Webinar Recap: How State Governments Can Help Communities Invest in Climate Resilience

It isn’t news that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is key to mitigating the disastrous effects of climate change. Policies and mechanisms that help achieve reduction goals to limit warming as much as possible can leave out the topic of how to address and cope with the changes that can no longer be prevented. 

It’s becoming increasingly important that state governments help build local climate resilience. Investing in climate resilience reaps many benefits including environmental protection, improved quality of life, social equity, reduced disaster impacts, and increased economic stability. This month’s Deep Dive webinar looked at some of the strategies that policymakers and advocates can utilize to help local governments invest in climate resilience.

In the presentation, Joyce Coffee, President of Climate Resilience Consulting, discussed how her organization’s can help state leaders support local climate resilience projects. Jennifer Phillips, Senior Policy Adviser at the U.S. Climate Alliance, shared best practices and how the Biden administration changes the outlook resiliency from the federal perspective.

The presentation finished with Laura Tabor, Sustainability and Resilience Officer, and Robert Gomez, Resilience Coordinator, from the Energy Conservation and Management Division at the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department. Tabor and Gomez walked us through their state’s new Climate Change Task Force and how they are incorporating resiliency initiatives into their climate plan.

Joyce Coffee, President of Climate Resilience Consulting

Coffee began her presentation by noting that people spend a lot of time thinking about climate change mitigation, which is the most important thing that we can do. But a lot of communities are already facing the effects of climate change, such as natural disasters, homelessness, and public health emergencies. Coffee added that it’s important to recognize the need to adapt to these challenges and build resilient systems to combat them. 

Coffee then shared her organization’s seven Capacities of Climate Resilience Building, but stressed that the most important to focus on is Equitable Adaptation: “Climate resilience must take away the historic inequities, break the systems, and transform to a safer, more secure place for all Americans.”

She expressed that while local government is where the rubber meets the road in terms of resilience building, there needs to be leadership at the state level to give communities the agency and funding for key projects. According to Coffee, there are at least six things that states must do in order to support communities and she highlighted the three most important ones.

First, Coffee said that states that want to work on climate resiliency must create a pipeline of Ready-To-Go projects to work on. Creating this list helps communities stay organized on what the state’s priorities are so that they can actually get to work immediately. In addition to this list of “must do” projects, states should enhance FEMA Hazard Mitigation planning to build “precovery” as opposed to recovering after a disaster occurs. To accomplish this, the state should partner with organizations that are putting environmental justice at the forefront of their work to ensure that projects prioritize equity.

Next, she added that states should enable local funding for implementing public infrastructure projects. Coffee gave Green Banks as an example of a new mechanism that enables more money to flow towards climate resilience. Coffee also mentioned the Rhode Island Infrastructure Bank, which invests in projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase community resilience. 

In addition, she mentioned New Jersey’s recent legislation that allows local governments to initiate stormwater fees. Coffee said that the number one recommendation she would give to city leaders is to separate their sewer fee from their stormwater fee. This would allow them to raise their stormwater rate over time without affecting residents’ regular water bill.

The last step Coffee outlined that states should do is push to expand and accelerate federal funding for pre-disaster local action. States shouldn’t wait for a disaster to occur to get funding from the federal government and instead should be adapting their communities to be ready. She  also emphasized that states need to ensure that federal money is not perpetuating racial injustice and is working with environmental organizations to promote equitable projects.

Coffee stressed the importance of state governments providing technical support, planning, and resources to under-resourced communities to develop local ideas for resilience projects. She said that even to create a project idea itself requires time, capacity, and political will that some local governments don’t have, and the state should help with this process.

Coffee finished her presentation by providing examples of financial mechanisms that can build social equity. First, she said that when General Obligation bonds are combined with equity building projects, such as with Miami’s Forever Bond, they can enhance a community’s climate resilience. She also mentioned Washington D.C.’s Stormwater Retention Credit Trading Program that provides funding for green infrastructure in disenfranchised neighborhoods outside the city.

Coffee also provided a Climate Resilience Consulting Checklist as a tool for states to use to assess their progress on developing a climate resilience plan. 

Jennifer Phillips, Senior Policy Adviser at US Climate Alliance

Phillips described the U.S. Climate Alliance (USCA) as a bipartisan coalition of 25 governors who are cooperating to tackle climate change. The member states in the alliance account for 55% of the country’s population, 40% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 60% of GDP. Phillips said that, “One of most important aspects of the U.S. Climate Alliance is fostering a state-to-state dialogue to hear about what is working in other parts of the country.”

The U.S. Climate Alliance works across all major sectors of climate change including elevating and advancing resilience work at the state level. The USCA helps states put together plans to create an integrated and ambitious approach to addressing the climate crisis.

Part of the USCA’s strategy is a Resilience Working Group that meets monthly to improve discussions around successful climate resilience strategies at all levels. Phillips added that the group stresses the need to increase local level capacity for adaptation projects. The states in the USCA know that action happens at the community level and there’s a need for more funding to increase local capacity for these projects.

Phillips noted that at least 20 states in the USCA have developed, or are developing, climate resilience plans. Those states know that in order to be successful, they need to aggregate resources, tools, and case studies in a way that’s useful to communities and environmental organizations. Several states, like Massachusetts, are developing resilience or adaptation portals that communities can access through state government websites.

