How Biden’s climate policy has created a historic adaptation revolution

We asked for ambition, and here it is. Now, let’s capitalize, following this Guide to Adaptation Leadership in America.


“This really is it,” I found myself whispering to the mirror, more than once, at times using some Humboldt Park Latin slang from my youth in Chicago — “This dude’s for real” — as President Biden’s climate policy grew evident and his robust all-star team was named in the weeks following the November 3rd election.

The climate movement never could be sure about candidate Joe Biden. When asked, his answers were, well, generally unconvincing, as if toeing a line to secure the vote of skeptics while gaining a mandate for bigger action if he won.

Officially, he distanced himself from bold visions like the Green New Deal. On paper, though, he went so much farther even than that. Farther than Obama. Farther than anyone before. I mean, look at this (his climate platform).

“If only,” I would say when reading it. The scope. The scale. Precisely the ambition the global community has been begging the United States to enact for years.

Well, that inspiring document has turned into this, the Executive Order penned this week. The real Biden all along, we now know, was the one in the Platform.

Even the cloud still hanging, the chance for bold legislation, looks promising, given the clearest of signals from Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer that they are not about to let Republicans slow or derail the president’s historic agenda.

Adaptation in the house

Gina McCarthy leads a climate all-star team.

The world has noted and is mostly, rightfully, celebrating the top line, the fact this represents an outright revolution in America’s now holistic commitment to slashing greenhouse gas emissions and return to the epic global struggle against climate change through the United Nations Paris Agreement.

The world has noted and is mostly, rightfully, celebrating the top line, the fact this represents an outright revolution in America’s now holistic commitment to slashing greenhouse gas emissions and return to the epic global struggle against climate change through the United Nations Paris Agreement.

But Paris also includes the goal of building resilience against severe climate impacts that have become inescapable. Indeed, the UN itself, even as it clamors countries for far greater mitigation/prevention ambition to stay below the dreaded 1.5° Celsius temperature rise — we’re at 1.2° today — says the high probability at this late stage of the game is that we will overshoot 2°C in short order and toy with 4°C or higher toward century’s end, a conclusion backed by multiple peer-reviewed scientific studies.

Biden & Team, it’s comforting to say, clearly got the memo, because the transformation in this week’s Executive Order includes a boost to climate resilience at a scale we in the adaptation field have only dreamed about.

In the campaign platform, it was the second of five climate pillars: Build a stronger, more resilient nation. The Clean Energy Revolution was #1, with the list rounded out by #3 diplomacy and national security, #4 environmental justice, and #5 taking care of displaced fossil-fuel-economy workers.

In the Executive Order, resilience is one of six objectives, the others being emissions, natural resources, environmental justice, jobs and economic activity, and climate’s role in diplomacy and national security.

When he signed the Order, President Biden committed the federal government to pursue them all in “every corner of our nation, every level of government, and every sector of our economy.” For the latter, “every agency of the federal government” will so prioritize climate, including adaptation for the sturdiest resilience possible, as to drive demand for solutions and turn this into a top-tier engine of U.S. growth and development.

The Order instructs the sustainability director of every single agency, starting this week — in the U.S. and wherever the federal government does anything across the planet — to insert a climate and adaptation screen to everything they purchase (procurement and supply chains, including the vendors used), to every project they fund, every investment they make, and conduct resilience retrofits on every existing federal property and make sure every new building or facility is resilient from the start.

Think about what this means:

  • Are you a supplier of a federal agency? Any federal agency? You will now either be incentivized or required to become more resilient, lest climate change hits you hard and the government is left without your product or service.
  • Are you in the construction business, any stage of it? You better get into RELi, the U.S. Green Building Council’s recently launched building-resilience standard, because federal facilities managers already favor LEED (for lower emissions and higher efficiency). With this Order, they will be looking to climate-adapt every federal building in America plus every military base, embassy and consulate, everywhere in the world, and there’s no better standard to do that than RELi.
  • That extends to the construction and upkeep of all federal or federally funded infrastructure in the country, particularly the massive Build Back Better initiative Biden will announce in the State of the Union address next month.
  • Speaking of federally funded, do you receive federal funds from any agency? Any federal funding? The same applies, so it behooves you to become more resilient very quickly or risk losing out to bidders who do take this seriously and adapt fully. This includes every school and university, every hospital and clinic, every NGO that receives funding, every corporate R&D venture — the federal government’s funding tentacles are…extensive.
  • Similarly, are you on the receiving end of a federal-agency financial investment? Stocks, bonds, securities of any kind. If you’re a city mayor or manager, this is yet another pressure point. If you’re a company in one of those portfolios, or the fund manager or investment house, ditto. The ESG space (Environmental, Social & Governance investment principles) is about to become even more popular and high performance than it already is — imagine that — with adaptation the new thing in the mix.
  • Do you provide adaptation services for any of the above? Know that you can help not just federal sustainability officers directly, but all their suppliers, every receiver of federal funds, everyone in the construction and real estate industry, every firm that handles or receives a federal financial investment — and do all of it in the U.S. and every country on planet Earth.

