Alice C. Hill, David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at CFR, discusses environmental risk management and climate change in the context of events such as the West Coast wildfires. Carla Anne Robbins, CFR adjunct senior fellow and former deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times, hosts the webinar.
FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Local Journalists Webinar. Today, we will be talking about environmental risk management and climate change in the context of events such as the West Coast wildfires with our distinguished speaker and expert, Alice Hill, and host, Carla Anne Robbins. I'm Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach at CFR.
CFR is an independent and nonpartisan organization and think tank focusing on U.S. foreign policy. This webinar is part of CFR's Local Journalists Initiative, created to help you connect the local issues you cover in your communities to global dynamics. As you know, our programming puts you in touch with CFR resources and expertise, provides a forum for sharing best practices, and much more. This webinar is on the record, and the video and transcript will be posted on our website after the fact at CFR.org/localjournalists.
We shared our speakers' bios with you previously but let me just go through briefly. Alice C. Hill is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy environment at CFR. Earlier in her career, she served as supervising judge on both the superior and municipal courts in Los Angeles. Judge Hill is a coauthor of the book Building a Resilient Tomorrow: How to Prepare for the Coming Climate Disruption, and she was previously special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council staff.
Carla Anne Robbins is an adjunct senior fellow at CFR, and she is faculty director of the master of international affairs program and clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College's Marxe School of Public and International Affairs. She was deputy editorial page editor at the New York Times and chief diplomatic correspondent at the Wall Street Journal. Before I turn it over to Carla, I just want to encourage you all to attend tomorrow's virtual event that we're hosting on U.S. foreign policy. It's taking place on October 1 at 3:00 p.m. Eastern Time. And it will be a discussion addressing the foreign policy challenges awaiting the winner of the 2020 election and critical issues for Americans to consider as they cast their vote. The meeting is open to all so please register yourself and circulate it to everyone that you know. So, Carla, I'm going to turn it over to you to have a conversation with Alice Hill.
ROBBINS: Great. Thank you so much, Irina, and thank you so much Judge Hill for joining us today. And thank you all to the reporters who dialed in today. It's great to have you guys with us. And I know that this is a very, I suppose I shouldn't say hot topic, but for what you are out there covering. So Alice, if I may call you that—
HILL: Please, please.
ROBBINS: —your work is on resilience. So, can you give us a quick definition of that term to start?
HILL: Well, there are many definitions that wonder around about resilience, but my definition is preparing for, responding to, and recovering from the catastrophic events of climate change. Those would be wildfires, droughts, sea level rise, bigger storms, a whole host of terribles that we will see as a result of climate change.
ROBBINS: That we're seeing right now in California and sort of frogs, locusts, smiting the firstborn, all the plagues that are going on right now. So, as reporters working in communities that, you know, are either facing this or are going to face this, you know, how do I—if I don't live in in Napa, you know, how do I assess the specific level of risk where I live, whether it's a risk of fire or flood or some other potentially devastating climate-driven event? And what is it that I look at? Do I go look at some sort of geologic map? Or is there just the federal government do some sort of assessments? How do I know based specifically what the risk is to where I live?
HILL: Well, you've put your finger on a serious deficit in the United States. We just have a patchwork of information regarding climate risk. And most of it is at a very high level, at the best at a regional level. The place to start when you want to learn about what the impacts are and are anticipated to be for the United States is to look at the Fourth National Climate Assessment, which came out, I think, two years ago now. And that is a consensus document, it's written by—or about three hundred scientists contribute to it and the executive summary is consensus. So, I would assume that if you think about consensus in your own life, what that does to the information, it's probably conservatively stated, but that can give you regional information. And then it's up to a peril-by-peril analysis. So, the goal would be that all of us could simply type in our address and know what are the range of risks that we face. Recently this summer, we can do that as to one, and it's actually not thanks to the federal government or a state government, it's thanks to a philanthropist. There is a new flood map available through the First Street Foundation. FEMA is also planning to post these maps or tie to them. And that tells you not only your current flood risk, but your future flood risk. U.S. Department of Agriculture has also issued wildfire maps for the entire United States, but those wildfire maps, I believe, are historically based. They do not include the future risk of wildfire worsened by climate change. The flood maps by the First Street Foundation do, so you can see your flood risk for thirty years. This is a huge vulnerability for the United States that we do not have better risk information available at the community level. And I remember meeting with a mayor of a small town in Alabama, Purdue, excuse me, Perdido Beach, very aptly named, facing sea level rise, extreme heat. She said, "What do I do? I don't have any planning department. How do I figure this out?" And there are no easy ways for that to be determined. So, it's kind of a treasure hunt. But there are emerging tools available. And by the way, United States is not alone in this. This is a common problem in many locations.
