up and leaning into these discussions because they will become more and more important as we progress into this century, as Alice just shared.

And, very quickly, it is quite irrefutable and indisputable out here in the state of Hawaii, on the island of Oahu and elsewhere, that climate change is clear, present, and here, and the voters actually leaned in and recognized this and created the office that I have the pleasure and privilege to work in via a city charter amendment in the year 2016.

And there are big expectations. Highlighting a few things here in terms of city operations, obviously, coordination, as Alice just mentioned, across different levels of government because we do need a whole of government approach and there are things that are going to be needed at different scales with different resources.

Generally, we try to talk about resilience, which can be a pretty heady topic, in some simpler terms around sort of how we, as organizations, institutions, and systems, survive, adapt, and thrive. Surviving is not what we want. We need continued prosperity into the future in the face of growing and challenging uncertainty across these different stresses or shocks.

And we know what’s changing. It is our climate, as Alice just mentioned, and, quite frankly, we know the direct cause of this and the direct driver. It is our continued use of fossil fuel for various purposes, including our energy systems, our buildings, our transportation networks, and some of the other sectors that Alice provided. And, you know, the foundational science has actually been measured here in the state of Hawaii atop Mauna Loa, measuring the increasing and seasonal uptick of carbon dioxide, in particular, in our atmosphere.

And climate change is not a thing unto itself. It really is a threat multiplier, and Alice shared some insights into that. We know that climate is changing certain conditions and it’s those changes that then result in impacts and have the consequences for people and place, the environment of that place, but also the economy of your local jurisdiction or your region as a whole, and we’re really coming to grips with this across the nation.

This wasn’t coordinated but I’m glad to see that we’re totally on the same page of recognizing and extending some of this information that NOAA has been tracking, and, certainly, we’re not out of 2021 and a lot of things are still being measured and, actually, this doesn’t even include some of the costs and consequences from both the wildfire season, the heat waves that Alice mentioned, and an earlier hurricane from this fall.

And it’s really important to know, like, where these are happening, right. It’s affecting all of us. It’s affecting all of us in different places at different times of the year, sometimes at very strange times of the year now, and that makes it difficult as local government leaders to anticipate how to think about the systems that we need to adapt and change for. Uncertainty is risk and that can be very challenging for businesses and, certainly, can be very challenging for local government leaders.

Bringing it back here to Hawaii, as I mentioned, people understand this. We’ve already measured a decline in our normal trade wind days, which is affecting heat, comfort, and our rainfall. We’ve already measured and are projecting different scenarios for sea level rise, which will affect a whole variety of sectors as well as public trust resources and where we all go to relax and recharge in these very stressful times, along the shoreline.

And, similarly, we’ve already measured increasing temperatures, and what we do or don’t do in the coming decades will determine what trajectory we end up on in terms of ever-growing and increasing temperatures.

And, you know, graphs and data are important, but it’s really the images and the experiences that speak to what we are acknowledging and recognizing and need to overcome—a compilation of some images here. And while a lot of these examples are going to be local for my condition and context, certainly, I’m sure you have some documentation of these things within your communities as well.

Keying in on sea level rise and coastal hazards, in particular, we’ve already seen impacts to our recreation and community facilities where we’ve had to remove comfort stations and other elements of our city and county beach parks, real and significant impacts to private residences and the public trust resource, which is the beach, and then challenges as we think about doing infill, maximizing the investments of a mass transit project and how that can and should be an opportunity to grow communities and provide more affordable housing, really coming to terms with some of the challenges in some of those areas and the business disruption, continuity challenges, and impacts on redevelopment.

But even on our public infrastructure as well, we see issues with our wastewater treatment systems and concerns around erosion and outfalls were impacted by increasing groundwater elevations, which make it more challenging for our water utility to respond to water main breaks where they actually have to pump out water or wait for low tide before they can access it, or through some heavy rain events, right, just ripping through our systems that were designed, as Alice mentioned, for a previous condition, and we need to think across public infrastructure, private facilities, land uses, and other natural and built infrastructure to overcome some of these challenges into the future.

