New White House climate agenda focuses on natural infrastructure, climate resilience
By Elizabeth Skree, Environmental Defense Fund
As part of the President’s Climate Action Plan, on Wednesday, the White House announced the release of the Climate and Natural Resources Priority Agenda. Prepared by the Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience Climate and Natural Resources Working Group, this commitment across the Federal Government to support resilience of our natural resources is the first of its kind. The agenda identifies a suite of actions the Federal Government will take to increase the resiliency of our country’s natural resources to the current and future effects of climate change.
Included in the agenda are actions to protect important ecosystems and to promote climate-resilient lands and water; improve carbon sinks such as wetlands, grasslands and forests; support including natural infrastructure – such as coastal wetlands – into community planning; and modernizing Federal programs and investments to build resilience. A full list of actions as well as a timeline can be found here. The announcement also included new executive actions to support resilient natural systems, including investing in natural infrastructure, supporting coastal resilience and restoring forests in the Lower Mississippi River Delta.
Shannon Cunniff, deputy director for water programs at Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), was invited to speak at the White House Wednesday. “To propel adoption of natural infrastructure as part of a balanced approach to coastal resiliency, EDF aims to demonstrate that incorporating these nature and nature-based systems cost-effectively reduces risks to coastal communities and improves their resiliency, while providing communities with other benefits,” she said.
“Natural infrastructure needs to be seen and embraced as a viable tool for reducing risk,” Shannon continued. Ms. Cunniff went on to point out that natural infrastructure is ideal for enhancing resiliency because:
- Natural infrastructure mitigates multiple sources of risk, including reducing tidal flooding, erosion and wave heights. It is especially effective for frequent, chronic impacts of sea level rise, which are predicted to increase with climate change.
- It also helps achieve climate adaptation and mitigation goals, as oyster reefs and wetlands also act as carbon sinks.
- Its use results in other co-benefits that achieve other public purposes, such as providing open space, recreation, fisheries, water quality improvement and drinking water protection benefits.
In places like the Mississippi River Delta, natural infrastructure works hand-in-hand with traditional “gray” infrastructure, such as levees and floodwalls. Coastal wetlands provide storm surge protection for levees, increasing the structures’ resiliency and helping prevent failure. Natural infrastructure can also reduce the cost of traditional infrastructure, as the height of seawalls or dunes can be reduced if there are enough protective wetlands in front of them. Louisiana’s 2012 Coastal Master Plan contains a suite of restoration and resilience tools that work in concert to rebuild and protect Louisiana’s vanishing coast.
“What we are after is putting nature and nature-based infrastructure on a more even playing field with gray infrastructure, to provide the fullest set of tools for communities to plan and implement their more sustainable and resilient futures,” said Ms. Cunniff.
The Administration also reaffirmed its commitment to implement the Green Infrastructure Collaborative in the Climate Natural Resources Priority Agenda. The collaborative includes 26 public and private sector organizations – including Environmental Defense Fund – who have pledged to work together to highlight the multitude of benefits provided by natural infrastructure.
In addition to Ms. Cunniff, other speakers at Wednesday’s announcement were Ben Grumbles, President, U.S. Water Alliance; Ann Mills, Deputy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment, U.S. Department of Agriculture; Marion McFadden, Deputy Assistant General Counsel, Office of Housing and Community Development, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and Julius Ciaccia, executive director for the Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District.