ROBBINS: So, you've gone through a variety of sources, and we're going to ask you to list them. We'll come back to you and we can send out some links for everyone who's on the call, which would be great, because the Fourth National Climate Assessment, we've got the First Street Foundation, and a variety of other ones because this sort of treasure hunt, or whatever the negative sides of a treasure hunt is, I would think would be a real challenge for reporters to think about. So, that's the first question. The second question is how do we as reporters assess how well our state and local governments are doing at increasing our resilience? And you, I know, have written about this and issues like building codes and early warning systems. But how do I go about getting access to that information in my town or in my state?
HILL: Well, the first thing is to determine whether you're—and hopefully this is online—determine whether your state or your municipality has a climate action plan of some form. It typically will have the word climate in it or adaptation, and if it has that you're far better off than many locations which have not gotten to that point. And we do know that planning is one of the better ways to approach dealing with this future risk. It's not that the plants will be perfect, but it's that there's some assurance that people are thinking about it and incorporating consideration of climate risk as they make decisions about where to put infrastructure, where to permit homes, that kind of thing. So, as to whether your town is in compliance, odds are it's not, at least when it comes to building codes. We do not have in the United States a set of forward-looking building codes. So, it would be highly unique. And I'm not sure—perhaps New York City has the most comprehensive, but that always isn't enforced, we see building occurring in flood zones still in New York City after 9/11. So, that's not always occurring. And very, very few cities, states have dealt with the land use issue, which is really at the core of climate risk. And I think a great example of that is what's unfolding right now in California with the wildfires. We know that areas that burn will burn again in all likelihood. So, the question is what happens when people want to move back and build back in the exact same spot, when we have little confidence that they can be safe? And the mere fact that they're there, puts firefighters and others at risk in trying to preserve their property and save their lives.
ROBBINS: So, when you talked about a centralized early warning system, what I know about earthquake warning systems and Japan and tsunami warning systems, is that what you're talking about?
HILL: They're warning systems for all sorts of things. So, for example, one of the most certain events that we will have with climate change are extreme heat events and to have a warning system so that communities can make sure that they have sufficient shelters, cooling shelters available for the elderly, for people without air conditioning, so that warnings are going out to say keep your time outside limited to make sure that you have adequate water, that would be one kind. Then, of course, a better storm warning system. We've seen that we have some conflicts because they're often run by jurisdictions and those can—if you happen to live on the border, you might get one evacuation order or something else in your early warning system and your adjacent neighbor doesn't. So, we need to deconflict those. That was a big problem in the wildfires in the Black Summer wildfires of 2019 and 2020 in Australia. They had put in place after 2009 terrible fires, they put in place an early warning system, but they found that it was too localized, they need a national warning system to make sure that they reduce the confusion about whether you should leave your home or not. So, early warning systems are lifesavers, they are proven very effective. I'll just give you one example. Pakistan in 1970 had a terrible cyclone, half a million people were killed—no early warning system. They just had the largest cyclone they've ever had, Cyclone Amphan, in now Bangladesh and because of early warning systems, only twenty-two people die.
HILL: They've really figured out how to make sure people can get to safety in time to preserve life. And so, investments in that carry a big payoff. And that's a good way to start in terms of ensuring the safety of your community.
ROBBINS: So, I have a lot more questions, but maybe we'll start by opening it up to people on the call, and if not, if they're still cogitating, I've got many, many more questions, as Irina tells you, I always have many, many more questions.
FASKIANOS: Great, thank you both. So, we'll just go now to check the room to see if people have questions. You can either raise your hand by clicking on the participants’ icon at the bottom of your screen or on an e-tablet in the more area in the upper right-hand corner or you can type your question in the Q&A box, and we'll take it there. And I am just checking, just to see, quiet group so far, so why don't you keep going for another five minutes or so. Okay, and then we'll just go back and do another round.
ROBBINS: I'm having fun. So, money is always tight, and especially tight right now for state and local governments in the midst of the pandemic and certainly the failure of Congress to focus on state and local governments in any of its rescue funding. Was there before the pandemic? Is there federal support for strengthening resilience that governments need to be aware of that local reporters can start looking at whether governments or local governments or state governments are taking advantage of the support that's out there?
HILL: Yes. Under this administration, under President Trump, Congress passed the Disaster Recovery Reform Act of 2018. And that act requires that anytime there's a disaster in any given year that the federal government's funding, 6 percent of whatever spent is preserved for investment in reducing risk going forward. And so that's spread out in various communities. Those numbers have gotten very large because of the big events that we've had since the act was enacted. And this is the greatest investment of risk reduction that we've had, certainly far greater than occurred under the Obama administration. So, it's perceived as a game changer. 6 percent probably isn't adequate to the task at hand, but it's certainly a great improvement. And one thing to watch going forward is whether the trillions that we've poured into the recovery for the pandemic, are part of that calculus. That's not clear yet whether that will count, but if it did that would greatly expand the pool of resources going forward, certainly for this year and probably next year.
