With two back-to-back hurricanes — one of which ranks among the most extreme storms ever to threaten the United States — making landfall on the heels of a summer of record-shattering heat waves and raging wildfires, countless Americans are experiencing the country’s acute vulnerability to climate change firsthand.
As special assistant to the president for climate policy, for the past two years, David Hayes — who served as deputy interior secretary during the Clinton and Obama administrations — has largely focused on coping with climate impacts and making the country more resilient. Hayes, 68, whose last day in his post was Friday, has led efforts to implement climate-resilience interagency working groups dedicated to extreme heat, drought, wildfires, floods and coastal impacts; worked to expand offshore wind power; and helped to develop and carry out President Biden’s ambitious plan to conserve 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030.
This week, ahead of his departure, Hayes sat down with The Washington Post for an interview to reflect on his experience and how prepared he thinks the country is to weather the climate threats of a warming planet.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
As a country, how are we doing when it comes climate resilience and adaptation? If you had to assign a letter grade, what would it be and why?
On Jan. 19,  the letter grade would be “D.” We really as a country have not given nearly enough attention to the climate impacts that are happening. Most of the conversation around climate traditionally has been on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition to clean energy. The president in his climate executive order said yes to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, yes to transition to clean energy, but yes, also, to resilience, to getting our communities prepared because these impacts are happening right now. Look at today in Florida. My gosh, what more of a reminder do we need?
So, “D” before the president came in, “A” for ambition with the president to make resilience a key part of the climate platform of the administration, and I would say “A” in terms of creating the ecosystem in the government to confront the resilience challenge.
The first step is organizing around resilience. This is just like climate. Climate doesn’t exist in one agency or another agency. Similarly with resilience, what we need to do is actually look not at a department-by-department approach. We need to look at what are the impacts that communities are facing and how do we organize around those impacts and have the federal government help the communities that are facing coastal impacts, extreme heat, wildfire, drought and flood. The ecosystem we developed was to actually focus on the impacts and not on the federal funding streams or the federal services or the particular departments that have a role to play, and we set up these interagency working groups. We have a new way of doing things. I’m very excited about these impact-focused interagency working groups.
But we have a lot more work to do. It’s like an “A” on the first test of a semester, but the finals are coming up.
What have you accomplished in your time as part of the White House climate team, and what’s the most important thing you couldn’t get done, or the biggest stumbling block you encountered?
One of the biggest voids that we saw early on was the fact that there was not a capability to tell communities, basically, for your Zip code, 50 years from now, what’s your extreme heat risk, what’s your flood risk? So we’ve worked for the past year with experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the U.S. Geological Survey and our own Office of Science and Technology Policy to put together the Climate Mapping for Resilience and Adaptation web portal. You can go down to the census tract and look forward. That’s particularly salient, by the way, at a time when under the bipartisan infrastructure law, we’re going to be investing over a trillion dollars in new infrastructure. Let’s make sure that communities know what the risks are and so the infrastructure can be designed in a way that will withstand what we’re seeing in Florida right now.
The portal is also designed to give communities the tools they need. It pulls together, for example, under wildfire and under extreme heat, here are the funding opportunities from the federal government.
The biggest challenge is continuing to work with communities and doing the outreach with communities. It’s something that we need to continue to work on and expand our efforts. This is all about community decisions about how they are going to best protect themselves.
When you look at what’s happening with Ian, what does it tell you about America’s vulnerability to climate impacts, and where we stand in terms of resilience? What needs to shift so that the country can be well prepared for the future?
Ian reminds us that we have underinvested in longer-term resilience. We’ve been very good as a country in terms of immediate response, and you’ll see it again with FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency]. They are fabulous in coming in and working to get the power back up and dealing with the immediate impacts. But as a country and certainly prior administrations and prior Congresses have not funded the longer-term issues.
I’ll give you one other example of an initiative that we’re excited about that is highly relevant here: the National Initiative to Advance Building Codes. Modern building codes ensure that the structures being built in that community will withstand the kind of amazing winds, et cetera, and they also are very oriented toward energy efficiency. But only 30 percent of the communities in the country have adopted modern building codes.
It’s just a plain old practical thing, but it’s essential. When you build back now after this crisis, will the infrastructure be able to withstand the next Ian that’s coming along? That question has not been asked in previous administrations. It’s being asked and answered in this one.
What has been the impact of the initiative to advance building codes?
We’re early in it. On Friday, we are sending out to all of our agencies directives about how to ensure that in their notices of funding opportunities, they are incentivizing the adoption of building codes. There are steps then that communities have to take to raise up their building codes. Those are out of our control. But we’re excited about the uptake that we’ve had and the recognition by communities that they need to advance.
Wildfires have only gotten more severe and costly. Was anything done differently this past year? Will something be done differently next year?
We now have a 10-year plan from the Forest Service and a five-year plan from the Department of Interior for identifying the high-risk fire sheds. We are using the new money coming from the [bipartisan infrastructure] bill and from the IRA [Inflation Reduction Act] to be focusing on those high-risk fire sheds. This is another area that’s been around for a while, but it’s been underfunded terribly.
We’re already talking about shifting the firefighting workforce, now that fire season is ending, thank goodness, into fire mitigation efforts, so this is a huge focus.
How much safer are Americans today compared to before Biden took office?
We are definitely safer. Communities have more information to make their decisions. We have more funding that we are getting out.
But we’ve got a challenge here. Climate change is happening, is accelerating and creating more risk. So, I don’t want to sugarcoat it. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but we’re confronting it and addressing it aggressively.
Are policymakers 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 law gave $50 billion for resilience under a title called resilience, that tells you something.
[On Wednesday,] Sen. Christopher A. Coons’s [D-Del.] and Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s [R-Alaska] bipartisan bill called the National Climate Adaptation and Resilience Strategy Act passed out of the Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee on 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’s going to take everybody in Congress, the federal government, states and local communities to tackle this thing. I’m excited about the launch that has occurred in this administration to really take it on and to back it with information, with money and with commitment.
In a 2013 interview with The Post, you said your dream job would be a golf-teaching pro at Pebble Beach. What’s next for you?
I have given up on that dream. I’m going to take a step back and think about how I can best help this agenda going forward. I’m going to stay in the arena in some capacity. TBD in terms of what it looks like.
A previous version of this article misstated Hayes's age. He is 68. This version has been corrected.