The urgency to address climate change is centering around two cities at the moment: Glasgow and Washington, D.C. World leaders are converging at the United Nations Climate Change Conference, or COP26, to set pollution reduction targets and clarify other priorities. Meanwhile, policymakers in the nation’s capital are hammering out details on a reconciliation package that could unleash generational investments in renewable energy, clean water, and more.
As important as COP26 and federal programs are, they alone can’t solve the climate crisis at scale. Climate action must also take root at the local level.
Whether shifting energy use, rethinking development patterns, or conserving water and other natural resources, regional leaders are ultimately responsible for overseeing and investing in climate improvements on the ground. It’s up to mayors, planning departments, transportation agencies, water utilities, and many other actors to mitigate and adapt to climate change over time. And it falls to these leaders to build regional consensus, prioritize people in their planning, and prepare the workforce to deliver on their promises.
Once these major activities end in Glasgow and Washington, the politics of the climate debate—including how much money to spend and what programs to prioritize—will quickly transition to implementation challenges. The local and regional leaders who can best prepare for this moment in time will be positioned to become the climate leaders of tomorrow.
There’s no question that the federal government is set to make one of the biggest investments in climate resilience in the country’s history. While the total amount of funding is still in flux—including upwards of $555 billion in the reconciliation package alone, according to an initial White House framework—the fact is that the proposed funding totals would be historic. That’s also true for the bipartisan infrastructure bill, or the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
Embedded in IIJA’s current $1.2 trillion total, preliminary Brookings estimates show that around $154 billion will directly fund climate programs, from energy and electric grid upgrades, to resilient infrastructure improvements, to weatherization of public buildings. This estimate excludes funding for more general programs that may be spent on climate improvements subject to recipient discretion, such as the Clean Water State Revolving Loan Fund or many transportation programs. A broader accounting of IIJA’s climate programs would easily surpass the $154 billion total—and signals just how big the potential is for resilient climate investment.
As federal policymakers finalize total spending and other program details, what matters more for regional leaders is understanding how this money could flow. In IIJA, for instance, competitive grants could prove enormously important for climate upgrades; a variety of entities—including state and local governments, regional authorities like water utilities, or even universities and non-profit organizations—could be eligible and apply for federal funding. Unlike mandatory (or formula) funding, federal agencies such as the U.S. Department of Transportation, Department of Energy, and Environmental Protection Agency have more discretion in how they award competitive funding, and applicants need to demonstrate their ability to deliver on different climate outcomes.
For example, IIJA includes $150 billion in competitive grants for transportation improvements, many of which could address climate needs. From a new $2.5 billion electric vehicle charging program to a new $1.4 billion “Promoting Resilient Operations for Transformative, Efficient, and Cost-saving Transportation” (PROTECT) program, USDOT would have considerable discretion awarding this money to different regions across the country. In some cases, these competitive funds would come on top of other formula funding, which would allow greater flexibility for federal agencies and regional applicants to test new planning approaches and experiment with new project designs. As shown below, several additional competitive grants will be potentially available at DOE and EPA, among other agencies.
All this new funding would merge-up with new approaches to executive branch management. The Biden administration has issued executive orders on climate change, equity, and investment, which are shaping how federal agencies set priorities, mobilize resources, and likely evaluate grant applications. Current competitive grants, including those from the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity (RAISE) program, already emphasize climate needs, racial equity considerations, and other community-wide impacts to evaluate eligible applicants and projects—and figure to set precedent for new grants. Increasingly, regional leaders need to display their readiness to identify and address such priorities.
Regions will also need the fiscal and technical capacity to manage new federal funding, which could be a challenge in many places. State and local governments have long struggled to generate durable revenue to construct and maintain infrastructure, even well before the pandemic, and will need their own fiscal resources to match new federal climate funding. Institutional and jurisdictional fragmentation makes it difficult for regional leaders to measure or manage their existing infrastructure needs, let alone consider evolving climate challenges. Planners and other practitioners frequently fail to collect climate data, price climate costs and benefits, and coordinate on investments across different types of infrastructure projects. Struggles to hire, train, and retain staff to oversee all these needs remain an ongoing challenge as well.
To help protect people, communities, and the natural environment we all share, federal practitioners need their local and regional partners to be ready for the ensuing funding and programming blitz. Regional leaders can increase their readiness—and competitiveness—in several ways:
- Coordinate and integrate regional planning efforts around climate. Some regions are developing Climate Action Plans to create comprehensive policy frameworks that set emission reduction goals, prioritize agency-specific strategies, and clarify other responsibilities over time. From Los Angeles to Washington, D.C., the most forward-looking CAPs move beyond qualitative language to integrate climate considerations into local government operations, aim to bridge planning gaps across different government units, and spell out clear, enforceable benchmarks to evaluate progress. When done well, a CAP can help prioritize future actions. Beyond CAPs, some regions are also beginning to examine climate measures and outcomes as part of their project selection and budgeting process.
- Incorporate climate and racial equity impacts in ongoing plans and projects. The economic and environmental impacts of climate change are often uneven, tending to hit lower-income households and communities of color the hardest. Regional leaders need to better identify, measure, and evaluate these uneven impacts across the entire built environment. At the federal level, for instance, the Justice40 Initiative looks to provide greater transparency and accountability around these impacts, while EPA’s new “EJSCREEN” tool aims to more consistently monitor and visualize impacts across the country. These new federal efforts hold promise in guiding regions, but local leaders still need to test out new plans and measurement platforms. This is true even if local leaders may not always see eye-to-eye with state peers. Austin is one region beginning to take such an approach through its Climate Equity Plan, despite other leaders in Texas continuing to prioritize highway widenings and other destructive practices. This plan has expanded community engagement and led to the development of a new “equity tool” that addresses affordability and accessibility concerns.
- Boost workforce capacity around climate needs. The transition to a cleaner economy holds widespread promise in creating more jobs—even in fossil-fuel dependent communities—but many regions are struggling to educate and train workers with knowledge of climate issues now. Workforce needs are not just about hiring more solar installers and wind turbine technicians in the future, but exposing planners, financial analysts, managers, grant writers, and other staff to climate issues, including awareness of impacts to current operations. For example, Philadelphia’s “Green City, Clean Waters” effort has centered nature-based solutions within the city’s water department, providing a visible channel to demonstrate the impact of new projects for current workers, students, and other community residents. Rather than waiting to forecast workforce needs, experimenting with efforts like these makes it possible to immerse workers in the processes involved in taking climate action now.
Maximizing the impact of new federal programming—to improve infrastructure, protect more people, and provide long-term certainty amid a changing climate—hinges on the ability of regions to target and utilize it in ways that are responsive to their evolving needs. If they have not already begun to position themselves for this moment, now is the opportunity to get ready. There is no time to delay.