ROBBINS: So, is anybody on the Hill pushing for that accounting notion that that 6 percent should apply for disaster recovery from the pandemic—calling the pandemic also a disaster, it's not just hurricanes or earthquakes or fires?
HILL: Well, not that I'm aware of yet. This has been a quiet issue, as far as I know.
ROBBINS: I wish I was writing editorials still, that's interesting. Is there a place to go online to see how much money is in that pot, and what communities have applied for it, and a process for applications that I could go and look and see whether my community is taking advantage of it or should be taking advantage of it?
HILL: I think if you, if one goes on the FEMA website, you will be able to see the application process. FEMA has issued guidance for how to apply and is working through. I'm not aware if there's a list of who's gotten the money yet, but there will definitely be information on how different jurisdictions could apply for those funds. And because they're in much larger amounts than they've historically been, it's a huge leap forward for the United States. They also explicitly call out the need to look for examined future risk and actually mentioned climate change, which is contrary to many documents that have been issued under the Trump administration, which has tended to avoid those words.
ROBBINS: So, what's going on there? I mean, is FEMA getting it—getting religion? Or is it that it's unavoidable for FEMA? I mean, is FEMA one of the good agencies now?
HILL: Well, I think this was driven by Congress, largely, because there's just a recognition that we have a backward system. What we do is we create a moral hazard for localities to invest, allow investment in at-risk areas. And why do they allow this investment? Because people want to live next to the water, they want to live next to the wild lands, those are very desirable properties. And because they're desirable, they're usually expensive, which increases the tax base. So, there's an incentive for the local leaders to approve development that might not be wise if they actually have to pay for it when it gets destroyed. So, as soon as it's developed, the developers sell it. And then if disaster strikes, the federal government will have some expenses incurred as a result of those decisions. So, I think there was a recognition in Congress that this going forward is unsustainable. The Government Accounting Office, which is the watchdog for Congress, has said this is unsustainable, it puts the federal Treasury at risk, at high risk because we keep funding this stuff backwards. So, this was the first real effort to drive investment pre-disaster versus pouring everything in post-disaster.
ROBBINS: So, it would be good to go online and look at whether or not FEMA has—there's an application online, but there may also be a list of localities that have gotten some money. And it would be interesting if my community got the money to then be able to track others spending the money, which is always an interesting thing to see what sort of monitoring is in place to make sure that people are actually spending the money the way they said they're spending the money.
HILL: Yes, and there is a point system or some kind of ranking system. FEMA is clear about what it values, which is important, so in terms of the types of investments it values, those that will be longer lasting. I know that in the rebuild by design competition, the billion dollar competition run after Sandy, they were awarded cross-border planning, which is important because as we've talked about, if you're just on that jurisdictional line and you have two different policies going, it's going to lead people in a vulnerable position because the two jurisdictions didn't think about talking to each other.
ROBBINS: So, there's actually some forethought here?
HILL: Yes, and the people who work in the risk mitigation in FEMA, currently, I know some of those people, and they are deeply invested in finding better ways to have improved outcomes for the United States. They, you know, they don't like the criticism that they continually get that we're not doing this well. So, they're trying to find better paths for us to spend wisely.
ROBBINS: So, if I wanted to assess what's going on in my community, I should go and take a look at how FEMA is describing risk mitigation, what they're offering to finance? I mean, are there some standards there that you think are worth taking a look at?
HILL: I do, and I do think this issue of the building codes is a worthy issue for local reporters because if anyone's buying their—you know, your major investment is probably your house. And you have an inspection done of your house to see if there's termite or whatever. But you don't really ask, well, what building code was used to build this? And what does it mean that it was an older building code. If it's wildfire that could carry a very significant risk. We know from analysis of the 2018 fires that 80 percent of the homes built before 2008 were incinerated in those fire areas, so that meant only 20 percent survival rate. California adopted a stronger building code in 2008 and we've had ten years of new buildings, so we have 350 homes to judge how well that building code did. But here's the story that alarms me, only 50 percent of those houses survived. So, you're a homeowner, you're going in to purchase your home and the latest building code only gives you a 50 percent chance of survival based on best data we have right now. And of course, in California, the risk is that the insurance will decide that this is just not a risk they want to carry. So, there are many budding issues around how we build, where we build and then who's going to pay for the risk that's accelerating from climate worsened events. Will the insurers cover it? And if the insurers won't cover it, who's going to cover it—does it fall on the homeowners? Are we going to advocate for a federal wildfire insurance program? A state run? These are all big questions that I anticipate will be at the forefront once we get through this current set of fires before the next fire season starts.
