A turning point for climate policy and development? [Commentary]

Climate change has been in the news a lot lately. The United Nations held a Climate Change Summit, which was attended by more than 100 heads of state. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets of New York for a "People's Climate March," the biggest such event ever.

But there was a third very important climate-related development that received much less attention than it warranted: President Barack Obama issued a new executive order that may prove to be a turning point for efforts to advance climate preparedness around the world and for U.S. foreign aid planning.


The order is entitled "Climate-Resilient International Development." Climate resilience is the capacity of nations, regions, cities or programs to cope with and rebound from changes in climate, including severe weather events like floods, droughts or periods of intense heat.

Most climate scientists agree that human activities are causing long-term shifts in climate and short-term spikes in the frequency of extreme weather. But whatever your take is on climate change, what we think should be clear from the events of the past decade is this: It makes sense for governments to prepare for extreme weather events in order to minimize the severe and widespread harms they can cause — to human life and health; to the availability of food, clean water and energy; and to homes, businesses and roads.


The president's executive order is based on two analytic leaps. The first is a recognition that climate risks need to be incorporated into the plans of the U.S. agencies that collectively provide more than $30 billion of financial assistance to developing countries. Otherwise, the effectiveness of that assistance could be undermined by failures to take into account the potential impacts of climate change and extreme weather. For example, how can we sensibly calibrate and allocate U.S. support for health care in developing countries that are prone to flooding without taking into account the prospect that floods could lead to major outbreaks of malaria?

To improve the climate resilience of foreign aid, the president's order requires federal agencies to analyze and address climate risks as they frame their plans for economic assistance to other countries. This requirement is a big deal; it marks a fundamental change in the way U.S. development planning will be done.

In addition, the president directs federal agencies to work with their counterparts in international organizations, such as the World Bank, to coordinate efforts to maximize the climate resilience of their development programs.

What makes the president's executive order more significant still is its second analytic leap: the recognition that the very logic that calls for U.S. agencies to incorporate climate resilience into their development planning also calls for a corresponding attention to climate preparedness by the nations receiving financial assistance.

To go back to our earlier example, some developing nations are known to be susceptible to increasingly frequent heavy storms and floods. It stands to reason that these countries should be encouraged and empowered to incorporate preparedness for floods into their own planning for the programs supported by development assistance — regarding health care, agriculture, food supply, water and sanitation and infrastructure.

So it is fitting that the executive order directs federal agencies to "support efforts of vulnerable countries to integrate climate resilience considerations into national, regional, and sectoral development planning and action."

That means treating so-called "partner countries" as true partners. It means recognizing that unless these considerations are part of the planning done by the governments that have on-the-ground responsibilities for delivering services, the important objectives of development assistance, such as reductions in the incidence of malaria, could be undermined.

And it means not only voicing, but also investing in, the proposition that recipient governments need to have the resources to pursue climate preparedness as they shape and implement programs to improve the lives of their citizens and safeguard their societies.


A sustained commitment to that model of development could make a big difference — for climate preparedness and for development.

Charles Cadwell is the director of the Center on International Development and Governance at the Urban Institute; his email is Mark Goldberg, a former Yale School of Management faculty member and chairman of the Climate Institute, is an advisor to the center; his email is

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