On September 28, the Biden-Harris administration released the first-ever National Climate Resilience Framework, intended to help the U.S. become a climate-resilient nation that is “able to cope, adapt, and evolve in the face of current and future climate conditions.” This is an unprecedented step forward for U.S. climate change policy, representing the nation’s first holistic climate adaptation and resilience roadmap. The framework includes objectives and actions to increase the resiliency of the most visible physical foundations of our lives, such as infrastructure, housing, and water resources. But it also goes further, encompassing other systems and forms of social resilience, such as in public health and worker protections.
What does this framework mean for the direction of domestic climate policy, the nation’s most-impacted communities, and the natural systems that support us and our economy? We asked a group of Brookings scholars whose work ranges from climate change and infrastructure to the future of work, economic development, housing, and land-use policy to provide their quick takes on key aspects of the framework.
The framework creates space for new types of resilience ‘translators’
Climate resilience is often most visible in the absence of a bad outcome—a storm hits and a community isn’t devastated. Unlike climate change mitigation, which is global in nature and where there is a clear common cause and target for action (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), resilience is site-specific, community-centered, and ever-changing. The new framework recognizes that national resilience depends on local resilience, everywhere and for everyone—and this will take a multifaceted approach.
The framework’s strength is that it contains a variety of actions at different scales that can serve many kinds of communities. But its challenge is that it contains a variety of actions at different scales that will require multiple champions in multiple systems at every level of government, business, and civil society.
Keeping these diverse investments, guidelines, and standards aligned will be central to effectively translating ambitions into outcomes. One way the framework threads this needle is with a call for trusted and skilled “translators” who can support communities in characterizing their vulnerabilities and generating options for action. These translators will need to be well versed in community-led infrastructure predevelopment to move ambitious ideas into practical, high-impact, scalable projects and, through them, better local and national resilience outcomes.
Predevelopment is that early, messy space in infrastructure planning where gaps, needs, priorities, and potential solutions are identified and framed. In the past, technical experts have dominated this space; to realize a better future, it needs to be defined by communities and the intended beneficiaries of our public systems and services, so we can align a more resilient vision for the future with the capacity and funding to move steadily toward it.
We need to go further to operationalize equity in resilience initiatives
The new framework refreshingly acknowledges that climate change and disasters worsen the cumulatively harmful decisions that preserve social, infrastructure, economic, environmental, and governance injustices. Under-resourced groups such as people of color, people living in poverty, and people with disabilities have historically been underestimated for their capacity to drive resilience, and face injustices within every extreme climate event and beyond them.
We cannot become a resilient nation if the processes we use lead to disenfranchisement. Inequitable outcomes are not usually the goal, but by virtue of doing things the way we always have, we arrive at predictably inequitable results. It is critical that there is a national effort to operationalize equity in disaster and climate resilience. This framework provides a foundation for that. But how we do this work is just as important as what we do, from having the right expertise about specific communities to how we spend federal and other funding via businesses and organizations in disproportionately impacted communities.
For example, take replicating and scaling up resilience hubs—an action item for communities within Objective 6 of the framework. Resilience hubs are community-serving facilities designed to support residents before, during, and after a disaster. When working effectively, the hubs can expand community leadership capabilities, collaboration between community-based organizations and community members, and community collaboration for climate action and emergency planning. However, in practice, resilience hubs tend to be operated in ways that leave them at the lower end of the spectrum of community leadership and holistic approaches. (The original report that inspired the resilience hubs framework comprehensively incorporated social resilience, including community ownership, for more transformative approaches to resilience.)
Like other community-centered aspects of the framework, resilience hubs will need to go further to operationalize equity—including prioritizing social resilience—to have the greatest impacts for underestimated groups. This includes providing accessible funding for community- and faith-based organizations to effectively contribute to climate and disaster resilience, even if they are not explicitly focused on climate action, environmental justice, or disaster response.
Ultimately, the framework moves us in the right direction. But by better incorporating intentionality during implementation, resilience initiatives and investments can also advance racial and social justice in meaningful and practical ways.
The framework doesn’t do enough to embed workforce development throughout climate resilience plans
Central to climate resilience is preparing a skilled workforce to construct, operate, and oversee improvements across our built and natural environment for years to come. While the new framework affirms a long-overdue federal commitment to address these workforce needs, it does not embed them throughout different plans and programs.
The framework mentions a few ambitious goals to “[b]uild a climate-ready and climate-educated workforce,” particularly around proposed investments in education and curriculum development, partnerships with universities and community colleges, and engagements with local workforce boards. It also references a few existing federal efforts, including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s $60 million Climate-Ready Workforce plan. But these goals and efforts are only discussed in the framework’s final few pages, bundled in with other “Opportunities for Action” around community relocation and climate health risks.
