Dr. John Holdren, President Obama’s science advisor for both terms of his presidency, has often repeated that there are just three basic responses to global climate disruption: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. Only to the extent that we successfully achieve the first two can we avoid the third and much less desirable option. To the extent that we are unsuccessful in mitigating climate change by ratcheting down emissions worldwide, we will need to adapt to climate conditions never before experienced in human history. It is important to remember, however, that adaptation can mean adjusting to new conditions or it can mean suffering and dying. The more we can prepare for a climate-disrupted future, the better off we will be.

Preparedness is a concept familiar to those who are in the military and for those who concern themselves with minimizing the harmful impacts of natural disasters, such as earthquakes. Those who spend a lot of time thinking about preparedness know that sometimes the simplest of tasks, such as bolting a tall shelf to a wall in a home or office building, can save lives in the event of a major quake. However, preparedness is a concept that has only relatively recently begun to be applied to climate change impacts in communities across the US. Despite laudable efforts initiated in 2013 by the Obama Administration to assist state and local leaders to better prepare for climate impacts, and to help communities increase their overall resilience, too many Americans are still too vulnerable. On the whole, we are poorly prepared for a set of climate conditions never before experienced in human history.

More than three decades of US-supported scientific research together with the body of work produced by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have allowed for an increasingly accurate understanding of the complex dynamics of the Earth’s climate system as it responds to escalating human-induced emissions of greenhouse gases. However, recent observations of the rate and severity of physical and ecological responses to escalating radiative forcing – melting glaciers and ice sheets resulting in sea level rise and major changes in weather patterns, prolonged droughts, more frequent hurricanes and storms, and so on – are surprising even top climate experts, and raising awareness that, as a nation, we are dangerously unprepared for the inevitable consequences.

One of President Trump’s stated pledges to the American people has been to improve US infrastructure; yet, if he and his administration continue to ignore climate change, then major infrastructure renovations could fail, and could end up being an expensive but futile exercise. Engineers rely on accurate weather and climate predictions to design roadways, bridges, and other major projects: climate conditions of the future will no longer resemble those of the past. Even the business community recognizes this (for example see this piece in CNN Money). While it is highly unlikely that the Trump Administration will carry forward with the Obama Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, at some point, as a pragmatic matter this administration will need to incorporate climate change considerations in any major initiative to improve infrastructure.

Some states and localities are better-positioned to prepare for climate change impacts than are others; national leadership and assistance is needed. CSPW will continue to promote this notion to national leaders in the administration and in Congress, and will incorporate climate preparedness in other efforts and recommendations to our elected officials. It is only a matter of time before the United States experiences its next climate change-related extreme weather event, such as Hurricane Sandy. How the Trump Administration responds and what kind of feedback it receives from those most affected will be telling, and could offer an important learning opportunity for this White House.