Alice Hill on Mainstreaming Climate Risks Into U.S. Government Planning: “We Should Care Deeply”
“Perhaps I’m a case study for what happens in the federal government when we start on a tough problem,” says Alice Hill, the senior director for resilience policy and the National Security Council and former senior counselor to the secretary of homeland security, in this week’s podcast.
In 2009, President Obama issued an executive order requiring all agencies to conduct climate change adaptation and environmental sustainability planning. “We turned very seriously to the question, ‘should an agency like DHS even care about climate change?’” says Hill, who was also a judge before joining the government. “In 2009 that was a serious question. We did not have a definite, consensus view within the department.”
“We had the hard work of answering that question and looking at all of our mission spaces to determine that, in fact, we should care deeply,” she says. “That threat multiplier of climate change could knock aside all of the important work – or much of the important work – that we are doing.”
Once the threat was recognized, determining a plan of action proved just as difficult. “What do you do about it? How do you start really making choices that will make a difference to better prepare a nation, a fragile state, or even the United States to the impacts of climate change?” she asks. “This is new territory for many people across the federal government.”
Since 2009, Hill has moved on to the White House where she helps coordinate responses to climate change across the U.S. government. The security community has increasingly emphasized the potential risks of climate change in strategy and planning documents. Hill references the 2010 and 2015 National Security Strategies, the Quadrennial Defense Report, and the Quadrennial Homeland Security Report for example, which call climate change a “threat multiplier.”
In 2013, an executive order created a task force to engage senior officials from more than 30 agencies, as well as state and local leaders to give domestic recommendations on climate preparedness and resilience.
Seeing support for these initiatives, the international agencies signaled their desire to do more climate work abroad, says Hill, inspiring a more recent executive order that requires all new U.S. international development projects to be screened for climate risks by October 1, 2015. The White House also launched a public-private partnership with the American Red Cross, Asian Development Bank, Esri, Google, Inter-American Development Bank, Skoll Global Threats Fund, and U.K. government to pilot climate resilience projects in Colombia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh.
Still, “when you get down to actually doing this there are still major challenges,” says Hill. Two issues are lack of routinely available data that’s useful at the local scale and experts who can translate science-based findings into policy objectives. “We simply don’t have that cadre built yet of knowledgeable people can consult and offer the advice,” she says.
Building resilience to climate change is still novel. “I don’t think there is any consensus on how to do it well,” says Hill. She cites A New Climate for Peace: Taking Action on Climate and Fragility Risks, a report commissioned by G7 foreign ministers and authored by an international consortium including the Wilson Center, as a resource that “brings together and synthesizes many of the challenges that we’ve seen.”
“If we don’t think through how we are helping a country through the climate lens – think through their fragility risks posed by climate change and by independent factors, we really are at risk for not being able to achieve our goals.”