 Phillips also shared that the USCA created a New Governors’ Resilience Playbook in 2018 that articulates the ten steps to build resilience in their states. The publication discusses elevating the local role in effective resilience work across the state. It also questions how states incorporate resilience thinking into routine investments and using a disaster to ensure future resilience. Moving forward, the USCA will create a new playbook for all governors ––not just the new ones –– and will outline how to structure, pay for, and measure resilience progress to justify the spending. Phillips hopes that the new playbook will be released later this year. 

She concluded her presentation with a positive outlook on the Biden administration’s stance on climate resiliency. President Biden recently instructed all agencies to think about how their everyday operations can enhance resilience to climate change.

Laura Tabor, Sustainability and Resilience Officer, and Robert Gomez, Resilience Coordinator at the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department

Tabor and Gomez gave context to the practices and policies that were discussed earlier through the lens of New Mexico –– a state that is just beginning its resiliency planning. Tabor said that through a 2019 Executive Order, Governor Grisham created the New Mexico Interagency Climate Change Task Force. The role of the task force includes updating the state’s Renewable Portfolio Standard, developing a regulatory framework to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and integrating climate adaptation practices into agency policies. In 2020, the task force produced a Climate Strategy Report on its progress and recommendations.

Tabor added that the task force’s key resilience initiatives are to develop a Climate Risk Map Tool, produce an Interagency Climate Resilience Gap Assessment, create a State Climate Adaptation and Resilience Plan, and deepen partnerships with local communities to enhance these tools. Tabor did note that the last two initiatives above are contingent on approval of FEMA funding through the Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) grant program.

Tabor then described the task force’s new Climate Risk Map Tool –– which will hopefully launch later this spring ––that’s intended to support local and tribal governments and state agency staff in prioritizing resilience projects and investments. The interactive map includes data on climate related hazards, factors that may increase a community’s sensitivity to those hazards, and adaptive capacity factors that inform how a community may recover from climate effects.

The first phase of development for the Climate Risk Map Tool was aggregating data, and in the future Tabor said they will focus on finding ways to incorporate community expertise into the tool. She wants the map to be useful for everyone and noted the task force will be planning outreach to improve its function. 

Gomez picked up with where Tabor left off on data collection for the map tool. He added that the tool includes demographic factors such as race and poverty to help users consider equity when planning resilience projects. Gomez said that while some communities are disproportionately affected by climate change, it’s important to note that these communities are not inherently more vulnerable because of their demographics. These communities often experience greater risk from climate change hazards because of a history of structural and environmental discrimination.

Gomez concluded by saying that their intent is to help the state, local, and tribal governments in New Mexico prioritize investments that counteract this inequity. He hopes that the tool will be a useful way to do that and wants to build strong relationships with leaders from the region’s 23 Native American tribes. 


What effect will the new presidential administration have for states in their climate resilience plans?

Phillips replied that many elements of resilience are included in the Biden Administration’s new American Jobs Plan, but there is work to be done in trying to figure out how to build a sustainable funding pipeline from the federal level down to the local level. She added that now the strategy will be taking federal funds and putting them towards projects that are immediately ready to be worked on.

 Coffee noted that climate resilience is not a partisan issue and that the Trump administration actually put more money into risk mitigation than any predecessor. She mentions the Community Development Block Grant Mitigation Program as well as the FEMA BRIC program that Tabor said may help fund New Mexico’s work. Coffee highlighted this because she wants to be conscious of the need for bipartisan support on this work to ensure continued funding.

Coffee also noted that the Biden Administration’s new Justice40 Initiative has the goal of delivering 40% of federal investments to disadvantaged communities. 

How do we evaluate the effectiveness of these resiliency programs?

Coffee outlined that one of the problems with resilience is that it is a “basket of measures” and we can’t use the same methods on all aspects of climate adaptation. She lists three things that communities should figure out in order to evaluate their programs. First, have the environmental hazards in the community been addressed? Second, is the community aware of who is most vulnerable to those hazards? And third, are we aware of what is most exposed to those hazards? By answering these questions, communities can start to develop methods to measure progress.

Phillips also said that it’s important to make the fiscal case for resilience efforts. While dollars and cents are not the main reason that communities should be investing in adaptation projects, economic arguments are often important in states that otherwise may not be climate champions. 

Are there any suggestions for how municipalities should proceed when there is not a lot of action at the state level?

 Gomez noted that the FEMA BRIC grant program that New Mexico has applied for is a useful tool because local municipalities can use it to frame their resilience efforts. He added that partnerships with nonprofits and tribal governments are also important because they elevate voices that are often unheard in state governmental circles.

Coffee agreed that relying on nonprofit organizations is important because they can help mobilize citizens to advocate at the state level. She also suggested finding friendly departments at the state level who have shared goals and help them see the value in your wok. Lastly, Coffee said to be patient and persistent, because change is happening all over and there will be pressure and it will continue increasing for states to work on resilience. 

Supporting Equitable Climate Resilience

 It’s clear that while reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the most important step to avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, we cannot avoid the need to address the problems that are already occurring. Governments at all levels must create equitable resilience plans so that the communities hurting most are not left by the wayside as is all too common. 

 Our speakers highlighted best practices, emphasizing the need for state governments to support community efforts on climate resilience, and to ensure that projects are focused on helping those most in need. 

Featured Image: Elise Gilliam, Climate XChange