The National Climate Strategy Needs a Resilience Focus

The "Innovation for Resilience: A New Framework for Security" series is a new project from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). This initiative is a partnership between CSIS's Diversity and Leadership in International Affairs Program, Energy Security and Climate Change Program, International Security Program and Strategic Technologies Program.

With new funding from the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), the United States has entered a new era of climate action. These federal investments will help put the country on track to meet President Biden’s emissions reduction targets and make the energy transition a central political and economic priority. Within this new climate agenda, resilience is increasingly imperative.

Over the next three decades, climate change will increase the frequency and severity of certain weather extremes and lead to geographic and ecological challenges in every region of the United States. At the same time, the energy transition is dramatically shifting the energy system toward greater utilization of renewable energy, storage technologies, and higher electricity consumption. These two trends create both a challenge and an opportunity for increasing resilience.

In the absence of measures to enhance resilience, more frequent and severe weather associated with climate change is anticipated to pose significant risks to the energy system. In addition to billions of dollars in direct costs, climate damages could have cascading effects on interdependent, critical sectors, such as telecommunications and transportation, and disproportionately impact already vulnerable and disadvantaged groups. For this reason, the energy sector should be at the center of the federal government’s efforts to address climate change.

Presently, U.S. resilience initiatives are more fragmented than systematic, but there are clear indicators of progress that can and should be built upon. In the near term, executive action and the IIJA and IRA provide new directives and funding to elevate climate considerations across federal operations and beyond. Making the most of this opportunity, and enhancing resilience in the long term, will require more systematic and accessible data and planning tools, new professional and institutional capacities, and strategic coordination across the federal government, states, communities, and industry.

Federal agencies need a new “culture of resilience” built on a shared understanding of resilience definitions, methods, and tools.

The challenge of increasing climate and energy resilience begins with creating a culture that accepts forthcoming climate change risks as a reality. In 2021, President Joe Biden issued Executive Order 14008 to place “the climate crisis at the forefront of foreign policy and national security planning” by directing federal agencies to develop plans for increasing resilience to the impacts of climate change in their own operations and assets. In response, more than 20 major federal agencies published climate plans. The plans demonstrate some clear themes and opportunities for improvement.

To integrate climate considerations into their organizational missions, federal agencies need systematic, science-based data and tools. These resources should balance rigorous, quantitative analysis with techniques or user interfaces that are widely accessible—relatively simple, intuitive, broadly applicable, and shared. The Department of Defense’s (DOD) Climate Assessment Tool (DCAT) provides a first-in-its-class example. DCAT illustrates the anticipated effects of eight climate hazards in two future scenarios (lower and higher future warming) and two epochs (2035–2064 and 2070–2099) at DOD facilities around the world. Most agencies are still developing resources and strategies to systematically assess climate risks to agency missions and operations.

Sophisticated models are also needed to help the federal government consider interdependencies and the potential for cascading failures across systems and sectors. Considerations of interdependencies are especially important in light of energy transitions and the electrification of critical end-uses, like transportation and building heat. Accounting for interdependent vulnerabilities requires the development of a hierarchy of information needs and capabilities across multiple authorities, sectors, and scales. The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Integrated Multisector Multiscale Sector Modeling Project highlights dynamic interactions among climate, energy, water, land, and socioeconomics. It provides insights about the vulnerability and resilience of coupled human and natural systems, from local to continental scales, under scenarios of near-term shocks and long-term stresses. Now is the time for resources like this one to reach widespread use, with clear connections between model outputs and decisionmaking.

Executive Order 14057 includes new requirements for routine departmental climate literacy and sustainability training programs. Agency trainings are expected to help all staff integrate climate considerations into the normal course of business. In the context of evolving climate science information, technologies, and federal policies, these investments in personnel are critical for promoting science-based decisionmaking and, in some cases, overcoming recent loss of expertise in recent years. Currently, each agency is developing an individual curriculum. A climate literacy standard across them could provide a foundation of shared principles and training materials while allowing each agency to incorporate its own informational needs.

