3 Bold Actions Congress Should Take to Equitably Address Weather and Climate Disasters

Water floods a North Carolina highway as Hurricane Dorian hits the area on September 6, 2019.

For most people, experiencing more severe extreme weather and climate events—such as wildfires, flooding, hurricanes, heat waves, and drought—is the primary signal that climate change is affecting their communities. In 2019, communities across the United States were hit by extreme weather events that razed their neighborhoods, businesses, and infrastructure—from the historic flooding in the Midwest that damaged millions of acres of agriculture to Hurricane Dorian, which unleashed devastating storm surge upon the coastal communities of North Carolina. These events are forcing communities to face the stark reality of a future marked by human-induced climate change, but this future is not inevitable. By supporting bold and equitable policies to reduce carbon and other pollution and prepare for climate change effects, Congress can protect communities from the most harmful impacts of climate change.

The United States’ shifting baseline for climate disasters

In 2019, the United States experienced 14 extreme weather and climate disaster events that each exceeded $1 billion in damages, according to new data and analysis from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These events resulted in the deaths of 44 people and caused a total of $45 billion in damages. The combined cost of the Missouri, Arkansas, and Mississippi river flooding represented nearly half—$20 billion—of this total bill. Additionally, 2019 marks the fifth consecutive year in which 10 or more billion-dollar weather and climate disasters have struck the United States—a disturbing trend driven by climate change.

Since 1980, 258 billion-dollar weather and climate disasters, an annual average of 6.5 events, have cost the United States a total of more than $1.75 trillion. Over just the past five years, the total cost of 69 separate billion-dollar weather and climate events exceeded $525 billion, with annual averages of 13.8 events and $106.3 billion. These data confirm that many communities across the country are already on the front lines of the costly climate change impacts that have been fueled by the climate policy rollbacks and roadblocks orchestrated by climate deniers in Congress and the Trump administration. Systemic inequalities have left many tribal communities, communities of color, and economically disadvantaged areas exposed to disproportionately high climate change risks and pollution from multiple sources, such as power plants, industrial facilities, and diesel trucks, among others. These communities—often called environmental justice (EJ) communities—have the fewest resources to prepare for climate change, are often excluded from climate resilience planning, and shoulder the daily, often life-threatening cumulative impacts of heavily concentrated pollution, coupled with a higher number of deadly extreme weather and climate disasters.

To hold global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels and safeguard communities from climate change impacts, the United States will need an ambitious framework for climate action that is centered on achieving economic, racial, and environmental justice. Failure to mobilize the needed resources and build a strong and diverse coalition—including environmental justice advocates, labor organizations, environmental groups, and more—to act on climate will threaten the nation’s public health, national security, and economy, as well as exacerbate wealth and racial inequality. Congress should immediately take the actions detailed below in order to significantly reduce U.S. greenhouse gas and other pollution and build healthy and safe communities and infrastructure.

1. Design national climate policies to reduce pollution in front-line communities

To build broad support for national climate action, Congress must design comprehensive climate legislation that delivers real benefits to communities, including improved air and water quality, climate-ready housing and infrastructure, and good jobs with family-sustaining wages. The Equitable and Just National Climate Platform, which the Center for American Progress co-authored with 12 environmental justice groups and seven national environmental organizations and which has been signed by more than 240 community and national groups, states that such action “will require a realignment of public dollars at all levels toward policy structures that rely heavily on holistic nonmarket-based regulatory mechanisms that explicitly account for local impacts.” The platform recognizes that “[u]nless justice and equity are central components of our climate agenda, the inequality of the carbon-based economy will be replicated in the new economy.”