But just as I had mentioned that context matters for you in your places, even in an island setting like here on Oahu and the city and county of Honolulu, we have very different kinds of communities that have very different contexts, from ultra-urban, Honolulu urban core and the resident and visitor area in Waikiki to very rural conditions, and how we ensure equity in the distribution of resources really needs to be front and center as we’re thinking about how to address these issues in coordination with the state on their infrastructure.

And, again, I’m just going to very quickly go through, because not all participants here are coastal communities, but, certainly, sea level rise and coastal erosion are a concern for us here and for many places around the nation. Changes in rainfall patterns—very heavy events are very difficult to both forecast and prepare for. So they can come at you in a very quick moment and then the ability to provide notice is challenged. Our weather service is strained in coming to grips with the need for different kinds of public communication tools here locally.

Again, as I mentioned, increasing temperatures, and this can really be anywhere, just thinking about how we need to invest today to make sure that our communities can remain socially connected in the future is really, really critical. And sometimes we might have too much rain but also in a lot of places we’re having too little rain, and the impacts on land uses, soil stability, or your agricultural sectors, and then something like a hurricane, bringing those triple threat concerns of both heavy rain—sorry, heavy rain, high winds, and then storm surge.

So, obviously, when change is coming at us we can’t assume we can just continue to do the same things. Climate change is requiring us to change, and that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s doing new things. But, certainly, we need to be aligned and think about the practices that we already have, the things that we’re investing in, and really looking at those projects and those investments so that we can drive down risk over time.

And very quickly, to wrap up here so we can get to the Q&A, the process that we’ve gone through the last couple of years started with a lot of community discussion and really thinking about what a thriving community is into the future. And it’s not just addressing climate change but it’s addressing affordability challenges, social and community resilience and staying connected, and thinking about preparedness as well.

So it’s important to embark on that process, engage and communicate with community as well as elected officials, and then really put yourself out there and put a line in the sand in terms of the values and the policies that you’re hoping to address and then adopt it and commit to it and say you’re going to work on it because people have provided their time. You need to validate that participation.

We’re fortunate that we had some additional clarity in our office’s roles and responsibilities to find an ordinance, which we are very pleased to act upon. But you also need to measure and track and report back out. We need to be held accountable for the things that we say we’re going to do and also be open to explaining why things are not working, where the risks and challenges are, and provide that back.

And then since we know the drivers of climate change, we all, undoubtedly, need our own climate action plans because, collectively, we need to bend that curve over time because if we don’t we’ll just have to find more ways and different ways to invest to prepare communities to adapt to the changes that we’re already experiencing, and I’ve already spoken about that quite a bit in terms of the things that we’re concerned about here locally. But it’s having those discussions out in community, which is really going to even empower us to engage in these difficult conversations and the federal government has really put a thumbprint on this in terms of the Justice 40 Initiative and expecting and explaining how those kinds of benefits need to accrue to places that have been on the frontline of impacts historically and now, increasingly, as a result of climate change.

And lastly, you know, we, in local government and state government and everywhere in between, the rules that we establish for ourselves and for community they’re really about ensuring expectation and the opportunity for a thriving community and economic prosperity. But we know those rules were for a different condition, like Alice had said, and we need to think about those different expectations and modify them so that people understand what’s needed, moving forward, because if we don’t make those changes local government will continue to take on obligations and future risks.

We know that we’re challenged already today and we need to prepare ourselves to think about what’s the course correction needed to not obligate future generations for some of those future risks.

So with that, I probably went already too long. But thank you for entertaining some of that and look forward to the Q&A.

FASKIANOS: That was fantastic. Thank you so much.

And now we want to go to all of you.

(Gives queuing instructions.)

The first question comes from Liz Ellis. How can cities work with the federal government to change the design of levees and sea walls to meet a longer-term sea rise when the feds currently just require designs to meet current and maybe hundred-year flood levels? And Liz Ellis is a city council member in Aberdeen, Washington.

GONSER: That’s a great question, Liz, and, certainly, we know FEMA is acknowledging some of the issues of the historical mapping. We know there are a lot of places across the nation that even don’t—still don’t benefit from mapping, and they’re investing a lot. We’re fortunate that there’s investments into FEMA’s processes but also acknowledging that how they measure risk and account for that flood risk is evolving.

