As we discussed yesterday, the Biden administration must honor our nation’s collective responsibility to minimize the impacts of the climate crisis on Americans and people everywhere now and into the future. How? The first two priorities, as previously discussed, include rejoining the Paris Agreement and boost jobs in the emerging resilience center. Third, the federal government should launch the long-term migration plans necessary to secure the safety of citizens most vulnerable to climate risks.
As the New York Times said this summer, the “idea of retreating from areas that can’t be defended…is a political minefield.” Nevertheless, with his five-decade career behind him, President Biden can afford to show courage and wade in. Taking on such a complicated plan has many moving parts – but bottom line, it’s time to focus on how we can protect populations throughout regions that are most vulnerable to climate change across the U.S.
Here’s why the Biden White House must focus on both migration and resilience.
Let’s start with the numbers. To start, there were 454,000 disaster-induced displacements within the U.S. in 2019 alone, according to the extreme weather disasters measured by the International Displacement Monitoring Center. In addition, more than 386,000 homes, worth a total of about $210 billion, are at risk of coastal flooding by 2050 – and nearly two billion homes may become submerged by 2100, estimates the online real estate database company Zillow. At least 13 million U.S. coastal residents are expected to be displaced by 2100 due to sea level rise, says Bloomberg.
Those statistics foreshadow massive risks for the U.S. government – a daunting challenge that to date federal agencies apparently cannot grasp. For example, while FEMA classifies 8.7 million properties as having substantial flood risk, the First Street Foundation Flood Model identifies far more: 14.6 million properties with the same level of risk. This means nearly six million households and property owners have underestimated or been unaware of their current risk.
Meanwhile, the real estate industry has already started to integrate flooding risks into more property listings as cities like Miami Beach (pictured above) keep building along the shore even as it’s clear communities of color will bear the harshest burden as the climate crisis continues.
The U.S. financial sector is responding in kind. The number and total value of flood insurance policies have been declining since 2006, meaning that households that purchased a property in coastal areas may be at increased risk of defaulting on their mortgages. Further, U.S. property insurance rates increased for 10 consecutive quarters since the fourth quarter of 2017 following Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria. This 10-quarter streak tracks with greater storm frequency and intensity and follows 17 quarters of rate reductions, from the third quarter of 2014 to the third quarter of 2017.
Research has shown that after disaster-declared hurricanes, various banks have increased by almost 10 percent the share of coastal mortgages that they offloaded to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Additionally, the odds of an eventual foreclosure rose by 3.6 percent for a mortgage originated in the first year after a hurricane, and by almost 5 percent for a mortgage originated in the third year.
These data suggest the U.S. housing market is trending toward the next “big short.” How can that trend be halted?
First and foremost, the Biden administration should immediately establish a climate change mitigation program, as recommended by the Government Accountability Office.
Next, the feds must emphasize resource-building in receiving communities as part of a strategy to make relocation from climate change hazards, from river and coastal flooding to wildfires. This is the easiest, most dignified and most attractive option for property owners and renters to pursue. This relocation emphasis should be a priority in fund allocations to FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Both of these agencies have appropriations which explicitly allow for the acquisition and relocation of exposed communities, while the Small Business Administration (SBA) has the tools for risk mitigation and disaster recovery.
The incoming Biden administration also needs to ensure that the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA) requires investments to assess and address climate change risks, build climate change resilience, and do no harm to avoid perpetuating environmental injustice.
Finally, the U.S. needs a Climate Community Reinvestment Act as the next generation of the CRA. Such legislation would have to focus on community resilience investments including low- and moderate-income housing outside of flooding, combined sewer overflow, and wildfire-risk zones, cooling centers, natural infrastructure for heat and stormwater mitigation, which could become possible through the use of community development financial institutions (CDFIs) and other public-private partnerships.
For other ideas and inspiration for this crucial pillar of a Biden climate action plan, check out The United States’ Climate Change Relocation Plan via the Atlantic Council.
For the new Biden administration, accomplishing this work will ensure he makes progress on his stated aims to reduce inequality, lower levels of poverty, create a healthier environment, build stronger communities, and generate more and higher-quality jobs. Climate change is the humanitarian challenge of our time.
Lead with this in mind: the Natural Hazard Mitigation Saves report insists that the U.S. could cost-effectively spend $520 billion to reduce its disaster liability by $2.2 trillion. That’s good math for a resilience decade legacy.
Image credit: Carlos Veras/Unsplash
Joyce Coffee, LEED AP, is founder and President of Climate Resilience Consulting. She is an accomplished organizational strategist and visionary leader with over 25 years of domestic and international experience in the corporate, government and non-profit sectors implementing resilience and sustainability strategies, management systems, performance measurement, partnerships, benchmarking and reporting.