On January 8, 2020, Reps. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-NJ), Paul Tonko (D-NY), and Bobby L. Rush (D-IL) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee announced the framework of their draft Climate Leadership and Environmental Action for our Nation’s (CLEAN) Future Act, which aims to put the nation on track to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas pollution (GHG) by 2050. On January 28, the committee released a discussion draft of the CLEAN Future Act. This effort creates a critical opportunity to design climate legislation to improve the health and well-being of all communities, particularly those in which pollution historically has been concentrated. According to Nicky Sheats, co-founder and chair of the board of the New Jersey Environmental Justice Alliance, climate change mitigation policy should be specifically designed to reduce emissions in EJ communities. In an October 2019 interview with CAP, Sheats discussed why climate mitigation policy should not only curb climate change but also reduce locally harmful GHG co-pollutants in EJ communities to improve residents’ health and quality of life. He emphasized that “if we do climate change mitigation policy in a business-as-usual way, which means not paying attention to environmental justice and equity up front, … [there’s a] very good chance we’re going to reproduce those inequalities or make things worse in the neighborhoods that have the most pollution now.”

To more equitably tackle climate change, national climate legislation must include policies that require polluting facilities in or near low-income neighborhoods and communities of color to reduce their emissions significantly.

2. Create a National Climate Bank

Congress should also create a National Climate Bank to drive public and private investment into renewable energy, clean transportation, and community resilience projects, particularly in front-line communities such as economically disadvantaged communities, tribal communities, and communities of color. In July 2019, Sens. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) introduced the National Climate Bank Act to expand investments in clean energy, transportation, and infrastructure to reduce carbon and other pollution and improve the health and well-being of communities. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) introduced similar legislation in the House in December 2019. Her legislation proposes that the National Climate Bank be capitalized with $35 billion over six years to leverage up to $1 trillion in private investment. According to Rep. Dingell, “Establishing a National Climate Bank will serve as an important implementation tool to achieve this goal by publicly financing and stimulating private investments” in renewable energy and “clean transportation,” as well as provide support to communities that bear the brunt of climate change.

Meanwhile, if the CLEAN Future Act is enacted, it would create a “first-of-its-kind National Climate Bank … to provide financing for low- and zero-emissions energy technologies, climate resiliency, building efficiency and electrification, industrial decarbonization, grid modernization, agriculture projects, and clean transportation.” Like the House and Senate National Climate Bank bills, the CLEAN Future Act would require the bank to prioritize investments in “frontline, rural, low-income and environmental justice communities.”

Similar to the State Future Funds that CAP proposed in 2015, the National Climate Bank is a forward-thinking approach to supporting future-ready infrastructure and access to clean, affordable energy and transportation options to improve community health and safety. Congress can begin to tackle past inequities and unfair infrastructure practices by requiring that at least 60 percent of proposed National Climate Bank capital be invested in communities with the greatest need.

3. Permanently authorize the CDBG-DR Program

To improve the speed of community recovery after disaster strikes, Congress should pass the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act of 2019, which would permanently authorize the Community Development Block Grant Disaster Relief (CDBG-DR) Program, provide long-term rebuilding resources, and strengthen administration of the program to ensure that low-income households, children, people with disabilities, and others affected by disasters are not left behind.

After a presidentially declared disaster, CDBG-DR funds are allocated to states, counties, and cities to fund construction or rehabilitation projects, recovery planning and administration, and predisaster mitigation activities. Under the CDBG-DR Program, after Congress passes a disaster supplemental appropriation, the Department of Housing and Urban Development is required to issue a Federal Register notice that sets requirements and waivers for each individual CDBG-DR allocation. Since this process occurs on a case-by-case basis, the delivery of disaster assistance to the communities that need it most is often delayed.

The potential for the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act to become law is promising: It unanimously passed the House Financial Services Committee in July 2019 and passed the House of Representatives with bipartisan support the following November. By passing the Reforming Disaster Recovery Act and adequately funding the CDBG-DR Program, Congress can ensure faster disaster recovery for front-line communities across the United States.

Conclusion

Reducing the devastating impacts of extreme weather and climate events demands bold and decisive action from federal, state, and local policymakers before, during, and after natural disasters. By designing equitable climate policies that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and co-pollutants in areas overburdened by poor air and water quality and by improving community health and safety, Congress can support economic security and address the unfair and reprehensible legacy of racial and wealth inequality in the United States.

Guillermo Ortiz is a former research associate for Energy and Environment at the Center for American Progress. Cathleen Kelly is a senior fellow for Energy and Environment at the Center.

The authors would like to thank Dr. Cecilia Martinez of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy and Meghan Miller and the CAP Editorial team for their contributions to this column.