ROBBINS: So, you've raised an insurance issue, which is which would be of great concern to pretty much anybody who owns a home, and I rarely try to make these things personal, but you've touched something of concern to me. I own an apartment in Miami and my hurricane insurance has tripled in the last two years, and tripled to the point that it is, I would say unsustainable. And we've talked to a lot of our friends. My husband used to work at the Miami Herald, so we lived in Miami for a long time. And you know, we've talked to a lot of our friends who own homes, and we've asked them what are you doing and if they don't have mortgages, they stopped buying insurance because it is unsustainable for them. This I would assume is a problem for more and more people around the country because we are seeing—because I assume it's not just hurricanes. These insurance companies insure for lots of other disasters. Even if it's not a bad hurricane year, if they're dealing with fires someplace else, or is this set by state levels? I mean, and are the insurance companies behaving in a responsible, you know, if not a responsible way, in a way that's responsible to their shareholders?
HILL: So, the question of insurance is complex. It depends where you live, and it depends on the peril. So, if you start with flood, that market is largely a federal flood insurance program, the National Flood Insurance Program, which was started in the 1960s when private insurers really weren't interested in insuring for flood after several big floods, because they didn't see that how you could make money. And in a decade since, the federal government has basically lost huge amounts of money with this program. It's essentially bankrupt and because of the political dynamics, it's been proven impossible to fix. So, we are just continuing to insure, repeatedly, properties that have flooded way past their value, and we haven't been able to figure out a way to get through Congress meaningful reform. So, that's on the flood. In your Miami situation, Miami is an interesting example because in 1992 Hurricane Andrew basically flattened large parts of Florida. And that really surprised the insurers. The insurers had never anticipated that they could have such a big event. So, they all said, wow, we really don't like what we just saw, we're not sure we're going to write more insurance in Florida, so the state stepped in and said, wait a minute, we want to work with you. That was actually the birth of catastrophic modeling from Hurricane Andrew, which is a complex way of predicting future risk. And that started that industry because the insurance companies said, we want to understand what the risk is going to look like in the future. Insurance was reformed in Miami, and now what you're describing is that under that reform, they're discovering that with climate-worsened events and others, just the winds are picking up, there's talk about needing to have a category six hurricane level just to reflect the winds. So, it's again becoming that the wind speeds are so high that it's difficult to insure.
In California, the insurers were surprised by the 2017 and 2018 terrible wildfire years. Those two years basically wiped out two decades' worth of profit for the insurance companies. So, they similarly have been expressing concern, but California is the fifth largest or sixth largest insurance market in the world. So, insurers are reluctant to pull out there because it's so profitable. And the insurance department in California does not allow future modeling. That's why the insurers were kind of surprised by 2017, because they could only look to the past. And I share all this because that is the most important thing that we need to do now. Everything we built, our building codes, our land use decisions, our infrastructure, our transportation systems, you name it—anything that we rely on for human civilization in terms of structures is dependent on an assumption that we can rely on the past to guide our decisions in the future. That is a poor assumption now, because we are seeing ever bigger events. And as we see ever bigger events, that means that we are more vulnerable. So, you can see the insurance if you're resting on historical losses to determine the proper price for insurance, you'll be out of business. And that's why you see these pressures growing. The reinsurers, which are the companies that insure insurance companies because if the insurance companies have too many losses in one year, the reinsurers have to come in and prop them up and they give them money. The reinsurers, several of them have, at least one has said publicly, that if we go to three or four degrees Celsius and more warming, this is an uninsurable world. So, if that happens, is it governments? I don't know, but we're headed to a three- or four-degree world, too. That's what's really scary.
ROBBINS: Category six hurricanes. Irina, I think I see your question.
FASKIANOS: We do—from Debra Krol. So, Debra if you can unmute yourself and tell us your news outlet.
Q: Hi, Debra Krol with the Arizona Republic. I just recently returned from a fire zone in Northern California. And my question is, a lot of the residents of this community, which include a tribe, which include non-Indian people, fire safe councils, they came up with a mitigation plan to harden their communities against wildfires, because they're in an area where wildfires happen. And rather than move away, they wanted to harden their community. They have met with a lot of resistance from federal agencies, state agencies, air quality boards to do this mitigation. Their stance is that they are adapting to a hotter, drier climate, and hardening their towns and their homes against future wildfires. So, how do we get past the reluctance of agencies when communities come up with mitigation plans? And how does adaptation and learning how to live with the coming events play into all of this?