Climate considerations in agency operations are a first step toward creating a new culture of resilience, but institutionalizing climate readiness across all sectors and communities will require close federal coordination with decisionmakers at different levels.

Intergovernmental and public-private collaboration is required on resilience measures and standards.

Federal climate resilience initiatives rely in no small part on state and local governments and the private sector. State and local governments steward much of the country’s land and public infrastructure and regulate the private interests which own and operate energy infrastructure. Greater resilience requires the willingness and ability of these counterparts to identify and act upon opportunities to increase resilience.

Climate data tools and resources under development by federal agencies can benefit subnational and private decisionmakers. Platforms for resource sharing can reduce duplicative efforts, enhance efficiency, and facilitate interagency, intergovernmental, and cross-sectoral coordination, creating a common foundation for climate decisionmaking. The Climate Resilience Toolkit is the clearinghouse for U.S. data and climate resources. It centralizes information provided by various agencies, but it is not set up for securely sharing and building upon the back end of proven, proprietary tools, like DOD’s DCAT.

Semiformal networks can create opportunities for deeper collaboration. At least one institution of this kind is already in place. The Critical Infrastructure Sector Partnerships program under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) hosts an Energy Sector Council facilitated by DOE. It provides a venue for federal, state, local, and industry experts to work on energy resilience planning and implementation. The council has not historically focused on climate change, but it provides a valuable foundation for prioritizing resilience with emphasis on system interdependencies (e.g., electricity and gas) and sector interdependencies (e.g., energy and water). A private DHS information network allows this council to share trusted but unclassified information among members. Similar, dedicated networks could facilitate collaboration on climate and energy resilience among federal agencies and between the federal government and state, local, and industry leaders.

State, local, and industry decisionmakers also play an important role in developing performance goals and monitoring progress on enhancing resilience. The development of standardized, quantifiable resilience indicators has posed a persistent challenge at the distribution level in the electricity sector. Across the country, there is little consensus among state regulators and industry players about how resilience should be defined and measured. Many states simply rely on measures of electricity reliability, which do not adequately reflect differences in criticality, vulnerability, and adaptive capacity across society. Across the United States, there are no metrics to constitute reasonable outages given different natural disaster intensities or standards for reasonable response times to repair disaster-related outages.

With funding from IIJA, federal agencies are well-positioned to set up new rules of engagement. Applications to access the recently opened $2.3 billion in DOE formula grants require that states describe their plans for fund distribution and investment, prioritizing “projects with the greatest community economic benefit in reducing the likelihood and consequences of disruptive events.” This broad requirement is of mixed value. It does not do much to establish shared, core measures of resilience across the country, but it does create needed momentum for subnational resilience initiatives and a template for tracking progress. Federal identification and promotion of innovative, feasible, and replicable state strategies will be important in driving broad, long-term resilience with IIJA and IRA funding.

Intergovernmental and public-private collaboration can facilitate greater efficiency and help align national resilience priorities with more localized priorities. Ensuring the effectiveness of these collaborations and investments over time will require greater transparency, evaluation, and commitment to accountability.

Resilience requires new values—and new ways to evaluate costs and benefits.

Investments in resilience can be expensive, and it can be difficult to calculate the return on such investments because benefits are often realized only intermittently, in the face of major threats. As a result, these investments can be difficult to evaluate and justify.

Frameworks for clarifying the value of resilience are under development. The General Services Administration is working to estimate climate vulnerability in life-cycle cost analyses of federal investments in buildings, products, and services. Similarly, DOE and DOD have developed tools to quantify the costs, benefits, and trade-offs of investments to ensure power availability to on-site, critical energy loads during grid outages. DOE’s benefit-cost approach guides the selection of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies by type and size. DOD’s cost-effectiveness tool instead takes a cost-effectiveness approach, which begins with a specific resilience objective—a minimum acceptable level of power disruption—then compares different strategies to achieve that minimum. As with tools to model climate risks, these resources for cost-benefit calculations are not yet widely shared or standardized across agencies or sectors. Common methodologies and resource sharing across authorities could offer important benefits, enabling a more efficient and consistent basis for decisionmaking and evaluation.

