Over the past two years, David Hayes – who served as Assistant Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton and Obama administrations – has largely focused on managing climate impacts and resilience as Special Assistant to the President for Climate Policy. Hayes, 69, whose last day in office is Friday, has led efforts to set up interagency climate resilience task forces dedicated to extreme heat, drought, wildfires, floods and coastal impacts; worked to develop offshore wind power; and helped develop and implement President Biden’s ambitious plan to conserve 30% of US land and water by 2030.
This week, before he leaves, Hayes sat down with The Washington Post for an interview to reflect on his experience and how prepared he thinks the country is to deal with climate threats from a warming planet.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Biden swells the ranks of his White House climate team
As a country, where are we in terms of resilience and adaptation to climate change? If you had to assign a letter grade, what would it be and why?
January 19,  the letter grade would be “D”. As a country, we really haven’t paid enough attention to the climate impacts that are happening. Most climate conversations have traditionally focused on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the transition to clean energy. The president in his climate executive order said yes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, yes to switching to clean energy, but yes also, to resilience, to preparing our communities because these impacts are happening in this moment. Look today in Florida, my God, what more of an encore do we need.
So “D” before the president comes in, “A” for ambition with the president to make resilience a key part of the administration’s climate platform, and I’d say “A” in terms of creating the ecosystem within government to meet the challenge of resilience.
The first step is to organize around resilience. It’s like the weather. Climate does not exist in one agency or another agency. Likewise for resilience, what we need to do is not consider a department-by-department approach. We need to look at what impacts communities are facing and how do we organize around those impacts and ask the federal government to help communities who are facing coastal impacts, extreme heat, wildfires, drought and floods. The ecosystem that we developed was really intended to focus on the impacts and not on the federal funding sources or the particular federal services or departments that have a role to play, and we set up these cross-agency working groups . We have a new way of doing things. I am very excited about these impact-oriented inter-agency working groups.
But we still have a lot of work to do. It’s like an “A” on the first test of a semester, but the final is coming up.
What have you accomplished during your time on the White House climate team and what is the most important thing you have not been able to do, or the biggest stumbling block you have encountered?
One of the biggest voids that we saw early on was the fact that there wasn’t the ability to tell communities, basically, for your zip code, 50 years from now, what your extreme heat risk is, what is your risk of flooding? So we’ve worked over the past year with experts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the US Geological Survey, and our own Office of Science and Technology Policy to create the Climate Mapping for Resilience and Adaptation web portal. You can go down to the census tract and look forward. This is particularly salient, by the way, at a time when, under the bipartisan infrastructure act, we will be investing over $1 trillion in new infrastructure. Let’s make sure communities know the risks and that infrastructure can be designed to withstand what we’re seeing in Florida right now.
The portal is also designed to give communities the tools they need. It pulls itself together, for example, under a forest fire and in oppressive heat, here are the funding possibilities of the federal government.
The biggest challenge is to continue to work with the communities and raise community awareness. This is something we need to keep working on and expand our efforts. It’s about community decisions about how best to protect themselves.
When you look at what’s happening with Ian, what does that tell you about America’s vulnerability to climate impacts, and where we are in terms of resilience? What needs to change to make the country well prepared for the future?
Ian reminds us that we have underinvested in long-term resilience. We have been very good as a country in terms of immediate response and you will see that again with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. They are fabulous to come and work to restore power and deal with immediate impacts. But as a country and certainly previous administrations and previous congresses have not funded the longer term issues.
Ian caused ‘historic’ damage to Florida, says DeSantis; 2.6M lose power in the state
I’ll give you another example of an initiative we’re passionate about and very relevant here: the National Initiative to Advance Building Codes. Modern building codes ensure that structures built in this community will withstand incredible winds, et cetera, and they are also very focused on energy efficiency. But only 30% of communities nationwide have adopted modern building codes.
It’s just a practical old thing, but it’s essential. When you rebuild now after this crisis, will the infrastructure be able to withstand the next Ian that arrives? This question was not asked in previous administrations. It is asked and answered in this one.
What has been the impact of the initiative to advance building codes?
We are at the beginning. On Friday, we are sending all of our agencies guidelines on how to ensure that in their notices of funding opportunities, they encourage the adoption of building codes. So there are steps communities need to take to improve their building codes. These are beyond our control. But we’re thrilled with the adoption we’ve had and the recognition by communities that they need to move forward.
Forest fires have become increasingly severe and costly. Has anything been done differently in the past year? Will anything be done differently next year?
We now have a ten-year plan from the Forest Service and a five-year plan from the Department of the Interior to identify high-risk sheds. We are using the new funds from the [bipartisan infrastructure] Bill and IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] to focus on those high-risk hangars. This is another area that has been around for a while, but is woefully underfunded.
We’re already talking about shifting the firefighting workforce, now that the fire season is thank goodness ending, to fire mitigation efforts, so that’s a huge priority.
How safer are Americans today than before Biden took office?
We are definitely safer. Communities have more information to make their decisions. We have more funding than we get.
But we have a challenge here. Climate change is happening, accelerating and creating more risks. So I don’t want to water it down. We have our work cut out for us, but we are dealing with it and attacking it aggressively.
Are policy makers and the public beginning to recognize the importance of adapting and becoming more resilient in the face of climate change? What role do you see it playing as part of the country’s overall response to climate change?
The fact that Congress and the bipartisan Infrastructure Act gave $50 billion for resilience under a title called resilience, that tells you something.
[On Wednesday,] by Senator Christopher A. Coons [D-Del.] and Senator Lisa Murkowski [R-Alaska] a bipartisan bill called the National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy Act passed the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in a voice vote, which you never see. The fact that Senator Coons and Senator Murkowski are joined at the hip to deal with resilience and adaptation, that tells you something.
We have turned an important page, and it will take everyone in Congress, the federal government, states and local communities to tackle this problem. I’m excited about the launch that’s happened in this administration to really address it and to support it with information, with money, and with commitment.
In a 2013 interview with La Poste, you said your dream job would be a golf teaching professional at Pebble Beach. What’s next for you?
I gave up that dream. I’m going to take a step back and think about how best to move this agenda forward. I will stay in the arena to some extent. TBD in terms of what it looks like.