HILL: So, mitigation of risk is very important. I thank you for your question. And I applaud efforts to figure out ways to keep communities safe. I don't know the details of this situation, but it sounds like it's colliding with regulations that are based on that assumption we just talked about, that the climate is stable, that what we've done in the past will keep us safe in the future. And most of our regulations on our books reflect that. So, when you try to do some kind of mitigation work, which might present new elements, innovations, and might affect other structures, it's not surprising to me that you meet resistance, because there isn't yet widespread incorporation and understanding of this risk among the decision-makers in our agencies, either at the federal or the state. I would say the state of California is a leader as is in the state of New York, so you're more likely to find more people who will understand the tradeoffs that would be involved in those state agencies then you would elsewhere. There are other exceptions throughout the United States, but in the vast majority, most people are discounting the risk of climate change, so they don't tend to understand the value that's brought by various mitigation measures.
One of the risks we have is that as communities go and make choices to mitigate themselves, and I'll give you an example that makes it clear, is San Francisco Bay. San Francisco Bay has a hundred communities around it, it is going to have sea level rise, and as that sea level rise occurs, it's going to fill up like a bathtub. So, those hundred cities all have jurisdictional rules that require strict development and decide what's going to be developed along their coasts. If one city decides to build a seawall, just they're going to harden things, and that's going to be their risk mitigation measure to keep the water out, what does that mean for the surrounding two adjoining communities? That probably increases their flood risk. There was a similar development recently in the San Francisco Bay that allowed development on wetlands and wetlands are one of the best ways to mitigate sea level rise and to buffer storm surges. But because one community decided to develop in their wetlands, that has implications for adjoining communities. So, that's why it's complex when we don't have cross-border planning when one community goes out and is trying very desperately to do the right thing and protect their own people, but there could be costs to others involved. And it becomes complex quickly and that's why we need new structures and new planning mechanisms to allow us to come together and come to a joint plan. There's one state that has done a remarkable job on that and that's Louisiana. They got tens of millions of dollars from the BP oil spill and they put that to a plan, a coastal plan, a master plan that really talks through how they're going to deal with flooding across the state in a very thoughtful way.
FASKIANOS: Okay, Carla, back to you.
ROBBINS: Great. So, I was going to ask you about examples of places that are doing a better job in adopting resilience or developing resilience. Any other examples that we should be looking at that might be inspirations for stories?
HILL: Well, I think you can go—there many locations that are working on specific issues and bringing together people and trying to make progress. Another one that has been notable is Norfolk, Virginia. They have worked really hard to come up with a plan to deal with their very serious sea level rise problem. They've also worked well with the federal government, because that is a major national security asset for us there. We have all of our military branches represented, over thirty military installations, hugely important, the biggest naval base in the world. So, hugely important that we remain resilient. I think that Miami has done some important work, your Southeast Regional Compact in southern Florida was one of the leaders in joining counties to come together on a plan for joint sea level rise planning. So, they figured out, okay, how much should we expect? Now we will build our plans off of that expectation of what we can have for sea level rise—very helpful. San Francisco Bay has not achieved that. So, there isn't a common planning tool or planning assumption, as those communities makes decisions about what to plan. So, there are bright spots, but given the scope of the challenge, we need to act with a lot more speed than we are now to really make sure that the decisions we're making right today don't look stupid in just a decade's time.
ROBBINS: So, we talked about the insurance industry, are there particular technology companies or other businesses that could potentially make for stories here that are coming up with new ways, you know, to improve, when you talk about building codes or building materials, or cool ways of dealing with, you know, sea walls? Or in my community, there are companies that are potentially doing things that could solve problems? Those are always really good stories to write about.
HILL: We've seen an explosion in those types of startups, so we see startups using artificial intelligence to map out where risk will come, where it will fall. We see these modeling firms that have invested deeply in modeling, what wildfire risk looks like, for example. We've seen attempts to have remote sensing increase so that we can determine more quickly what is occurring. Consulting firms have moved in to try to bridge this gap of you've got a problem, what can you do about it? So, the consulting firms have moved in to try to be translators. Just this year, I would say, McKinsey and Company has been making a major play in the area of climate resilience. They're putting out some very strong reports about what the risks are to the supply chain pertinent in the pandemic. That's illustrated if you have a vulnerable supply chain—it's going to affect your bottom line. So, we're seeing companies developing services that are of interest to others and it's just been an explosion of this. One of the challenges is the price. So, we have a lot of companies offering these but for disadvantaged communities, for public entities, there is a real question whether it will be available. And this is particularly sensitive in the area of modeling since most of that is all still proprietary, but the models give us the best projections of what the future will look like. And if there isn't a public model, how is that mayor that I talked about in Alabama going to be able to plan or have any idea of what's ahead except in the most general of terms.
