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The pandemic has provided an unfortunate “dress rehearsal” for confronting catastrophic risk, writes Alice C. Hill, David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in her new book, The Fight for Climate After COVID-19. “That rehearsal has revealed valuable lessons, including on how to adapt more effectively to climate change.”
“The choices we make now—especially with regard to infrastructure—will determine whether we can live safely in a world transformed by climate change or whether we will be doomed to relentless suffering from the increasingly severe natural disasters unleashed on an altered planet,” writes Hill.
According to Hill, “mitigation alone will no longer keep us safe,” because temperatures will continue to increase for the foreseeable future—“even if every country in the world doubles down on cutting emissions.” Hill, who previously worked on resilience policy for climate and biological threats on the National Security Council staff, argues: “we also need to adapt.”
“Governments, communities, businesses, and individuals need to embark on making widespread, foundational adjustments to how and where they live and conduct business,” she explains. “They can no longer assume that decisions they made in the past about construction standards, land use, disease surveillance, transportation systems, power generation, water access, flood protection, emergency management, wastewater treatment, supply chain integrity, or other critical matters will keep them safe going forward.”
Hill draws parallels between measures that governments should have taken to contain the spread of COVID-19 and steps that leaders can take now to prepare for and respond to new climate-fueled extremes such as deeper droughts, bigger wildfires, more intense storms, and relentless sea-level rise.
She offers the following blueprint to help communities adapt:
- Prepare for disasters. Strengthen emergency preparedness by “building stockpiles, fattening supply chains, creating surge workforces, and identifying ways for people to obtain aid immediately before and after disaster strikes.”
- Plan across borders. For example, “communities upstream should consider the water needs of their downstream neighbors as they work to address climate-fueled water scarcity.”
- Weave tighter safety nets. “Protect vulnerable populations in the face of worsening extremes” through cash transfer programs—which reduce the need for food aid and promote savings—and low-cost insurance to help low-income people recover from disasters.
- Jumpstart resilience. Develop climate-resilient building codes and standards and craft “land-use policies that remove people from harm’s way.” In Japan, for example, engineers have pioneered performance codes to ensure that buildings can withstand earthquakes and be used immediately after.
- Marry mitigation and adaptation. Prioritize nature-based solutions over engineered solutions. Rather than build a wall to protect against rising sea levels, focus instead on restoring wetlands—which absorb carbon and provide protection against flooding.
“No matter how sophisticated the planning, the mapping, or the modeling, the final test will come down to leadership, whether in combating a biological threat or addressing climate change,” Hill concludes.
Read more about The Fight for Climate After COVID-19 and order your copy at cfr.org/ClimateAfterCovid.
To interview the author, please contact Jenny Mallamo at 212.434.9888 or [email protected].