Right now, they’re—we’re already underway with a risk rating 2.0, efforts to move towards more of an actuarial rate, which would be very shocking, and actually had been done several years ago through the Biggert-Waters Act, and then Congress immediately pulled back because it was extremely impactful for communities around the nation.

We’ve had good experiences in terms of incorporating and advocating for the kind of data that gets incorporated. I know the Army Corps, in particular, they, for years, have had their own sea level rise calculator and they use that for their design specifications.

But to your question around, you know, this notion of a one hundred-year flood, which was intended to make it a little bit more comprehensible in terms of risks, really created a misnomer and a misunderstanding about what an annual risk is, and we’re fortunate that in working with FEMA locally and working with our state NFIP program that narrative is shifting a little bit.

But there are many leaders across the country, cities like Boston and New York, recognizing that FEMA’s maps are just—they’re just the minimum, and any community is empowered and can, should they have the resources, to create your own rules, regulations, and guidance, including flood maps above and beyond what we have access to through FEMA. And that’s a trend that, I think, will need to grow as we progress because we can’t expect and always wait for the federal government to take the lead on things. It’s a big country.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

Alice, do you want to—you’re muted, Alice.

HILL: Thanks. Sure. I think it points to—the question points to a challenge that we have. All of the federal agencies, just as state and local governments, are dealing with this issue for the first time. They are figuring out what needs to be done and they have all submitted—each of the federal agencies, pursuant to an executive order that President Biden issued on his very first day in office, have submitted adaptation plans.

One of the challenges is to make sure that we’re planning for the same thing when we’re talking about working with communities, and you have pointed out that the Army Corps of Engineers sometimes has different planning scenarios and assumptions than others do. This is an issue that the federal government will need to resolve and work on so that vulnerability assessments are shared across the community.

We don’t yet have readily available vulnerability assessments that are produced by the federal government. We have the National Climate Assessment, which is very broad and not downscaled in sufficient ways, and then we have some communities like Hawaii, California, New York, who’ve marched out and done their own vulnerability assessments.

But for other communities we still may need those and we need for the federal government to share its ideas about what we should be assuming are the future conditions we’re planning for.

I will just add to what Matt said. Those FEMA flood maps are widely recognized as being, largely, out of date. He’s correctly said, and it’s unfortunate that we use the one in one-hundred-year flood when we know it might be the one in twenty-five-year flood now. Of course, those flood maps define who’s in and out of the National Flood Insurance Program run by FEMA.

I will just for this audience flag that there is new flood information available, particularly for residential property. The First Street Foundation had a project where they have mapped flooding for the entire United States. So you can type in your own home address and get your flood score and now many of the real estate aggregators—Zillow, I think Redfin—carry the flood factor.

So that’s a way to inform your community. It’s more accurate and FEMA has said go ahead and use the First Street Foundation maps in recognition that they haven’t produced accurate maps yet, and there are many reasons for that—pushback from communities sometimes, as well as simply lack of funding to do this. But now we’ve had a philanthropist move into this space and that should help with evening the understanding of what is reasonable to anticipate within the next thirty years, for example.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. So Hawaii State Representative Amy Perruso has written a question and I want to see if she would like to ask it herself. Otherwise, I will read it.

Q: I can ask. So it doesn’t seem like this question connects to the topic but, in my view, it really does because we’re facing this crisis around water on Oahu, that threatens kind of the backup system that our Board of Water Supply had set up in case of hurricane. So my question is, really, around how do we—we’re talking mostly at the state and local level. But then when we have actors in our communities who we are struggling to hold accountable to the same standards, how can we bring them into alignment?

GONSER: Yeah. Aloha. Good morning, Rep. Perruso from central Oahu. I mean, you, certainly, know this just as acutely as any of us, and for people on the call we had—what a month we had last week here across the state in terms of record rainfalls and a statewide disaster declaration, also critical water contamination and the displacement of thousands of households as a result of jet fuel getting into the water system, and then several cyberattacks that affected both our public transit system and other accounting and payroll services both in the public and private.