ROBBINS: So, we heard and we were talking before this as everyone in the country is talking about the dumpster fire of a debate last night in which there was a question added about climate change, although there was more, shall we say heat than light last night. How much on the plans that you're hearing in discussion, mainly from the Democratic Party about climate change, how much is the discussion of resilience come up? People keep talking about creating great green jobs and all of that—is there any, do you see anybody seriously talking about this? And any suggestion that, you know, if there were a change of administration, that the concerns that you're raising might be dealt with differently?
HILL: Yes, resilience is reflected in the Biden platform and in the Democratic National Committee platform. And we see, for example, in Congress, they had the Committee on the Climate Crisis. In their report, they issued a very lengthy report that there were resilience measures, and there are a number of think tanks that are pushing resilience. But your question does point out a challenge in that almost all the work and thought on climate change continues to be on cutting emissions. That's understandable. Cutting emissions is the most resilient thing we could do. The heat that we will have, if we don't cut emissions, is there'll be swaths of the earth, there'll be sections of the earth that will be uninhabitable. This sounds like science fiction, but we're already seeing the kind of heat extremes where people can't survive and those will just increase. So, we need to seriously, seriously address future heating and cut that now. And that includes methane, which is the most damaging, or the most fast-acting form of greenhouse gas emissions, which would lock in even more heating, much more quickly. So yes, we need to do that.
But because there has been a lot of focus on that, and I think an underlying belief among those who have been advocates in this area for a long time that if you talk about cutting emissions, you're sending a signal that you could adapt out of this. And that would be the wrong signal, there is no successful way—humans will adapt—but there's no way that would be reasonable for us to shoot for to say, let's adapt out of this. But the resilience and adaptation side of climate change, as a consequence, is very small. It's a small community, not as nearly as much work done. And it's very local decisions, very complex, there's not a top-down solution like there is for cutting the emissions. It's a sort of a bottom-up—what does each community need? And because it's been much slower to develop, we're much more vulnerable. And we're seeing these impacts worsened by climate, and we're going to have more of them, because there's more heating baked in, and so we need to act really quickly. So, there are plans out there, but they tend not to get as much focus, and of course, I worry, that if we did have a change in administration, and there was an interest in focusing on this, would it be able to gain the kind of traction it needs now? My hope is it does.
ROBBINS: So, the EU of course has been far more committed to dealing with reduction of emissions, that's certainly far ahead of the United States. Are they also dealing with resilience and issues? I mean, are we seeing—are there models there, are things that we could look at that are potential models for the United States or for local communities? And which countries should we be looking at if we wanted to say, look at X city and it is potentially applicable to my community?
HILL: So, Europe has been working on this. And I'm pretty confident that almost every European country has a national adaptation plan which directs adaptation for the country. And some of them are, for example, the Dutch are quite sophisticated in incorporating future risks. They plan for the one-in-ten-thousand-year flood, so we plan for the one-in-one-hundred-year flood and both of those metrics are off because, of course, the statistical likelihood of something happening is changing with climate change, it's making it more likely. But they are much more forward-leaning and have incorporated those into their building standards. We've seen other countries working as well to look at flood mitigation and planning. One of the challenges we have is river management, and those rivers generally are shared water basins. We have lots of agreements, hundreds of agreements for the shared water basins across the world. But fortunately, none of those except, I think, the Danube and the Rhine and maybe there are a few other exceptions, account for future risk. So, we see a lot of progress in Europe, I wouldn't say that they can say it's done. Notre Dame runs a global adaptation index and lists all the countries in the world, the five top countries, with the exception of New Zealand, New Zealand's in the top five, I think are European. So, that's where we're seeing the most action.
ROBBINS: So, how do I put this? How do you work in this business and maintain any optimism? I mean, I don't mean to, I don't want you to get off this call and split [inaudible]. But you've worked in government, and you worked with business, and you've done in many different forms—and I worked in Washington for years as a reporter, this is, you know, I've watched the Republican Party go from believing in climate change and being willing to, you know, Mitt Romney and John McCain and Lindsey Graham talking about climate change legislation—Chris Christie—and then basically, even Newt Gingrich. I remember there was that great ad of Newt Gingrich and Nancy Pelosi saying we disagree on a lot of things, but the one thing we agree on is climate change. We’ll send you guys the links to this; it’s one of my favorite ads. And to watch the change in the politics of it over time, how does one organize the politics of this to get any of this through? I mean, we're talking potentially an enormous amount of money, we're talking regulation. How do you maintain your optimism and how can you imagine that any of these things happen? Or is this really something that has to happen on a local level, that local leaders, whether its governors, state legislators, or even mayors are the ones that are going to have to take the lead because Washington is unlikely to move it forward?