This is what’s called a Revolution and the pathway to making the entire U.S. the most climate-adapted country in the world. With this Executive Order, the federal government became the catalyst, and the process has begun.

The fundamental take-away is clear as crystal: the more adapted and resilient you become, to withstand the most catastrophic climate impacts today and deep into the century, the more you will be favored. But more so, the better off you will be as the crisis turns exponential and even existential.

Resilient Nation

Aside from that broad stroke, the Order launches several historic commitments and policies that either include adaptation directly or can be leveraged to create resilience.

I find it interesting, if not predictive, that the campaign platform includes some items and wording not in the Order. Does that suggest the others will be acted on later? Don’t know unless we ask. For the purposes of this article, I trust they will and combine the ideas in both documents, to create a sort of Guide to Adaptation Leadership in the Age of Biden.

We begin with Resilient Nation, the name used in the Platform to refer to adaptation initiatives. The first of these, which I would expect any day now since it was included in the Platform but not in the Order this week, is an Executive Order for the Treasury Department and the Securities & Exchange Commission to require disclosure of climate risks by public companies, as the United Kingdom and Switzerland have already announced and other countries and regional blocs are working on.

Companies and governments are awakening to climate-risk assessment and management, in the case of the former mainly using the standard set by the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD). This week’s Order instructs federal agencies to do even more risk management than they’ve done to date. So modeling and forecasting firms are busy as can be, as are adaptation-planning companies.

The rush, though, will become a frenzy on the corporate side when the Executive Order and accompanying regulations kick in.

FEMA, where adaptation is a core part of the work, is already stepping up, with reports in recent days that the agency will increase substantially the funding available for communities to prepare for and recover from extreme disasters. This is a boost to mainstream adaptation providers, firms that fortify buildings and infrastructure, work with vulnerable populations, alleviate coastal and soil erosion, install flood prevention systems, and by extension a big plus to every private and public sector entity that stands to benefit.

FEMA is also in line to finally reform and fund the National Flood Insurance Program, including steps to keep people from building on and moving into flood prone zones.

Clean Economy Revolution

Distributed solar (rooftop + microgrids) is an adaptation measure, and the federal government is about to catapult it to historic levels.

That’s the name used in the Platform, along with Clean Energy Revolution, the goal being a dramatic reduction in the country’s emissions of carbon and other greenhouse gases to meet the goal of net-zero by 2050, across all five major contributors of emissions (power, transportation, manufacturing, commerce and agriculture).

POWER

As a general principle, distributed solar (rooftop and microgrid), preferably with no need to connect to the grid and suffer service interruptions, is the most resilient energy source, and it is about to receive the biggest boost of incentives and funding ever, particularly with the planned end of fossil-fuel subsidies.

Utility-scale solar and wind farms will, as well, but given their high vulnerability to severe climate events, this variety is less resilient. Adaptation providers, at least, do well by going big on distributed under the terms of the Order.

That can include one trendsetting innovation in Section 218: Revitalized Energy Communities. As cities and states transition to renewable power, DoE will commit the funding, technical assistance, procurement and retraining necessary to transition all workers displaced from fossil-fuel plants, and that can include a transition to distributed solar. To be sure, this has been happening for years, but the REC initiative promises to take the trend to new heights.

Grid resilience will be huge, as well, regardless of the energy source. It may not contribute directly to renewable generation, but the Department of Energy will surely be receptive to resilience propositions that protect any and all generation as the economy transitions to cleantech.

At the level of a building and operation, energy efficiency receives lots of love. On the surface, such LEED measures as building orientation, high R-value windows, LED lights and heating/cooling systems, all installed in buildings, do not help very much when disaster strikes, other than free up cash you can deploy after the event.

There are, though, two direct adaptation measures you can piggyback to leverage the efficiency DoE seeks. One is efficiency in purchasing and waste, the kind that significantly lightens the load you must carry when managing a climate event. As a general rule, the less you have the more agile you can be, and agility in stuff and mindset is a fundamental adaptation contributor — and the less you buy the lower your emissions, from the production and transport you avoid.

When DoE hikes incentives for efficiency retrofits that cut emissions, it makes sense to pair them with process or operational components that cut emissions and create agility resilience.

