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As Climate Change Intensifies, Here Are the Most—and Least—Resilient Counties in America

A recent EPA survey takes into account extreme weather, but also social factors such as poverty, health, and governance.
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Three Pillar Point in Kodiak Island County, Alaska.

Three Pillar Point in Kodiak Island County, Alaska.

Kodiak Island Borough is a remote community of around 14,000 people that spreads down the coast of the Alaska Peninsula and across 16 islands. It sits downwind from a cluster of active volcanoes, and its six villages are accessible only by boat or plane. It is home to 3,500 oversized bears.

It is also one of the safest places to live in the United States—at least when it comes to climate change. A recent survey of America's 3,135 counties concluded that this inhospitable stretch of land is the most climate-resilient place in the entire nation.

Scott Pruitt, current administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, may question the very reality of man-made global warming, but from 2015–17, EPA scientists were mapping out in extraordinary detail how communities around the U.S. will cope with its consequences, including droughts, hurricanes, flooding, and wildfires.

The results shed light on the vast inequalities in how different parts of the U.S. will deal with such hazards. While places like Kodiak Island are expected to fare well, residents of areas like Appalachia, the southeast, and western Texas are on course to suffer far worse than the average American.

Resilience across the U.S., broken down by county. Darker colors show a higher CRSI score, and therefore greater resilience to climate change. The index excludes eight boroughs in Alaska, owing to a lack of data.

Resilience across the U.S., broken down by county. Darker colors show a higher CRSI score, and therefore greater resilience to climate change. The index excludes eight boroughs in Alaska, owing to a lack of data.

These findings were contained in a 317-page report that was released without fanfare in October of last year. EPA scientists had set to work on the tool, called the Climate Resilience Screening Index, under the previous administration. By ranking regions, states, and counties across the U.S., they hoped to reveal which areas need to boost their resilience most urgently—and to prompt local and national governments to act accordingly.

Still, the EPA resilience report isn't just about extreme weather events, but also about how factors like inequality, ethnicity, and infrastructure affect a community's ability to deal with and recover from such events when they do occur.

Assessing that ability requires looking beyond data sets about the Earth's atmosphere and geophysics, and focusing as well on indicators not typically included in discussions of climate change. The EPA scientists behind the CRSI calculated resilience as a combination of five characteristics—risk, governance, society, built environment, and natural environment—based on 117 data sets.

Resilience of countries across the U.S. to climate change, broken down by individual characteristics.

Resilience of countries across the U.S. to climate change, broken down by individual characteristics.

"Risk" covers the physical impacts of climate change, and how exposed a community is to such events. Calculating risks means asking questions about the chances of flooding in a given area, and whether houses there are built in the floodplain. But that's just the beginning of the story.

To calculate the four other characteristics, the researchers also measured factors like age, education, homelessness, language, and health. They examined metrics such as the number of participants in the National Flood Insurance Program, whether there is a healthy local construction industry to rebuild following a disaster, and whether neighbors are more inclined to help one another, or to retreat into ethnically isolated enclaves.

They also measured the urban fabric: things like the number of vacant structures, the availability of Internet and radio to aid communication in the wake of a disaster, and whether there are sufficient roads, railways, and airports nearby to assist in evacuation. Indicators such as biodiversity, air quality, and forest condition were used to assess the quality of the natural environment.

Kodiak Island is lucky. Its resilience is largely a function of its abundant and pristine natural environment, and of the minimal risk from climate-induced events.

Most other counties in the U.S. don't have the same natural advantages. Some of the communities on course to suffer most are the ones already struggling thanks to poverty, inequality, and other challenges.

The state of Georgia, for instance, is no more at risk from climate impacts than the average state, but is nonetheless acutely vulnerable to climate-related events, thanks to less-stringent building codes, a high number of vacant structures, and old public infrastructure.

But it is Metcalfe County, in Kentucky, that earns the dubious honor of being the least resilient county in the entire U.S., despite its relatively low risk from climate events. That's because Metcalfe County scores low on factors that include social cohesion, security, and its built environment. It happens to sit within EPA region four, which is the least resilient region in the U.S. This southeastern group of states also encompasses Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and six indigenous tribes.

The index further illustrates how the counties that suffered extensive damage from Hurricane Harvey were already poised to fail as soon as disaster struck, thanks to poor security, infrastructure, a high proportion of empty buildings, and low skills diversity.

It may seem surprising that the EPA, currently under the direction of an administrator who has questioned whether climate change is necessarily a "bad thing," has released a report spelling out the consequences of climate change for almost every community in the U.S. But it's worth noting that, in November, the White House also permitted the release of the National Climate Assessment, which stated that the threat of climate change was both serious and man-made. It's also pertinent that the CRSI results are not based on long-term climate projections, but upon events that have actually occurred over the last 16 years, or which are likely to happen in the next 10. In other words, these are based not on distant projections, but on events recorded in newspapers and on television. That makes the findings more difficult to deny.

The real question is how the EPA plans to use such a granular breakdown. It is one thing to release a report on climate change, and quite another to act on it.

The report's authors make their own suggestions, including identifying problem areas that could stand to learn from more resilient counties. The report can also help investors and non-profits determine where investments might provide the greatest return, and could serve as evidence for counties to pursue additional state or federal funding.

An EPA spokesperson says that the agency is working with its 10 regional offices to identify opportunities to put the index into action, but seems reluctant to acknowledge that such moves would amount to making plans to deal with climate change. Asked whether the administration's skepticism about climate change would affect its plans for the index, the spokesperson simply says: "This index addresses acute meteorological events."

Even if such a handbook only ends up gathering dust in D.C. offices, it could still be a powerful tool in the hands of regional governments and non-governmental organizations. From California's carbon market to the We Are Still In coalition, it is states, cities, tribes, and counties that have assumed responsibility for driving the U.S. toward a greener future in the absence of federal action.

"Whatever happens, I definitely think the CRSI is something innovative. I haven't seen much else like it," says James DeWeese, a research analyst working on climate resilience at the World Resources Institute, who was not involved in the report.

The tool, as it stands, is still not perfect. Even with 117 metrics, it is difficult to capture the nuances and challenges of resilience in a country as large and diverse as the U.S. But it's a work in progress; the authors are still honing their methods and the ranking system, and recently released a version of the index adapted to coastal counties in EPA region four to improve the accuracy of these areas.

The U.S. needs to reduce its emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change. But to really thrive in a future of climate change, the nation will need more than solar energy and sea walls. The EPA’s new index shows that the most resilient areas are also those with the healthiest societies, the wildest nature, and the most diverse economies. Increasing resilience means addressing all these dimensions of the problem. That task might be huge, but then so are the benefits.

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.