HILL: Well, you're right, the choices will have to be made on the local level. But I do believe that the federal government can play a very important role in providing the necessary incentives. And one of the places that we've seen greater, probably the bipartisanship of this revealed, which gives me hope, is if you look at the National Defense Re-Authorization Act. Of course, you know, the military is going to get money every year, and I suspect no politician wants to be the politician who said they didn't want to fund the U.S. military, so that funding has tended to go through. And what Congress has done in recent years is do a lot of climate resilience legislation—they've told the military they need to do a much better job for planning climate risk for military operations and military installations. So, they need to understand their sea level rise risk, their heat risks, the risk of drought affecting freshwater supplies for different bases. They've also directed that they create a climate intelligence group to look at the national security risks posed by climate change. So, we've seen movement occur that indicates to me that there are folks on both sides of the aisle that recognize this is in the best interest of the United States to be better prepared. And when push comes to shove, we're going to find ways that we can make sure that happens. The other thing that keeps me going is, you know, we mentioned I'm a former judge. One of the things about the law, it's typically based on precedent. And so I remember being a judge and I'd say, well, we could do this and then the litigants would say, oh no, you can't do that judge, we already tried that, it doesn't work, or there's this case that says you can't do it. That doesn't exist in this field—it is wide open. Your idea, anyone's idea is probably, odds are maybe somebody's thought of it, maybe not. But nobody's tested it, so there is so much opportunity for innovation, creativity, energy, and of course, there's an enormous need. So ironically, I find it energizing because I see it's an exploding field. It needs people to be involved, but there isn't this sense, oh, we've already done that, it's impossible, forget it. There's just not a sense of been there, done that. It's all, wow, we could do that! So, I urge people to look at it because it's exciting. It's interdisciplinary, it calls on skills that from across the board to answer really huge issues.
ROBBINS: So, you've just raised for me to potential additional areas for stories that people could be working on, it would seem to me because I would love to work on them. One is if I have a military base in my community, and what would I be looking for, to see what money they have and what adaptation they could potentially, since they're a leading indicator potentially? So, I have a military base in my community, I want to go and talk to them. This is something they wouldn't want to hide. It's a good news story. So, what questions do I ask them?
HILL: Well, first of all, you need to—what are your vulnerabilities? Have you determined your vulnerabilities? What are your risks inside the base? So, that's your risks internally, that might not be shared as well, but that certainly hopefully there's understanding. But what are you doing to plan outside the fence? How are you going to coordinate with your community? And I'll bring this home to you, this is really how I started when I was at the White House. My second day at the White House, I get a call, please come to this meeting. I show up to the meeting and an administrator from Norfolk's there—Norfolk, Virginia. And he tells me about all the serious problems they're having with sea level rise. It's really the fastest rising place on the Eastern Seaboard, very quick and causing sunny day flooding—sunny tidal flooding—just because it's not storm driven, it's just because of sea level rise. And he says, look, 90 percent of military personnel live off base. So, they live around Norfolk and the surrounding community called Hampton Roads. He said, we just spent about $120 million of federal money to build a light rail. And we called it "The Tide," very aptly named "The Tide." But he said, and so this was his speaking to me in 2013, he said, we didn't account for sea level rise when we planned that, and so we already have some flooding going along the rail. And by the way, if we thought about it, we could have used it to berm and protect against flooding in certain areas of our town. And he just said we really need help; we clearly are not doing what we need to do in this space. And so, I would say if I were writing a story, what are your plans for the community? Is the community dependent on electrical generation from outside the base? How many people live off the base? What's the water situation? You know, if you're in a drought situation, what are your plans?
And then there are also other issues about training of military personnel, whether they can be training in heat conditions because we now have extreme heat that's too dangerous for young men and women to be training in full gear. There are other issues about acquisitions if the Department of Defense would talk to you about it. But here's a basic question—we know that when it’s really hot, planes don't take off well, you need a longer runway. I think it's an open question whether the military is actively considering that right now. I don't know if they would tell you that, but these are the kinds of long-term thinking that we need to make sure are being driven not only in the military, but other areas, but it makes us highly vulnerable if we haven't thought through what we will need going forward. And the military has some egg on its face, the same year, 2013, they were building a billion-dollar space detection system that captures space junk, because we have so many satellites that have died, they're going to run into each other and cause a lot of problems. They built it on an atoll in the Pacific. If you see this thing, it's so close to the ocean, they decided based on historical records, they did not need to consider sea level rise. Now, already they have gone back and they realized that the sea level rise is going to basically create too much saline in their freshwater supplies, so they won't have freshwater supplies on the island. So, we need to have people asking these questions: Have you thought this through? What's the plan? How are we going to get there? And then most importantly, start bringing others along to be asking the questions so that we can build that community of resilience.