TRANSPORTATION & URBANISM

The second adaptation measure to leverage, and a logical segue to the Transportation category, is the Order’s historic commitment to boost electric vehicles. The campaign platform says Biden wants to install upwards of 500,000 charging stations nationwide to fill one of the main gaps holding back EV production.

An EV itself is not an adaptation solution, nor is the massive charging network. But when a charging station or unit is installed at a home, federal building or commercial property, and the EV is integrated in the latter’s solar-and-storage system, it becomes a component of energy resilience.

The one Urbanism initiative worth highlighting is in the Platform, not so much in the Order. HUD and the Department of Transportation are tasked with promoting urban density as a big way to slash emissions — popularly called these days the 15-minute city, where a resident has everything within 15 minutes walking distance, or a short 15-minute drive or transit ride.

The adaptation principle here is that urban populations fare far better against a natural disaster when their people networks and essential event-related needs are nearby. This applies to everyone who lives, works and plays in a high-density community, the companies established therein, and all adaptation professionals who make it happen — planners, architects, resilient-retail solutions, building retrofit contractors, alternative transportation providers, and others.

MANUFACTURING

Under the Order, federal agencies will pressure manufacturers to far more aggressively decarbonize machinery, logistics and overall operations than they’ve done to date, starting with but not only those that supply the federal government.

Here again, while decarbonization is the explicit goal, adaptation lies just beneath, given the parallel objective for the government and the country as a whole to have a highly resilient production foundation and rely less on foreign sources of goods when disaster strikes.

AGRICULTURE

The Order is more vague in this category than the others, instructing the Secretary of Agriculture to issue a report in 90 days with “recommendations for an agricultural and forestry climate strategy,” one which we can surely expect will include the vital matter of food resilience.

In the adaptation community, large indoor farms are seen as the most resilient way to harvest in a future full of climate events that will devastate most if not all outdoor open-field farming. We’ll see in three months what the report says.

The Order also asks the Secretary of Commerce to report in 60 days ways to build resilience into fisheries and protected resources, also a subject of food security and resilience.

30% conservation goal

That, in turn, is the perfect segue to the Conservation section of the Executive Order, which blazes yet another historic trail by calling for no less than 30% of all forests, lands and waters in America to become protected by 2030, up from 12% today.

Section 214 orders resilience measures to protect these life-sustaining wonders. Coastal communities in particular, the order reads, “have an essential role to play in mitigating climate change and strengthening resilience by protecting and restoring coastal ecosystems, such as wetlands, seagrasses, coral and oyster reefs, mangroves and kelp forests, to protect vulnerable coastlines, sequester carbon, and support biodiversity and fisheries.”

Section 215 creates the Civilian Climate Corps, modeled after AmeriCorps, to direct hands and minds to the conservation goal. But the Order says the CCC can be used in any related endeavor that “addresses climate change,” with an emphasis on community resilience. So any company and NGO with a suitable initiative, or an adaptation service provider that needs labor, can tap into the CCC for helping hands.

Climate & Environmental Justice

Here’s yet another big category to leverage adaptation, because the focus in the Order, as in the Platform before, is protection of vulnerable, marginalized, disadvantaged and discriminated communities not so much against climate impacts as against abuses by polluters that place health and wellbeing at risk.

There is, though, wording in the Order that suggests a big opening for adaptation, as it seeks “robust actions to mitigate climate change while preparing for the impacts of climate change.” And in the Platform: “Everyone is already feeling the effects of climate change. But the impacts — on health, economics, and overall quality of life — are far more acute on communities of color, tribal lands, and low-income communities.”

Social justice more broadly includes a large agenda to lift all boats. The intersection with adaptation is well known, referred to as the Equity issue. That is, their low-income, disadvantaged, discriminated status means they lack the means to build resilience.

Therefore, ANYTHING the Biden Administration plans to do to address these social gaps by definition doubles as adaptation and opens up a vast field for adaptation professionals who are also educators, social workers, lawyers, community organizers and so many others. If any field merits coupling with adaptation to get more done faster, this is it.