And, Rep. Perruso, I wish I had a better response to address that specific question, but this recognition, again, I think, the linkage to today’s topic and the drivers of climate change and how climate change and greenhouse gas pollution are affecting both national and international relations and local security is completely aligned with the truth and reality of needing to get off these fuel sources and also how we manage them in different places around the nation and the globe.

FASKIANOS: Alice?

HILL: I will step in. Yes, it’s—this is a very important question. We know that there are linkages between national security and climate change. The military—the Department of Defense did come out recently with a series of plans for dealing with climate change both in terms of the increased impacts because, as you can imagine, there’s the demand for humanitarian aid both through the National Guard here in the United States.

The National Guard is being called on increasingly to help with fire—management of wildfires in a way they’ve never been called on before—our reservists—and then we are called to help in international—the international arena as we see ever greater humanitarian disasters. And there will be increasing immigration pressures because we’re going to see many more people on the move as their survival, their livelihoods, their shelter, their access to food and water, are threatened by climate change.

So this is a significant problem for our military and they are also a significant contributor to the emissions. So there’s a multi-prong approach, but one is to determine how emissions can be reduced in the military. There are some areas that are impossible to abate, for example, in aviation right now so for our fighter jets we won’t be able to get to that.

But you’ll see—in my experience within the military there is a demand to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels because in war time that dependence can have—can cause loss of life of American soldiers as they attempt to refuel in dangerous places.

Much more to be done. I think we have to step back and say, honestly, we all hope the federal government can step forward to help more, but we are a deeply polarized nation on this issue and that polarization is reflected in Congress. So it becomes difficult to enact some of the types of solutions that have been put forward widely because we simply can’t get to agreement amongst our representatives on what the best course forward is on climate change.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’ll take the next question from Iowa State Representative Chuck Isenhart. And if you can unmute yourself. You’re still muted. There we go.

Q: All right.

FASKIANOS: You’re—all right.

Q: Didn’t know if it was my button or yours that wasn’t working.

FASKIANOS: OK.

Q: So the discussion here is state versus federal initiative, kind of like who’s on first, who’s going to go first.

How much would state-level constitutional amendments, environmental rights amendments like the one just passed in New York, help in jumpstarting or mandating state-level initiatives? And I’m not sure you’re familiar with that but there are at least three states that have constitutional amendments, basically, saying that citizens have a right to a clean environment.

HILL: Well, I can jump in a little bit. Once you have a constitutional right there—I’m a former judge and a former prosecutor, and once you have a law on the books that says there’s a right, there probably will be litigation following to enforce that right. And I haven’t—I’m not familiar with any litigation in the United States based on the amendments that you’re mentioning. There is litigation in the United States. It’s still active, most notably, by children saying that they have a right, essentially, to a better future and that the federal government is failing in that.

A very interesting development in the law, and the law moves slowly. The wheels of justice can move slowly in this context. But it has revealed a difference in philosophy among judges and you can see that in dissenting opinions and the opinions written. And the question is, is this an issue for governments to solve—the federal government—or is this an issue that is left to the legislature to solve.

Just as we said, you know, if the legislature can’t agree, but does that mean the court has to step in, and we still don’t have that answer yet. We have seen some judge, including the district court judge in this case called Juliana v. the United States, I believe, coming out of the Ninth Circuit. The trial court was very impassioned about the need for protection of children in the future because, after all, it’s future generations who will suffer even more than the pain we are suffering now.

Worldwide, this has begun to take on some kind of liability, going forward, and we have seen some—for example, in Pakistan, the supreme court there said—after a lawsuit was filed, said the Pakistani government wasn’t doing enough to protect people, going forward. So it’s a(n) emerging field. With more fodder in the cannon, I am sure there’ll be more litigation and perhaps there will be greater pressure on governments to act.

And we’ve seen, I think, in the Netherlands also the Dutch supreme court saying that the Dutch government wasn’t moving quickly enough to act on climate. Not here yet in the United States, even though we’re the litigation capital of the world but, certainly, numerous attempts to try to get clarity on who will, ultimately, be responsible, as you’ve just said.

FASKIANOS: Matt?

