Federal Grants Can Impact State and Local Policy to Build Climate Change Resilience in Vulnerable Communities
Written by Mari Quenemoen, J.D., Georgetown University Law Center (expected May 2021)
Two-thirds of Americans believe the federal government is doing too little to combat climate change, up over 20 percentage points since 2011. One of the first things President Biden did on the afternoon of his inauguration was to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, signaling that climate change will be one of his top priorities. Unfortunately, most scientists agree it is too late to prevent climate-related disasters across the United States.
Even if the Biden administration can achieve a modest decrease in the country’s annual carbon emissions, scientists predict dramatic shifts in temperature, ocean levels, and weather patterns due to climate change in the next 100 years. Flooding, ocean acidification, coastal erosion, warming lakes and rivers, extreme heat and humidity, increased incidence of vector-borne diseases like Lyme disease, and shifts in agricultural production will transform the economy and threaten human health. Wildfires will burn western forests and encroach on urban areas, making the air dangerous to breathe.
The effects of both slow-burning and acute climate disasters will be borne unevenly. Low-income and racial minority communities are “more likely to die in a disaster event and less likely to recover after one.” And when recovery dollars are distributed without considering the principles of equity, white and well-off communities benefit disproportionately. In the current COVID-19 crisis, more than half of $522 billion in Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) emergency aid for small businesses went to 5% of recipients, including large companies and national chains. A recent study found that areas that received the most FEMA dollars after a disaster also experienced the greatest growth in economic inequality. Without thoughtful, proactive measures, climate change will likewise exacerbate racial, economic and health disparities by leaving the most vulnerable communities worse off than ever.
Through equitable climate adaptation, the Biden administration can make good on two of his campaign promises: to ready the country for climate change and to address the country’s living legacy of racial discrimination and oppression. But even with control of both chambers, Biden should not count on Congress to take action on climate change adaptation. Congress has not produced a comprehensive agreement to address climate change since 1987, when then-Senator Biden introduced and helped secure passage of the Global Climate Protection Act.
Instead, Biden should look to America’s states, cities, and tribes, which have not waited for Congress to act before taking climate change adaptation into their own hands. For instance, in 2019, California Governor Gavin Newsom spearheaded the $50 million Listos California Emergency Preparedness Campaign, which works with non-profit organizations and peer-to-peer networks to build resiliency within California’s most vulnerable communities to future wildfires. At the city level, 468 mayors from cities across the United States have joined the Climate Mayors network, promoting equitable solutions to climate change that increase opportunity for all. Over 50 U.S. Native American/American Indian Tribes have created climate change strategies to protect their lands and their communities, as well. The Swinomish Tribe in northwestern Washington created an adaptation plan that integrates nature-based adaptation, technology, and traditional cultural practices that build the community’s economic and cultural resilience to climate change. In 2019, the Karuk Tribe released a climate adaptation plan calling for a return to traditional prescribed burning practices to manage wildfire risk.
All of these subnational actors have actively mobilized to put their most vulnerable communities at the center of their climate adaptation efforts. But if they are to become a model for states and localities across the country, they will need significant help from the federal government. While new funding would help, lots more can be done with what is already available. In 2019, the federal government granted more than $700 billion to state and local governments, representing almost a quarter of state and local revenue. The Biden administration can breathe new life into at least two existing grant programs to incentivize states, tribes, and cities to build the resilience of vulnerable communities to climate change.
FEMA Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) Funding
In 2020, the program’s first year, FEMA’s Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) program allocated $500 million in a combination of formula grants, tribal set-asides, and competitive grants “to build a culture of preparedness.” BRIC and the FEMA Flood Mitigation Assistance grants are currently the federal government’s only pre-disaster grant programs. Over 90 percent of federal flood risk reduction funds, for instance, are tied to a recent Presidentially declared disaster.
