Paying for Climate Change Resilience: For Virginia's Small Communities, Businesses Money is Scarce

Dec 18, 2019

A flooded cemetery on Virginia's Eastern Shore.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

For seven years, the Virginia Coastal Policy Center has been bringing together experts from around the country to help Virginia plan coastal adaptation and protection from rising waters due to climate change.

The biggest challenge so far is how to pay for it.

Protecting coastal infrastructure from flooding is not cheap, especially for Virginia's small communities and businesses. So, the state's chief of coastal climate change resiliency, Retired Admiral Ann Phillips is getting an earful.  "Money. Money at every turn, money," Phillips recently told the gathering.  "I had a county executive look me in the eye a couple of weeks ago and say 'The state needs to help us, we only have property taxes, we're a rural district, we can't do it on our own.'”

Left behind are Virginia's rural communities and their small businesses. Phillips says federal grants are geared to help those who already have funding available.  "They are offering the capacity for those who already have capacity to help themselves to continue to help themselves. Those who do not have the capacity to help themselves lose out."

Leonard Jones of Moody's Investor's Service in New York City, talks about climate change impact on small localities and rural communities.
Credit Pamela D'Angelo

Leonard Jones is a managing director at Moody's Investors Service, where he manages local government ratings. He says big cities like Boston, New York and Miami have been paying attention to climate change and are building multi-million dollar resilience projects.  "Here the Hampton Roads area of Virginia was one of the first areas that really started putting a lot of plans and money into climate change and I think it was because of the Army Corps of Engineers, the military presence."

Like Phillips, Jones is watching the less advantaged communities and their need for better access to grants, and revolving loans with good interest rates. "What concerns me more is where there are not things going on, which tends to be some of the more rural, smaller places."

Jeanne Milliken Bonds is a professor of practice for impact investment at the University of North Carolina. She's helping communities find financing to protect workers and small businesses before a weather disaster.  "There's a new field emerging called climate adaptation finance," Bonds notes.  "Thinking about what do people need, do they need access to food before there's an event, do businesses need ways to put their files on a cloud. It's a lot easier to do all of those activities before the disaster as opposed to after when it costs twice as much. So, the financing through the investments and the lending - how do you do that before."

Coastal Planning District Commissions are a key focus of Virginia's first Coastal Resilience Master Plan coming in 2020.

For smaller communities and businesses, the largest hurdle is changing how they think about disaster planning as more frequent weather events happen with the warming climate.  "I think the big problem now is who is going to pay for this and everybody's trying to figure out where to get the money to pay for it.  What people are going to eventually have to realize is that there is no separate bucket of money," Leonard Jones predicts.  "This is all your normal operations going forward. So, you're just going to have to include this in your normal operations, there's no separate budget line. And I think we're getting there also."

Next spring, Phillips will present Virginia's first Coastal Resilience Master Plan which will consider how to fund protections and adaptations with estimated costs in the billions.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.