GONSER: Yeah, not much to add.

FASKIANOS: OK.

GONSER: I have less awareness on the importance and the opportunity at the state level, but at least on the county level we try to make sure—our office is new. A lot of the things that we’re doing are new documents, new planning processes, et cetera.

That’s why we actually went through a process to try to create the ordinance that further defined explicitly some of the things that we needed to do because that’s where we thought there was that political hook and the importance to have things on the books so that there is accountability and an awareness of what needs to be done so that people can say and point when it’s not being done.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. I’m going to go next to Megan Levy, who’s a program manager in the Wisconsin State Energy Office.

Megan, do you want to ask your question yourself or—I’ll give you a minute if you want to unmute yourself. Otherwise, I will read it. If you’d just unmute yourself. I see you. OK. I will read it.

So it seems that the days of using previous disasters to prepare for the next event are over. How do we anticipate these rain bombs and atmospheric rivers or whatever the next natural disaster is, and how do we prepare?

GONSER: Yeah, I can take a stab at that, and I think I saw some other question around some of this. I mean, quite frankly, this adds to that component of uncertainty, which then adds some additional level and recognition for some precautionary practices, right.

If we understand that the risks are changing faster than our minimum standards, rules, and regulations are changing, we need to advocate as much as we can or rapidly try to address those through floodplain ordinances, land use practices, thinking about where existing development is, how do we redirect it and communicate that with community, like, share that recognition that, no, the banks of the storm drainage channel didn’t necessarily overtop because of perception of blockage. It was because we got two inches of rain in an hour for a condition that’s designed for a very different scenario, and that that can be very unsatisfying and very difficult to have those conversations. But the more that we are honest and up front about it and continuing to communicate it, hopefully, that then provides some of the motivation and support for making the changes.

I was looking through some old notes from an old study tour and I found this quote of something called a zoning time bomb and that’s, basically, this idea of a property or a parcel that hasn’t exercised its development rights yet and probably shouldn’t because we really hope that we don’t have to take on that future risk, whether it’s a coastal area or along a riverine condition. And I think the more we assess and understand our local conditions we need to try to get ahead of that and then just continue to communicate on preparedness and supporting people to have their own plans while we’re also working on the public side.

FASKIANOS: Alice, I know you have something to say about that.

HILL: Yes, I do. I think, first of all, because there is a great deal of uncertainty as to when these things will arrive, one of the first places to start for greater preparedness is focus on early warning systems and that requires strong meteorological services and it also requires understanding human cognition and social science and how people respond to these warnings.

But we’re, undoubtedly, going to hear a lot more about failures in the tornado warning systems that we had, failures either to communicate or act on those warnings. But for a community that is an easy place to—not an easy but important place to start and, in fact, the Global Commission on Adaptation that’s one of the major call outs. We need to just improve early warning.

I love this idea or this concept of a zoning time bomb, and I will say that in at least one community I’m aware of the—this is in Norfolk, Virginia, which faces a(n) increased risk of sea level rise that’s coupled with subsidence. So they really have a lot of water coming in. And the Norfolk community, there was an area very prone to flooding and it rezoned to reduce development and change the requirements for development to keep the community safer.

They were sued. They eventually won that lawsuit because there’s greater understanding that the zoning laws are designed to protect people. This will be a challenge both with building codes and zoning laws for local communities as they try to march out and protect and, of course, those decisions are solely in the hands of either state and local authorities under the Constitution.

The federal government does not decide where building occurs or how it occurs. Those are left to—those decisions are left to the local governments. But I’m sure the federal government will try to encourage better decision-making in these areas in the face of this growing risk.

But we will see much greater litigation. There was a case after Sandy in a small town. I can’t—I think it was in New York, but I can’t recall. Anyway, the town had a zoning requirement that you couldn’t—that you couldn’t elevate the homes because it would ruin the aesthetics of the street to have a home ten feet higher than the rest of the homes, and this family had had their home wiped out and they wanted to rebuild in the same location and they wanted to have that height to protect them against future flooding and they’re in a coastal region.