Given that and the clear emphasis on resilience elsewhere in the Order, and considering how top-of-mind aware community leaders are of the brutally inequitable impact of natural disasters in their lives, properties and livelihoods, adaptation will no doubt be in the Justice mix, boosted by the following initiatives:

  • The Order created the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council, a hugely important first, given the influence it will surely have in the administration. Look for their agenda report in 120 days.
  • Justice40, an initiative to channel 40% of “certain federal investments” (yet to be determined, but likely to mean significant dollars) to these communities to help navigate the multiple programs and resources they have access to but fail to use for lack of knowledge — including resilient properties, emergency readiness and post-disaster recovery.
  • Separately, the Order and Platform discuss the pressing need for new insurance policies. The industry and academia are deep into the viability analysis of parametric and community-based policies, which would be affordable enough for people to buy, plus the enhanced National Flood Insurance Program mentioned above.
  • The Order also establishes the Office of Climate Change and Health Equity and the Health Care System Readiness Advisory Council at the Department of Health & Human Services to “address the impact of climate change on the health of the American people.” I find the largesse of that mission beautiful, not to mention inclusive of adaptation and resilience, and while it sits in the Environmental Justice category, its breadth extends the mission to the country as a whole — “the American people,” no less.

While on the subject of healthcare, a special note. I join the growing number of folks who believe COVID-19 is a climate event, likely caused by migrating species from the loss of habitats as a result of record temperatures. But whether this particular virus is ultimately granted that attribution, climate scientists have long warned against the onset of pandemics for precisely that reason. So expect more of this in the years and decades ahead, and apply the adaptation lessons learned with COVID.

Climate Diplomacy, Climate Security

Climate Envoy John Kerry will be dishing out adaptation money via the new Climate Finance Plan.

We finally have the climate agenda former Secretary of State, former Biden Senate soulmate, and now Special Climate Envoy John Kerry will be executing. And a super exciting one it is, rich in adaptation opportunities.

The Order outlines numerous far-reaching programs that cover all six broad objectives of the Biden climate policy. When it comes to adaptation, it boils down to one: the Climate Finance Plan (CFP), which the Platform called the Clean Energy & Climate Investment Initiative (CECII). Between the Order and the Platform, the CFP will deliver:

  • Export promotion and finance. Do you have a solution you can sell overseas to help governments and companies of any country adapt? Kerry’s office will help you scale it.
  • Kerry will also deploy, as per Section 102(f), the Overseas Private Investment Corp (OPIC), Ex-Im Bank, International Development Finance Corp. (DFC), the Millennium Challenge Corporation, USAID and other entities to favor projects that help countries fulfill their Paris Agreement commitments. The latter include adaptation projects, so these emerge as new sources of finance.
  • Similarly, the CFP will include new incentives for private financial institutions to fund public- and private-sector projects.
  • Here’s a thrilling one, from the Platform: Biden and Kerry want to challenge China for supremacy in global development finance by rivaling China’s Belt & Road Initiative, which has seen the Red Dragon gain great influence in nearly 70 countries on the strength of its direct foreign investment — a great opportunity to create adaptation projects and receive timely support.

As to national security, the Defense Department already has a large climate team assessing the vulnerability of American military bases and strategic assets, as well as hot spots around the world where extreme climate can spark conflict, mass migration or other security-sensitive disruptions.

Adaptation providers have been busy providing DoD such services as facilities fortifications, weather forecasting and risk modeling. With Kerry now in the picture, the opportunity lies in keeping track of where he takes that lens and what new avenues open up. The Order asks for a Climate Risk Analysis in 120 days.

The imperative of inventing the future

Kerry will also expand the role of Mission Innovation, an Obama-era entity to spur innovation in participating countries. The stated goal here is emissions reduction, but once again, it is up to you to find leverage pathways and couple adaptation solutions in the mix.

Speaking of innovation, Biden intends to launch the biggest innovation initiative in the country’s history, bigger even than Kennedy’s moonshot, organized as the Advanced Research Project Agency for Climate, or ARPA-C, modeled after ARPA for Energy (ARPA-E). The opportunities to leverage emission-reducing innovation projects and piggyback adaptation, or to present adaptation ideas outright, now abound, subject only to the imagination. So cut yours loose!

The underlying principle here is that as global temperatures overshoot critical thresholds (1.5° during the late 2020s, 2° likely in the 2040s, 3° and 4° after that), the future becomes dramatically different from the past we know and the present we master. The imperative today is to invent solutions for a very wide range of needs that will be fundamentally challenged by climate events as they become ever more frequent, intense, non-linear, diverse, cascading and overlapping.

This week’s Executive Order and initiatives like Mission Innovation and ARPA-C open new windows for innovations to get this done.


That covers the principal areas I see in the Biden climate plan suitable for deals, collaborations and propositions from enterprising adaptation professionals and service providers, not to mention any company that chooses to adapt deeply, launch initiatives and otherwise develop leadership in the space, similar to how you developed your sustainability space when that field opened for leadership in the 1990s and 2000s.

Extend, now, your sustainability leadership to adaptability leadership, and make the world safer for the future we have in common.

The Age of Adaptation in America has arrived. This is our moment. It begins right here. Right now.

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