House Committees Hold Hearings on Climate Adaptation

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This week, two House committees held hearings to discuss strategies on adaptation and resilience in the face of climate change.  On Tuesday, March 8, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing entitled “Federal Climate Adaptation and Resilience for the 21st Century” with witnesses representing various federal agencies.  The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis held a hearing on Wednesday, March 9 entitled “Confronting Climate Impacts: Federal Strategies for Equitable Adaptation and Resilience” and welcomed stakeholders from the academic, scientific, and local government communities.

Both hearings raised discussions about the most effective strategies for adapting to climate change and incorporating climate into decision making processes.  However, the tone of the two hearings were at times vastly different.  The Science, Space and Technology Committee showed a greater sense of common, and a mostly focused discussion on adaptation and resiliency issues, The Select Committee on the Climate Crisis’ hearing, however, highlighted deep partisan divisions, and was at times much more contentious.

Tuesday’s Science, Space and Technology hearing focused on the Federal Government’s approach to implementing climate adaptation and resiliency into its decision-making process.  Last fall, federal agencies submitted plans to the White House Council on Environmental Quality outlining strategies to incorporate climate risks into its policies, missions, and decision making.  In November, ASCE submitted public comments on the plans presented by the Department of Transportation, Department of Energy, and Environmental Protection Agency.

Hearing witnesses included representatives from several federal agencies that play a critical role in addressing climate change.  Dr. Richard Spinrad, Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), emphasized NOAA’s role in collecting climate data and making that data actionable, and laid out NOAA’s vision to work across federal agencies to ensure a “climate ready nation” by 2030.  Ingrid Kolb, the Chief Sustainability Officer at the Department of Energy (DOE), highlighted DOE’s commitment to climate resilience across its departments, and its commitment to deliver an agency resiliency plan by September of 2022. Dr. Joel Carney with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) highlighted NASA’s critical role in assessing climate vulnerability, as well as its role as a driver of science and research & development. Finally, Alfredo Gomez with the Government Accountability Office (GAO) highlighted GAO’s role in monitoring implementation of agency resilience efforts, and noted that further investment in climate resilience can reduce the need for far more expensive and drastic measures in the future.

The hearing struck an early bipartisan tone, with both acting Chairwoman Haley Stevens (D-MI) and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) recognizing the increasingly more severe effects of climate change, and the need for clear and cohesive federal strategy to adapt to these effects. The Chair and Ranking Member struck a tone for the hearing which facilitated productive, if at times pointed discussion on a number of issues from agency efforts to implement adaptation measures, agency staffing needs, interagency efforts, and stakeholder engagement. Stevens warned of the “concrete tangible danger” of climate change which could significantly undermine the missions of federal agencies if not addressed.  Lucas highlighted the need to ensure that federal infrastructure is protected and can adapt to increasingly sever conditions.  He went on to stay that projects authorized by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) must be built to last.

Wednesday’s select committee hearing heard from a broader range of voices.  Dr. William Solecki with the Department of Geography and Environmental Science at City University of New York’s Hunter College expressed concern with the increasingly significant changes in climate, and noted that while adaptation strategies are being adopted and implemented more and more throughout the country, the overall effectiveness of adaptation measures may further decrease due to more severe shifts in climate.  Dr. Lara Hansen, Executive Director of EcoAdapt- an organization focused on building capacity for and supporting implantation of adaptation measures- emphasized the need to approach decision making at all levels of government with a strong sense of climate risks and to implement climate change into agency decisions and missions.  Matthew Jewell, President of St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, brought a local administrative perspective from a region of the country significantly impacted by more severe flooding and intense storms.  Jewell expressed frustration with bureaucratic hurdles which in his view hinder flood protection and coastal restoration projects, emphasized the need for economic resilience, and expressed frustration with the challenges posed by national flood insurance regulations. Lastly, Dr. Lauren Alexander Augustine, Executive Director of the Gulf Research Program at the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine, discussed the interconnectedness of infrastructure systems and why action to improve resilience is needed. Dr. Augustine further noted that given its resources and geography the Gulf region has the potential to provide an example of equitable and balanced approach to climate adaptation.

From the outset, there was clear divergence in the focus of questions between Democrats and Republicans.  Several Democrats on the committee, led by Chairwoman Kathy Castor (D-FL) geared their questions toward what was required for a proactive approach to climate adaptation and empowering local communities to drive action.  Dr. Augustine noted the need for better and more actionable data, while Dr. Hansen emphasized the need for a whole of government approach.  Many Republicans, including Congressman Earl “Buddy” Carter (R-GA) asked Mr. Jewell about challenges to communities posed by higher flood insurance rates and national flood insurance regulations.  Mr. Jewell discussed increases in Louisiana home prices, even in areas with relatively low flood risk and the need to reduce regulatory burdens to address these challenges.

At several times, the tone among select committee members became contentious on the subject of energy production.  In his opening remarks, Ranking Member Garret Graves (R-LA) derided the Biden Administration for efforts to move away from reliance on fossil fuel production and called for increased production and export of oil and gas to alleviate higher fuel prices which have been further exacerbated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  Several other Republicans on the select committee also framed much of their questioning around what they viewed as a need for further fossil fuel production.  Some Democrats on the select committee, including Congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Sean Casten (D-IL) criticized their Republican colleagues overemphasizing fossil fuel production and development, argued for greater renewable energy development, and emphasized the risks increased fossil fuel use may have on the environment and climate change.

ASCE strongly supports efforts to adapt to the increasingly severe effects of climate change and enhance the resilience of the nation’s infrastructure to better standup to more extreme weather conditions.  Government policies should anticipate and prepare for impacts of climate change on the built environment, and efforts must be made to identify critical infrastructure under greatest threat and enhance resiliency. ASCE has helped lead the way in support of policies which accomplish these goals.  Most recently, ASCE’s Texas Section released a report in February of this year laying out a strategy for improving the state’s critical infrastructure resilience in the wake of the 2021 winter storms that resulted in more than 200 lives lost, and millions of Texas residents left without power or clean water service for several days.  The report warns that these types of consequences will increase due to factors such as design shortcomings, aging equipment, and economic and population growth, even if the severity of weather events remains unchanged.

 

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