And in that case, the court ruled that it may be the local ordinance may require this but we can’t leave common sense at the door and they’re going to be able to elevate their home. And that’s the kind of thing we will be confronting because our systems all right now reflect decisions based on the assumption that the past is a good guide for the future and we are rapidly seeing that’s a poor assumption.

And as Matt has said, we’re going to have to move quickly either to change those rules, and if we don’t we will leave people in the zone of danger. In fact, we’ve seen more people move into areas of risk near the—and this is proven out by Redfin—near coastal areas at risk of flooding than not in recent decades.

We have to change that paradigm. And that will fall on state and local governments to figure out how they will thrive and what effect that will take on their tax bases as they go forward. But—

GONSER: And—

HILL: Go ahead, Matt.

GONSER: And I know, Irina, you’re going to ask another question. But very quickly, you know, local governments, when supported by sound science, information, and risk mitigation proposals as well as the need to ensure fiscal solvency within the local government shouldn’t hesitate to do what they think is right.

Obviously, there will be people that give pause or anytime something sniffs of a takings claim. Those are just going to have to proceed. I mean, that those things will likely come up. But as government actors, we have a responsibility to the public health and safety and welfare of our communities and when we are making rational and sound decisions. Hopefully, that gets upheld, and we are stepping into new terrain in terms of a climate change future.

FASKIANOS: There is a written question from Jon Thompson, who is a city council member in Sedona, Arizona. Matt, as a popular visitor destination, how are you dealing with the climate effects of tourism? Specifically, are you trying to take responsibility for mitigating travel and other emissions of tourists?

GONSER: Yeah, great question. So it’s twofold, right. It’s both energy, water, and waste once people are here and managing those implications. But the biggest challenge for us, quite frankly, as an island community and as a visitor-dependent community, which, hopefully, we’re on the verge of transforming as we bounce back better from the truth and reality that COVID laid bare here locally, our greenhouse gas emissions inventory, though we had been static for a couple of years in the 20-teens, we did see an uptick 2017, ’18, and ’19 primarily driven by aviation.

So within our transportation sector, which is a huge slice of our pie, second to buildings and energy. It really was that aviation fuel use that drove up our increase. But across the methodology, you know, we’re only accounting for a portion of flight travel, not necessarily its departure destination but, certainly, around the fuel used within our jurisdiction and that’s something that we’re going to have to really grapple with.

We’re excited by some progress in terms of inter-island travel, which is—you know, a lot of people depend on that either for health care, connecting with family, but also for travel. We’ve seen some exciting things benefiting from venture capital and other accelerator programs, namely, the Elemental Excelerator group and some promise, actually, for—they call them either sea planes—they’re not quite boats, they’re not quite planes—but also some solar—some potentials for solar inter-island flights and battery backup within those planes.

But aviation is going to be one of those things, including marine transportation, that will need more federal leadership and support to affect that sector as a whole. That’s going to be a very difficult thing for local governments to be the main influencer on.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

I’m going to go next to Dave Reid, who is the director of Office of Resilience—Response, Recovery, and Resilience for Santa Cruz. What are some ways that you and other communities are centering equity in these efforts? It’s been clear from COVID that there’s a disproportionate impact on those disadvantaged and marginalized communities and is a likely harbinger of how climate change will impact vulnerable populations.

GONSER: This subject warrants a whole session in and of itself. But, certainly, locally, it really proved and showed what, generally, people knew across community, that there was not—there are a lot of things that weren’t working for people before the pandemic and if we just go back to it we’ll have done—we’ll have learned nothing and have done a complete disservice to this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in terms of the federal resources through multiple bills, multiple relief packages, and we need to change both our information management and how we think about what a good job is here locally.

We learned even from the last economic downturn prior to 2010 that post that our visitor industry did not rebound in the same way. You know, it didn’t necessarily bring everyone back to work. It’s not likely to be that kind of rebound this time either, and what are the different sectors and fields that we really need to think about to transform our local community and innovate and keep people connected to place and thinking about food systems, conservation, health care, education, IT as well.

