Building Resilience and Fostering Adaptation to Climate Change

Editor’s note: During our recent On Aging conference in New Orleans, the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Dr. Rick Spinrad spoke via video about climate challenges facing older adults and what NOAA is doing to help. What follows are crucial outtakes of the Under Secretary’s remarks.

Stay tuned for the June 22 release of “Aging and the Climate Crisis,” our Summer Generations Journal.

On Aging: Let me first start by saying that as the oldest NOAA administrator to date, I’m keenly aware of the challenges facing older Americans. I also speak to you as someone who has retired twice, but when I was asked to come back and serve in the Biden-Harris administration I knew it was an opportunity to contribute to President Biden’s whole-of-government effort to fight the climate crisis. This is a crisis that will impact the future for young people and will disproportionately affect older Americans today.

On His Goals: The first of these goals is to build a Climate Ready Nation by 2030. We will accomplish this through delivery and development of NOAA’s climate tools and services. We will ensure that decision makers and citizens have the information they need to implement a range of resilience, adaptation and mitigation actions that can prevent or reduce the negative impacts of climate change.

The Climate Ready Nation initiative will target investments to address climate risks and key impact areas, including floods, fire, drought and extreme heat and to build resilience to these threats. NOAA does this through partnerships.

Second, my goal is to galvanize the New Blue Economy (NBE). NBE is a key component of building a Climate Ready Nation. It’s how we look to the sea not just for the extraction of material goods but also for data and information to address societal challenges and inspire their solutions. The ocean is a vital source of data, which can help build new ocean constituencies and economies to aid in climate adaptation. NOAA is looking to augment conventional ocean uses—like fisheries and shipping—with ocean-derived data, while also advocating for sustainable ocean stewardship.

My third priority is to integrate equity into everything we do. We want to make sure our information and products are easily accessible by communities of color, aging communities, those with impairments and special needs, as well as those that are traditionally under-resourced and underserved.

On Climate Impacts: Since 1980, the number of days between billion-dollar disasters has dropped from 82 days to just 18. Vulnerable populations, including older Americans, are particularly susceptible to climate change hazards, including sea-level rise, floods, fire, drought and extreme heat. More than 100 deaths are attributed to Superstorm Sandy and close to half of that number were people ages 65 and older. In New Orleans, people ages 60 and older comprised 15% of the population prior to Hurricane Katrina. However, more than 70% of those who died due to the hurricane were older adults. This affected me personally as my then–95-year-old mother was forced from her home.

‘If we fail to plan, we’re planning to fail, whether that’s on the local or federal level.’

This vulnerability is tied to several factors. Older Americans sometimes have functional impairments or mobility problems; or they may have thinning or absent social networks—all of which make them less likely to leave their homes during disasters. Some may also have chronic illnesses or complex medical conditions that require medications or services sensitive to health system disruption due to natural disasters.

NOAA wants to ensure that community leaders, lawmakers and other decision-makers are using our data to help older Americans prepare for and better recover from climate threats. Preparedness is key, especially for older adults and vulnerable communities. If we fail to plan, we’re planning to fail, whether that’s on the local or federal level.

On the Biden Administration’s Efforts: The Biden-Harris administration has undertaken a whole-of-government effort to combat the climate crisis with targeted investments aimed at building resilience to climate hazards. President Biden has formed the first-ever National Climate Task Force to mobilize every agency to prioritize acting on climate change throughout the federal government.

It has also formed an Interagency Working Group on Extreme Heat to clearly communicate, coordinate, and improve the federal government’s efforts to increase the resilience of communities to climate-related extreme heat. Extreme heat is a major area of concern for NOAA, especially as it impacts vulnerable communities. Extreme heat kills more Americans than any other weather event.

The administration is allocating funds through The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) and proposed funding for climate agencies in the President’s recent budget. NOAA will receive $2.96 billion through IIJA and a proposed $6.9 billion in funding for FY 23. Increased funding of our agency will allow us to expand our activities related to extreme heat. Last fall NOAA led a Climate and Equity Roundtable focused on extreme heat in the Southwest United States to hear directly from stakeholders what more we can be doing to help protect you.

On Resources: NOAA’s website (revamped this past October) provides continuously updated U.S. Government–wide climate science and information, such as the Global Climate Dashboard. This online resource raises climate and environmental literacy for educators and the public, empowering them to consider how our changing planet impacts our daily lives.

NOAA is also the steward and archivist of environmental data for the Nation at the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI). In March 2020, NCEI provided temperature data for COVID-19 transmission studies to better understand how temperature impacted the spread of the virus.

NOAA’s “boots-on-the-ground” network of climate service providers are key to providing trusted and targeted climate information to users and, importantly, iterating with them to inform future science and services. NOAA also works with states and local communities through its Coastal Zone Management Program, NOAA Sea Grant, Community-based Habitat Restoration Program, and National Coastal Resilience Fund, among others, to restore coastal habitats such as marshes, mangroves and coral reefs.

NOAA wants to ensure decision-makers use our data to help older Americans prepare for and better recover from climate threats.

These coastal habitats can protect coastal communities from storms, waves, erosion and flooding; protect biodiversity; and provide ecosystem services that support livelihoods, culture, food security, water quality, recreation and tourism.

On Building Resiliency: NOAA is a resource to help the American people, specifically communities, build their resiliency to climate change and apply climate adaptation measures where needed. We know we need to respond to constituent needs, specifically benefitting historically underserved communities.

We have significant service equity gaps to low-income and minority communities, whose residents often are living in the most exposed and hazardous areas and have the fewest resources to get the information they need to plan and respond. Our regional and local activities have been working on this gap, some programs like RISA have been doing this for decades, but the need is so great (there are more than 30,000 communities across the United States making climate-relevant decisions each day), that we need an army of trained experts working with trusted local leaders to employ the solutions that are needed.

On Expanding Access to Data: NOAA has vast stores of useful climate information, but it doesn’t always reach the decision-makers who need it, or it isn’t in the format, scale or detail they need. We’re working to fix that. We know we can’t accomplish big goals like Climate Ready Nation without working with our colleagues in other federal agencies; academia; state, and local government, tribal leaders, civil society groups and the private sector.

As NOAA’s administrator, I’ve challenged us to think more broadly about our partnerships and to expand our outreach. I’ve conducted important outreach to groups like the American Medical Association, the American Society of Civil Engineers and the National Association of Realtors. Climate change will have a strong impact on housing availability, specifically for older Americans who are more at risk to hazards like floods and fires. Engineers need to update building codes given these new climate realities.

I’ve had discussions with the U.S. Department of the Treasury on how climate change may impact our nest eggs and our ability to live on savings. I also understand the needs of an aging workforce. According to the AARP, 37.3% of the U.S. essential workforce are ages 50 and older. This workforce may be more likely to need workplace accommodations. As the leader of a 12,000-person agency, these are the things I’m thinking about.

I really do believe there’s a good deal of natural alignment between NOAA and ASA, especially as your membership addresses climate change as a priority initiative. I hope that you think of NOAA as a resource and a partner, and we’ll be happy to pick up the phone anytime.