Biden Promises to ‘Build Back Better.’ Some Climate Experts See Trouble.

Source: By Christopher Flavelle, New York Times • Posted: Sunday, May 9, 2021

Critics say the administration hasn’t defined a clear climate resilience strategy and has been slow to fill key jobs to coordinate that work.

President Biden discussed infrastructure spending near the Calcasieu River Bridge in Lake Charles, La., on Thursday.
Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

When President Biden arrived in Lake Charles, La., on Thursday to push for spending trillions of dollars on infrastructure nationwide, plywood still covered windows broken from back-to-back hurricanes that devastated the city last summer.

“I promise you, we’re going to build back better,” Mr. Biden said, talking about the need to act as climate change continues. “Better able to withstand storms that are becoming more severe and more frequent than ever.”

Just weeks from the start of hurricane season, climate experts warn that Mr. Biden’s administration has yet to take steps that would turn his pledge to “build back better” into reality. They cite its failure to reinstitute a rule on building in flood zones that former President Donald J. Trump scrapped, its lack of an overarching climate resilience strategy and the fact that it has yet to hire senior staff to manage and coordinate that work.

“You can’t simply say, we’re going to have resilient infrastructure, without having a plan and definition for what that means,” said Alice Hill, who oversaw climate resilience during the Obama administration.

The concerns raised about Mr. Biden’s actions so far highlight the difference between two distinct areas of climate action. In addition to cutting the emissions of planet-warming gases, experts are increasingly urging the federal government to help prepare communities for the effects of that warming, such as worsening storms and rising seas.

Those policies, which experts call climate adaptation, can be unpopular: They can include tougher and more expensive building standards in areas exposed to flooding or hurricanes; allowing fewer homes to be built in those places to begin with; or even encouraging people to leave.

The difficulty of talking about those steps is exactly why Mr. Biden’s administration needs to make them part of its climate agenda, said Robert Freudenberg, vice president for energy and environment at the Regional Plan Association, a planning group in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

But so far, tackling climate adaptation and resilience are not atop the agenda, Mr. Freudenberg said.

Lake Charles in October, after Hurricanes Laura and Delta.
William Widmer for The New York Times

A White House spokesman, Vedant Patel, said in a statement that “bolstering resilience and adaptation is a critical priority for President Biden.”

On his first day as president, Mr. Biden won praise from climate resilience experts by signing an executive order that, according to the White House, reinstated an Obama-era rule on flood risk.

The rule imposed higher standards on federally funded construction in flood zones. It was rescinded by Mr. Trump after the home building industry said it would increase costs.

Climate experts hailed Mr. Biden’s move as a crucial step to ensure that new homes, roads and other investments would be safe from rising seas, stronger hurricanes and more intense storms. In particular, restoring the flood rule would help ensure that projects funded through the president’s $2 trillion infrastructure package would be better protected.

But the administration reversed itself last month, saying that Mr. Biden’s order did not in fact reinstate the flood rule. No reason was given. Mr. Patel did not respond to questions about the rule.

Rob Moore, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the administration needed to put the flood rule in place. “Otherwise, they run the risk of a lot of money going out the door to build things that fall in the water,” he said.

The administration has also worried climate resilience experts with its hiring decisions.

Mr. Biden created an office within the White House to coordinate domestic climate policy across agencies, staffed by experts in energy and other issues. But no one in that office focuses on resilience and adaptation policy.

Instead, those issues will be coordinated from the Council on Environmental Quality, viewed as a less powerful office. The council has yet to announce someone to fill that role.

Nor has the White House nominated anyone to oversee resilience at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, among the most important jobs for climate resilience policy in the federal government.

Garret Graves, a congressman from Louisiana and the top Republican on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, said the administration should emphasize climate resilience, an area that concerns both Democrats and Republicans.

“We need to be making more investment into resilience programs,” he said. “We can cut all emissions globally today, and we’re still projected to see seas rise.”