One really great anecdote that I learned recently, even though I’ve been working with this individual for the last year and a half, I only learned recently that she herself went to the mayor’s office last summer and said, you need someone directly within city government on the COVID response team who is a Pacific Islander. My community is suffering. No one understands how we behave or what the value systems are and they have no notion on how to connect with local government. And she forced and created a position. And it’s too much for any one person to do, but it’s a specific example of how even within our city workforce we need to assess do we reflect the community that we serve, and we’re fortunate that we’re part of a national association of counties cohort and benefiting from some technical support to look at that spectrum and make sure we’re thinking about disaggregated data so that we understand the disparate impacts and then know specifically what we need to do better to address those impacts.

FASKIANOS: Great. I’m going to go next to Jessica Vealitzek. I’m not pronouncing her name correctly. She’s a board member in Illinois—Lake County, Illinois. What are some innovative policies you’ve seen coming out of counties, which often have jurisdiction across a broad area, including building and planning, storm water management, transportation, particularly in unincorporated areas?

GONSER: I can’t directly answer that. So we’re unique in terms of our geographic boundary. The mayor is the mayor of the whole of this island, which is the city and county of Honolulu. So we don’t have unincorporated areas or the—you know, the challenges in terms of, like, a city within a county, perhaps.

But that laundry list in the question are the kinds of things that, you know, we and others need to innovate on because they’re the ways that we address either energy use in buildings, managing rain where it falls, and all of the other concerns that we’ve spoken about here on the panel.

FASKIANOS: Alice, do you have—

GONSER: Sorry. That’s probably a little bit of an insufficient answer.

HILL: Sure. I think often where we see innovation is after a disaster because the challenge here, as you all are well aware, is political will, and whether the community wants to take on added requirements and they sometimes can carry additional costs to prepare for something that may be perceived as unlikely.

Of course, immediately after the disaster, just based on how humans assess risk, the risk is foremost in their minds and you can get the political will to act. Where this was very evident is in Houston, where there had been great resistance to building codes as well as to, really, flood management in a way that would protect communities. There was a lot of building in areas that were identified on the map, perhaps, at risk of flooding.

Post-Hurricane Harvey, which, of course, dumped about four feet of rain in just a very short amount of time and in the very flat Houston area caused massive flooding, Houston was able to put in place building codes which required elevation of homes, and, I think for government leaders, remembering what Rahm Emanuel famously said—he was President Obama’s first chief of staff—and it sounds flippant, but I think for leadership it’s important. He said, never let a good crisis go to waste, and by that he meant take advantage of that moment when people are focused on this issue to really put in place the kind of change you need and you’ll be better able to do that if you’ve thought through what could we use and when that moment arrives you’re ready—at the ready to drive—for example, in the areas that were just hit by tornadoes drive better early warning systems, better construction, making sure that schools have safe rooms inside or where there were buildings have safe rooms, all those things. You can take this moment to have better improvement.

Ideally, that’s not the way we want to move forward. We’d like to have a massive plan and be able to do it all correctly. But sometimes the politics here just get completely in the way. So I think, as leaders, you can plan for a bad event and then take advantage of it.

FASKIANOS: Great. We have five minutes left so I want to package a couple of questions. There’s one from Andrew Manavel (ph). Federal, state, and local governments have many roles in this. Is one of them to discourage or preclude development in exposed areas? If so, what is the recommended manner? Also, what is a good enforceable role through the insurance industry? And then another one just about how do you—what do you do about climate change deniers.

GONSER: I guess I’ll try to quickly go through that one. Quite frankly, that’s not something that we—there are, obviously, differences of opinions even in a place like Hawaii, even in a place that voted for such an office. But we just direct it head on and we clearly articulate how it’s incorrect and how the abundance of evidence is clear and present, and then we move on as to why we need to take action.

But also it’s important to communicate out, you know, different messages for different people. Sometimes easier ways to talk about climate change issues are to explain how climate mitigation can be good business, how it can improve quality of life in neighborhoods, how it can make it safer for kids to walk to school, how it can help a senior get off a bus and go to a grocery store. Like, there are different ways you can package it. But I would never hesitate to address the truth and reality because it’s our responsibility to communicate what’s happening.

The previous question, I’ve quite forgotten it. Yeah, we do have—we have a responsibility, as Alice and I have both shared, in terms of life, safety, health, and welfare and in terms of the land use practices that we deploy, the community conversations to set up those plans.