Ideally, our climate workforce needs and solutions should be embedded throughout the entire framework—preparing workers should go hand-in-hand with how we discuss project development, measurement, and more. For example, policymakers should not only recognize where we need to go talent-wise, but also recognize our current starting point: Many local leaders continue to struggle to define the greatest occupations of need, establish clear statistical benchmarks for education and training, and forge needed collaborations with other community partners, including employers. Policymakers should also recognize the challenges that both prospective and existing workers face—particularly young people, women, and people of color—in order to help them better navigate climate careers, including overcoming various training hurdles and gaining supportive services such as child care.
The framework offers a step in the right direction, but policymakers need to address our climate workforce needs more squarely and robustly, alongside all our climate investments—and not treat the work and the workers as separate concerns.
The framework confirms how challenging it will be to protect the built environment at scale
The weather-related hazards of the past year—flooded subways in New York, skyrocketing temperatures in Houston and Phoenix, atmospheric rivers snowing-in California households—were just the most recent reminders about the urgent need to make our cities, suburbs, and small towns more resilient. The country’s transportation, water, and real estate assets are worth over $30 trillion, much of it uninsured or underinsured, and far too many of those assets are under threat from a changing climate.
The framework is an important step in delivering a more adaptive built environment. I especially applaud the framing around “Opportunities for Action,” which range from improving federal interagency coordination and investing in improved data and evaluation tools to ensuring federal capital flows to resilient physical assets (for now, a work in progress). The framework sends the right messages and could improve federal agency actions.
But the framework’s underlying structure should also remind us that delivering climate resilience is mostly a local responsibility. For example, federal dollars represent less than 25% of total capital, maintenance, and operations spending on transportation and water systems. Land use is mostly a local- and state-controlled issue, including zoning codes, building codes, and the land we decide to develop or not. To adapt our built environment at the scale needed, America still needs a far bigger cultural shift and set of scaled actions than the framework, on its own, could ever be expected to deliver.
Protecting Americans’ homes and neighborhoods from climate events still poses substantial challenges
The decentralized nature of housing markets creates unique challenges in making our homes and neighborhoods more climate resilient. Unlike transportation systems and other public infrastructure, housing is mostly developed, owned, and managed by private entities, from owner-occupied homes to rental properties held by small landlords. This atomized ownership structure makes it difficult to share information about local climate risks and recommended building retrofits. Building code updates aimed at making homes more resilient generally apply to new construction, not retroactively to existing structures—although an overwhelming share of Americans live in the latter.
Low-income households are particularly likely to live in older homes that were built under less stringent building codes. As the new framework notes, the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Green and Resilient Retrofit Program will provide support for resilience investments in HUD-funded properties—a tiny share of the nation’s 144 million homes, but important because subsidized properties serve some of the nation’s most economically vulnerable families.
It’s also encouraging to see the framework call out the need to “[s]upport climate-resilient land use and zoning reforms to sustainably densify development in lower-risk areas.” For context: Over the past 20 years, counties and neighborhoods at high risk of extreme heat, wildfires, floods, and drought have grown faster than low-risk areas. In part, this reflects regulatory barriers to adding housing in safer infill locations—regulations adopted and enforced by local and state governments. The federal government will need to be creative in using fiscal carrots and sticks, technical assistance, and other policy levers that nudge local governments to adopt much more climate-resilient land-use practices.
We’re one step closer to a National Adaptation Plan
By laying the foundation for a National Adaptation Plan—a step signatories to the Paris Agreement agreed to—the framework marks a crucial step forward for the nation’s international climate obligations. Those obligations are important in light of the fact that the U.S. remains the single-largest global contributor to cumulative greenhouse gas emissions, responsible for roughly 25%.
While the framework is more signal than action (it hasn’t introduced anything binding), it establishes a clear mandate for more ambitious progress on climate adaptation, bringing U.S. policy more in line with nations such as France and the United Kingdom, which have already adopted binding legislation on climate adaptation. The UK’s 2008 Climate Change Act, for example, establishes a twice-a-decade process for assessing the risks and opportunities of climate change as well as laying out national adaptation priorities such as making coastal infrastructure more resilient to sea level rise and planning for more urban green space.
In addition, the framework picks up where the Obama administration left off. On November 1, 2013, President Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13653, which sought to improve the preparedness and resilience of federal agencies. However, in adopting a whole-of-society approach, the new framework goes well beyond federal agencies, introducing opportunities and actions for adaptation across regions and governance scales.
The U.S. has a clear and urgent imperative to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, domestic policy efforts to build resilience and adaptation, as captured in the framework, will be meaningful for the roughly 71% of Americans who reported that their community had experienced an extreme climate-related event in 2022, and millions more who are vulnerable to indirect impacts because of social conditions (such as energy, housing, or work insecurity) that limit their individual capacity to adapt. By providing a foundation to act on these challenges domestically, the framework is also an important (re)start to what should be the nation’s prominent role in international climate adaptation leadership.
