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5-4-3-2-1: Counting Down Obama’s Legacy on Climate Resilience

When President Barack Obama announced his administration’s Climate Action Plan three years ago, the setting couldn’t have been more apt: speaking outside Georgetown University on a sweltering June day in 2013, he said a key pillar of the plan was to enhance U.S. preparedness for the impacts of climate change. Three years later, Obama has done more to address climate impacts than any of his predecessors. Making climate resilience a top priority was particularly timely, given that records for extreme weather and temperature have fallen during Obama’s time in the White House.

Let’s start the countdown:

  • Five 1,000-year rainfall events – rains so intense they only have a 0.1 percent chance of occurring each year in the location they occurred -- in the last six months. Hurricane Matthew (October) devastated much of the Southeast, while 1,000-year rainfall events also occurred in Louisiana (August), Maryland (July), Wisconsin (July) and West Virginia (June).

  • Four of the first six years of this decade have been the hottest years of annual global average temperatures on record: 2015, 2014, 2010, 2013. Average global temperatures during the last decade (2000 to 2009) were warmer than any time in at least the last 1,300 years, with temperatures running even higher this decade and 2016 expected with near certainty to become the hottest.

  • Three consecutive years of record warm global average temperatures: 2016, 2015, 2014. As we enter the final two months of the year experts give 2016 a 99.9 percent chance to surpass 2015 as the warmest year on record. Never before has the record for warmest observed annual global average temperature been broken three years in a row.

  • Second costliest extreme weather event in U.S. history. In October 2012, Superstorm Sandy, the largest hurricane to form in the Atlantic Basin, caused more than $68 billion in damages and more than 8.5 million Americans across 21 states to lose power.

  • Most acres burned by wildfires in a single year in recorded U.S. history. In 2015, wildfires scorched more than 10 million acres across the country.

The Obama administration has shown critical leadership as these and other climate impacts threatened U.S. communities, the economy and national security. Two approaches were essential to make the climate resilience strategy optimally useful and effective:

1. Listening to – and supporting – people on the frontline

The Obama administration listened to the most urgent needs of communities around the country already dealing with the impacts of climate change. In 2013, Obama established the State, Local and Tribal Leader Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, which provided more than 100 priority recommendations that guided the administration’s climate resilience measures. Federal initiatives and tools like the Climate Data Initiative, the Partnership for Resilience and Preparedness and the U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit are helping communities better understand their climate risk and develop their own climate resilience strategies. Public-private partnerships like the National Disaster Resilience Competition and Rebuild by Design have given communities and states incentives and resources to develop and implement climate resilience strategies.

2. Leading by federal example

While partisan gridlock persisted in Congress, Obama used his presidential authority to advance climate resilience. For example, a 2013 executive order required consideration of climate change in all federal agency missions and operations. In 2015, another executive order established a federal flood risk management standard that required all federal investments in and affecting floodplains to meet higher flood risk management standards to reduce future flood risk and costs. And a presidential memorandum issued in September directs all federal agencies to fully consider climate impacts in the development and implementation of all plans and policies related to national security.

Much More Remains to Be Done

The Obama administration has built a strong foundation of climate resilience but climate threats like rising seas, increasing coastal flooding and more extreme weather remain significant challenges. While they can appear daunting, they also present tremendous opportunities that can strengthen the U.S. economy, upgrade dated infrastructure, create jobs and fortify military assets. For example, costly damage from extreme weather and climate events can be minimized by better integrating climate resilience into policies, planning and investments before – rather than after – disasters occur. Better balancing grey infrastructure (such as concrete seawalls) with green infrastructure (such as natural wetlands) can increase resilience to climate impacts while improving water and air quality, quality of life and public health. And communities that want to be able to weather climate change better but lack the resources can be supported by developing of financing options for climate resilience measures. The next administration should seek bipartisan support for low-carbon infrastructure investments that build climate resilience. This will create needed jobs throughout the country while addressing a known risk.

Time is running out to prevent the worst of future climate impacts, especially as comprehensive climate action is delayed. The next president must build on Obama’s progress to ensure that homes, roads, critical infrastructure, the economy and national security are not only able to withstand the climate impacts of tomorrow, but thrive in an era where a changing climate is the new normal.

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