FASKIANOS: I have a question, a written question from John Allison, director of content at the Tribune-Review in Greensburg, Pennsylvania. He says, "I'm writing from Pittsburgh area, much transformed, but where air quality remains an issue and the fracking economy is embedded. Our progressive mind mayor is pushing for lots of green everything, but the public of the ten-county region is still generally in favor of industry over environment in the short term. Any thoughts on how a region like Pittsburgh can make progress on the climate front?”
HILL: That's a hard one. Particularly, I'm reading a book about Lincoln's trip to Washington, and it's talking about Pittsburgh, where in the 1860s, the women all dressed in black because the air pollution was so bad. So, it's been a challenge, I think, for the area for a while. But as these impacts come in, I do believe there's an opportunity for more discussion about how we can transition into different kinds of economies. It is particularly acute in an area like Pittsburgh where there's a lot of industry dependent on this part of the fossil fuel industry, which is contributing to this challenge that we have. And so I say, we should be investing deeply in those communities to help that transition occur, help the job transition, the education transition, and that's the duty of really all Americans to help, because if we help your area be cleaner and find better ways to thrive, it's going to have a better outcome for the rest of us. That's the way climate works.
FASKIANOS: Carla, you get the final question.
ROBBINS: It follows exactly from what you were just saying, which is, if I were to go to my local college or my local community college, and if I wanted to figure out whether or not they were training students for the jobs of the future, what courses should they be doing? What majors should they be doing to get people to prepare themselves in the climate resilience field so that people can get jobs that can address these problems?
HILL: Well, unfortunately, I haven't done the study on this—this is based on anecdotal evidence, but I do speak to a lot of young people and I do watch the issue. Our universities or colleges have not matched the crisis that we have at hand. Most of them do not offer majors, they reflect, you'll hear an environmental studies major which can capture some of this, but it's not really capturing the nature of climate change and the really dramatic effects and impacts it has. As far as I'm aware, there's only one major university—that's Columbia—that has started a college or a program, a center, more than a center but actually a program for climate change. There are many reasons for this, but it probably reflects what's happened in society. You know, if you look at a university right now, they've got a lot of people on staff who have tenure, who may have been studying a particular discipline or issue that was very important two decades ago, or three decades. Now this is emerged and it's overtaking everything, but they've got a workforce that has already focused on something else. So, I have been a bit frustrated, I view them as perhaps the potential saviors to be community organizers and get all this going and get everybody trained. But if you really peel back on our major universities, they reflect a feudal system from long ago, and I just don't think they're quite as nimble as they need to be.
Time for one more, I'll just tell you a funny story about this that really brought it home for me. I was working at Stanford and Stanford has some of the best climate scientists in the world. And they have an energy system that's very clean, and it's if you go to look at the plant, it's Zen-like, it's gorgeous, very Californian. And so right before I went on a visit, Stanford and Northern California had a couple of extreme heat events where they had to cut the comfort cooling, meaning cut air conditioning to classrooms and to dorms to protect the computer capabilities of the campus. Very important. So, they were just preserving, it was a kind of a reducing risk measure. But so I toured after this, and I asked, well, what are your plans for extreme heat events, and the engineer in charge said to me, oh, we don't need to worry about that, that was just a once-in-a-decade event, that's nothing to worry about. And of course, the next year, there was another extreme heat event and the time that Stanford had to close was even longer. And that just brought it home to me, these are all decisions that, it's got to cross silos, we got to be focusing on it, asking the right questions, and making sure that everyone's part of the process in order to have the right outcomes. Stanford is going to be a huge contributor and solutions for climate change, but they also had a challenge like there are on these military bases—have you thought through what you need to keep yourself safe?
ROBBINS: Thank you so much. Irina back to you.
FASKIANOS: Now, I'll just note that John Allison wrote that in his community, the community colleges are helping prepare workers for the huge Shell cracker plant in Beaver County—it's real jobs. So, it seems like there is some sub-movement in some places. So, that's a story to look at, for sure.
FASKIANOS: So, thank you both for doing this, we really appreciate it. We will send the video and transcript out after the fact, as well as links to some of the resources that Alice mentioned during this discussion. You can follow Carla Anne Robins on Twitter @robbinscarla and Alice Hill @Alice_ C_Hill. Of course, go to CFR.org and ForeignAffairs.com for analysis on the pandemic, the environment, election 2020. And again, I hope you'll join us for tomorrow's virtual election 2020 U.S. foreign policy forum, although U.S. foreign policy was not mentioned in last night's debate at all. We plan to talk about it at three o'clock Eastern time. So, please join us then. And thank you both.
ROBBINS: Thank you, Irina.
HILL: Thank you. And thank you, everyone. Thank you.