Waiting to act until after a disaster is problematic for promoting long-term economic and racial equity. Post-disaster programs face pressure to get a community “back to normal” as quickly as possible, even if pre-disaster “normal” included inequitable housing conditions, poor public health, and inequitable distribution of risk to natural disasters. After a disaster, emphasis on the speed of recovery hampers efforts to ensure participatory decision making, develop effective outreach methods, or allow deep thinking on how to use disaster dollars to improve opportunities, health, and safety for vulnerable communities.
Pre-disaster funding, on the other hand, can help state, local, and tribal governments plan for climate change disasters with broad community participation. Pre-disaster programs like BRIC can help governments create disaster response plans that factor in the particular outreach and emergency response needs of vulnerable communities, including limited English proficient communities and those with limited access to the Internet. Pre-disaster grants also allow communities to implement large-scale structural changes to reduce the risk of damage to property and people, while simultaneously improving human health, access to opportunities, and clean energy, for instance.
The new administration can direct FEMA to shift the language in its BRIC 2021 Notice of Funding Opportunity, within the existing bounds of its statutory authority, to incentivize projects that benefit vulnerable communities. Section 203 of the Stafford Act directs FEMA to prioritize “small, impoverished communities,” defining this as “a community of 3,000 or fewer individuals that is economically disadvantaged.” Small changes in the evaluation process can incentivize states, local governments, and tribes to design projects that address low-income populations, as well as lead to the selection of plans already designed to serve these populations.
Finally, some communities have reported that the BRIC program’s cost-sharing requirement, whereby recipients must supplement 25 percent of the grant with non-federal funds, presents a significant burden, but waiver provisions are written into the law. Both waivers and public-private partnerships can help tribes and small, impoverished communities meet the required federal cost share.
HUD Community Development Block Grants
The Biden administration can also work with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to use Community Development Block Grants (CDBGs) to fund climate adaptation projects for vulnerable communities. CDBG grantees have broad flexibility in how they spend the money, but each project must: 1) principally benefit low- or moderate-income persons, 2) aid in preventing or eliminating slums or blight, or 3) address an imminent threat to the health and safety of residents. HUD could use CDBGs to support state and local governments that build resilience for vulnerable communities through two funding streams: climate mitigation block grants and a renewed National Disaster Resilience Competition.
Climate Mitigation Block Grants
HUD announced its first climate mitigation block grant in 2019 to help areas still recovering from natural disasters to mitigate against future disasters. Unfortunately, the climate mitigation block grant weakens the CDBG program’s traditional focus on low- and moderate-income persons. While other CDBGs require 70 percent of funds to benefit low- and moderate-income persons, the climate mitigation block grant only requires that 50 percent of funds do so. Grantees must still “prioritize the protection of [low- and moderate-income] individuals and describe in the action plan how their proposed programs and projects will reflect that priority,” but half of the grant money may still benefit wealthier Americans.
Two reforms are needed. First, HUD should bring the climate mitigation block program’s required focus on low- and moderate-income individuals back to 70 percent, so that CDBG climate adaptation programs focus primarily on vulnerable populations. Second, the Biden administration should direct HUD to use CDBG funds to award competitive grants to state and local governments that propose particularly innovative solutions to climate justice.
National Disaster Resilience Competition
In 2014, HUD partnered with the Rockefeller Foundation to release a $1 billion grant competition to promote post-disaster resilience planning called the Community Development Block Grant – National Disaster Resilience Competition (CDBG-NDR). In addition to pitching effective local solutions to build community resilience to climate change, all applicants participated in resilience workshops hosted by the Rockefeller Foundation to build their capacity to identify and address vulnerabilities to climate change. Like all CDBGs, the competition focused especially on low- and moderate-income communities. If feasible, this partnership should be revived.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis called states the laboratories of democracy for good reason. Governments at a smaller scale can afford to try new approaches to policy problems that might be politically prohibitive at the national level. The Biden administration can make small changes to existing funding streams like FEMA BRIC funding and HUD CDBG money to empower state, local, and tribal governments to lead the way on climate justice by building resilience in communities with the most to lose from inevitable climate disaster.