The framework rightly embraces Indigenous knowledge, but could go further on tribal sovereignty
Indigenous knowledge is the body of observations and oral and written knowledge, innovations, practices, and beliefs developed by Indigenous Peoples through their interactions with the environment. For generations, Indigenous knowledge was not only discouraged and demeaned, but made illegal, with devastating effects for the climate. Because of this history of suppressing Indigenous knowledge, it’s worth celebrating that the federal government is now emphasizing its importance in the new framework.
Climate resiliency is particularly important to Native nations because Native Americans are among the most vulnerable to climate change—a reality that the framework acknowledges. As a result, many of the framework’s objectives are applicable in Native American communities, ranging from modernizing the built environment for tribal housing to mobilizing more capital into Indian country.
Because Native Americans are the only census-defined racial group that is also a political affiliation, it’s important that the framework acknowledges that the “Federal Government and its partners can also specifically assist Tribal Nations by supporting their sovereign right to safeguard their lands, culture, and infrastructure.” But tribal nations and their governments are also defined by critical differences from other levels and types of government in the U.S., particularly when it comes to institutional capacity. As the framework notes, “Underserved communities are less likely to have the financial resources needed to plan for current and future climate threats, but are more likely to be at elevated risk of climate-related impacts.” In many cases, tribal governments are smaller than other levels of government. They also face capacity constraints as a result of federal restrictions on their access to basic public finance tools. As such, it’s critical that the federal government lives up to the commitments it makes in the framework to provide funding and capacity-building to support tribal resiliency efforts.
It’s also significant that the framework acknowledges the need to respect tribal sovereignty (including data sovereignty) and protect sacred sites. However, the federal government can still do more to support tribal sovereignty and meaningful involvement in decisionmaking. The framework only goes so far as to call out the need for tribal consultation, which, importantly, does not actually require tribes’ agreement for projects that may affect their people or lands—merely that they be consulted. Other countries use the principle of free, prior, and informed consent, which requires consent from Indigenous Peoples before projects that will affect their homelands are carried out. This is particularly relevant on issues of climate resiliency, because it was the federal government’s historic theft of land from Native nations and long history of extraction and disinvestment that have made Native American communities so vulnerable to climate change.
Finally, continued land reclamation will bolster climate resiliency efforts. It’s encouraging that the framework calls for continuing to expand the role of tribal nations in land management. One of the most effective ways to do so is to return land to tribal control, while providing resources for tribes to protect and manage it on their own—employing the knowledge that they have developed over tens of thousands of years.
The framework is a promising milestone in climate action
Until now, the U.S. has lacked any encompassing framework for climate adaptation and resilience communicated with the unique authority, responsibility, reach, and resources of our federal government. We’ve had many frameworks or action agendas offered by others, from federations of scientists and urban planners to racial justice advocates. This is different: The framework comes from one of the world’s largest and most complex authorities, at a time of extreme partisanship and polarization. It could not be more timely.
It’s important to read this first-ever climate resilience framework in the context of other key actions and policy statements by the Biden-Harris administration. The most obvious connection is climate action, with the president’s executive orders, reports, budget submissions, and signature legislative wins to date emphasizing the urgency of the net zero transition and making sure it’s a just transition. The less obvious connections are highlighted in the framework’s introduction: It asks us to see resilient communities and a more resilient nation as key goals advanced by what the administration now calls its Invest in America agenda, aka “Bidenomics.” But that works (or should work) both ways. All investments in productivity and a more inclusive economy, including good jobs, are at risk thanks to the climate crisis. And conversely, those investments, if done well, will contribute to the capacity of our economy and local communities to cope with growing climate impacts and recover from extreme events as well as chronic stresses, such as months of extreme heat or long-lasting drought.
As planning students have been taught for generations, an action-focused document such as a framework can be many things: part story of ourselves and what our duties are to each other and the planet; part strategy for better implementing public programs or functions already prescribed by law; part agenda for new laws that expand what’s possible and our terms of discourse and imaginations; and part punch list for action well beyond the federal government or any other level of government, on a whole-of-society basis. Our first-ever national climate resilience framework is all of those things, with the possible exception of an explicit legislative agenda: Presidents usually save that for the next budget and State of the Union address.
Finally, beyond being an ambitious roadmap for action, it is an uncommonly honest one. After decades spent in public service, analyzing what government does and how it could be more effectively, and training future leaders and managers to act on public problems, I can attest to the strong, gravitational pull of the promotional frame in official communications. In that light, it’s refreshing when the president of the United States issues a far-reaching document about the greatest single challenge of our time, and includes many references to what federal agencies and other actors should do more of—but for now, do not. Watch this space.