It is our responsibility and I think as much as we hope and expect and sometimes want to use as a crutch in terms of federal rules or federal ordinances, it really is the responsibility of the state and local governments to set the tone for what needs to be accomplished.

FASKIANOS: Thank you. Alice?

HILL: Sure. Let me quickly go through this. I’ll start with the last first, the insurance industry. Insurers write policies on an annualized basis just for one year—primary insurers—and I think what you’ll see as these events continue is a constriction of insurance. We’re seeing that already in the wildfire space.

Of course, we have a National Flood Insurance Program, as Matt has said. That program has, essentially, been bankrupt because the government has not charged premiums that reflect the true risk of flooding. FEMA is just rolling out a program to try to tackle that. We’ll see how it goes. It’s very politically charged. Both sides of the aisle do not like to see premiums increased on their constituents. So it remains to be seen.

But in the private insurance market you’ll see in my—over time a reduction in the availability of property and casualty insurance. The premiums will get too high to be attractive. As to the role of the federal government, I think the federal government has an important role in encouraging sound business—sound building choices and it has already demonstrated how it can do that with the Coastal Barrier Resources Act that was passed in the 1960s.

We have those thin barrier islands on the Atlantic coast and, basically, the federal government said, you know, these are really risky places to be making deep investments in. We, in the federal government, aren’t going to be investing that. We’re not going to do disaster recovery. We’re not going to help you with infrastructure here. You’re on your own because it’s just too risky.

And I think as we see more areas in the United States develop in that manner, if local governments continue to insist that they’re going to allow development either in areas that we know are at high risk or in ways that make them at high risk because it’s not sound building practices, the federal government could provide greater incentives to places that are better suited and then withdraw resources to areas that are at great risk.

And the final—on the climate deniers, I’ll just add I have taken very seriously the latest report by the International (sic; Intergovernmental) Panel on Climate Change. I will say it’s based on peer—review of fourteen thousand peer-reviewed scientific journal articles about climate science.

The executive summary of that report, which is produced by scientists from over sixty nations, two hundred and thirty of them, and every nation agrees to every single word. A hundred and ninety-seven nations agree to every single word in that executive summary, and that summary concludes, based on that floor of peer-reviewed articles, that it’s unequivocal that the climate is changing at an unprecedented rate and it’s unequivocal it’s changing because of human activity.

And as a former judge, it’s easy for me to say the evidence is in. We need to be moving on to solutions. So I don’t engage on a debate on the science because the scientists have already concluded and all nations have agreed to that conclusion that it’s here, it’s real, and it’s human caused.

FASKIANOS: Thank you very much to both of you. This has been—this hour flew by. Really appreciate your taking the time to do this. I apologize to all of you that we couldn’t get to your questions. There’s an interesting comment from Veronica Payez (ph) in, I think, Michigan about what they’re doing in their communities. So you should take a look at that before we close out.

Alice Hill and Matthew Gonser, thank you very much again, and thanks to all of you for being on this call and for what you’re doing. We will send out a link to the webinars and a transcript so you can review it after the fact.

You can follow Matthew Gonser’s work at www.resilientoahu.org and on Twitter at @ResilientOahu, and you can follow Alice Hill on Twitter at @Alice_C_Hill. You can also follow us on State and Local Officials Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Local and, as always, we encourage you to visit CFR.org and foreign affairs.com for more expertise and analysis. And as always, we look to you for your comments, suggestions, feedback. Email us at [email protected].

I hope you all have a very happy and safe and healthy holiday season. Thank you for all your work in your communities and we look forward to reconvening in 2022.

(END)

Top Stories on CFR

Russia

Russia’s moves to mobilize thousands more troops and to annex more of Ukraine’s territory signal a new, potentially more dangerous phase of the war.

China

More than a million Muslims have been arbitrarily detained in China’s Xinjiang region. The reeducation camps are just one part of the government’s crackdown on Uyghurs.

Brazil

Brazil has long sought a greater role on the world stage, but political upheaval and other enduring challenges have complicated its efforts.