More transparent, standardized methods for accounting of resilience costs and benefits can also ensure that environmental justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion are prioritized in resilience investments. This imperative is a cornerstone of the new federal climate agenda. It is especially important because low-income populations and communities of color are more likely to live in the most vulnerable areas, are less able to evacuate, experience greater damages, and have less access to disaster assistance resources from agencies such as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). These challenges are perpetuating social inequalities over time.

Integrating equity and inclusion into resilience faces two challenges: defining groups or communities that should benefit and identifying how benefits accrue. The Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool (CEJST) created by the White House Council on Environmental Quality is expected to help federal agencies incorporate the government-wide Justice40 Initiative requirements. The tool brings together data from established but siloed databases, like the Environmental Protection Agency’s EJSCREEN, DOE’s Low-Income Energy Affordability Data (LEAD) platform, and the FEMA National Risk Index. As a result, the CEJST tool provides foundational insights about how household, community, and regional attributes shape vulnerability.

As particularly vulnerable communities are identified, needed investments among them may vary, from energy efficiency upgrades and storage systems to hardening of homes and community infrastructure and even relocation assistance. Given the wide range of investments that can bolster adaptive capacities, resilience initiatives should be led by inclusive procedures for engaging communities and establishing performance objectives that reflect their needs and priorities. State and federal authorities should also be attentive to the technical and organizational capacity of vulnerable communities and minimize administrative burdens that can result in missed opportunities and unspent funds. Finally, initiatives that promote climate and energy resilience can and should contribute to economic resilience, and vice versa. Deeper connections between economic and climate vulnerabilities are needed to identify and promote potential co-benefits in these areas, with careful accounting for anticipated and realized benefits.

Sustaining a robust strategy for resilience requires more than predictions about hazards and identification of vulnerabilities. It also requires decision frameworks for understanding what can and should be made resilient, how resources should be allocated, and the value of investments over time.

There’s no time like the present for federal leadership on resilience.

Climate change commitments, policies, and programs tend to be concentrated heavily on mitigation, emissions reduction, and the transition to a low-carbon economy. But climate hazards and extreme weather events are increasingly making headlines. An initial round of resilience IIJA funds are set for distribution this fall and incentives from the IRA can accelerate the resilience benefits of new clean energy technology innovations and developments. Now is the moment for resilience, in recognition that certain changes are already taking place, and mitigation efforts underway may not be enough to avert more severe climate hazards.

A coordinated federal approach for resilience will reduce climate hazard risks to missions and operations, accelerate cooperation on climate action, drive innovation and economic development, and promote equity, inclusion, and environmental justice. But fractured authority, limited economic incentives, and the novelty of climate risks are significant challenges that should be addressed in order to mainstream resilience and aggressively incorporate climate change considerations into decisionmaking processes.

The federal government of the United States has a key role to play establishing a national approach. As a large operational enterprise with transparently managed assets, the federal government can demonstrate best practices in planning for climate impacts and designing resilient systems. As a source of funding for state programs and the private sector, the federal government can incorporate both climate and resilience considerations in society’s planning, where interdependence with the energy sector create resilience challenges. And as a principal agent in environmental, economic, and social data gathering and dissemination, the federal government can be a clearinghouse for information on changing climate risks, societal vulnerabilities, and resilience strategies.

Resilience investments can and should provide clear and direct benefits to local communities, regional economies, and national security. Presently, U.S. resilience initiatives are more fragmented than systematic and more anecdotal than comprehensive. But there are clear indicators of progress in the contents of agency plans, the development of data and tools, and in partnerships with state, local, and industry decisionmakers. Continued coordination, standardization, inclusivity, and evaluation are key levers for a timely, robust U.S. strategy for climate resilience.

Morgan Higman is a fellow with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

The author is grateful to Elizabeth Shakhnazaryan, an intern with the CSIS Energy Security and Climate Change Program, for their research support in the preparation of this article.

This project is made possible by the generous support of the Deloitte Consulting LLP.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Morgan Higman

Morgan Higman

Fellow, Energy Security and Climate Change Program