Shifting Federal Investments to Address Extreme Heat Through Green and Resilient Infrastructure

“Under the President’s direction, every Federal department and agency is focused on strengthening the Nation’s climate resilience, including by tightening flood risk standards, strengthening building codes, scaling technology solutions, protecting and restoring our lands and waters, and integrating nature-based solutions.” – National Climate Resilience Framework 

Now more than ever, communities across the country need to adopt policies and implement projects that promote climate resilience. As climate change continues to impact the planet, extreme heat has become more frequent. To address this reality, the federal government needs to shift as much of its infrastructure investments as possible away from dark and impervious surfaces and toward cool and pervious “smart surfaces.”

By ensuring that a more substantial portion of federal infrastructure investments are designed to address extreme heat and climate change, instead of exacerbating the problem like many investments are doing now, the government can ensure healthy and livable communities. Making improvements, such as coating black asphalt roads with higher albedo products, installing cool roofs, and increasing tree and vegetative cover, results in positive social, political, and economic effects. Investments in safe and resilient communities provide numerous benefits, including better health outcomes, higher quality of life, an increase in proximal property values, and a reduction in business disruption. By making these changes, policymakers will engender significant long-term benefits within communities.

TechnologyDescriptionBenefits
Cool RoofsDesigned to reflect high levels of incident sunlight• Reduced heating of buildings and neighborhoods
• Lower energy costs
• Increased roof lifespan
• Global cooling (negative radiative forcing)
• Reduced air pollution
Cool PavementsEngineered to reflect more sunlight than conventional dark asphalt using coatings, sealants, and reflective particles. Cool pavements also include naturally reflective paving materials such as light-colored concrete.• Reduced pavement surface temperature
• Reduced urban heat island
• Global cooling (negative radiative forcing)
• Increased pavement lifespan
• Reduced street lighting requirements
• Increased visual acuity and traffic safety
Permeable PavementsDesigned to decrease stormwater runoff and increase groundwater recharge. Permeable pavements can include technologies such as grid pavers, interlocking paving blocks, and others.• Reduced stormwater runoff
• Reduced water pollution
• Ambient temperature reduction
Green RoofsVegetative layers on rooftops• Reduced heating of buildings and neighborhoods
• Lower energy costs
• Reduced and delved stormwater runoff
• Reduced air pollutants
• Increased biodiversity
Green Stormwater InfrastructureBioretention systems such as rain gardens and bioswales collect rainwater and help recharge groundwater. Ideally, they include native plants that are resilient to local climate conditions and support local wildlife• Stormwater runoff retention
• Stormwater pollutant filtration
• Habitat creation for native plants and wildlife
• Urban heat reduction
• Improved air quality
TreesAn essential tool for improving public health, pedestrian comfort, and overall quality of life in cities• Reduced daytime and nighttime temperatures
• Carbon sequestration and storage
• Reduced flood risk
• Improved air quality
• Increased outdoor activity
Solar PVConverts sunlight into electricity. Solar panels can be mounted at ground level, elevated above ground to provide shade, or installed on rooftops• Clean on-site electricity generation
• Reduced energy costs
• Decreased air pollution
• Increased shade (in the case of solar canopies)
Low and Zero Carbon ConcreteOffers a pathway to carbon neutrality or even net negative carbon emissions for concrete products• Reduced carbon footprint of concrete
• Relatively high albedo and thus potential for urban heat
island reduction

Challenge and Opportunity 

Extreme heat events—a period of high heat and humidity with temperatures above 90°F for at least two to three days—are the leading cause of weather-related fatalities in the United States among natural disasters. Recent surges in extreme heat have led to summers now commonly 5–9°F hotter city-wide, with some neighborhoods experiencing as much as 20°F higher temperatures than rural areas, an outcome commonly referred to as the urban heat island (UHI) effect. More than 80% of the U.S. population lives in cities experiencing these record-breaking temperatures

Extreme Heat and External Impacts 

As populations in urban areas continue to grow, their density will further increase the urban heat island effect and exacerbate heat inequities in the absence of more resilient infrastructure investments. Between 2004 and 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recorded 10,527 heat-related deaths in the United States, an average of 702 per year. In their report, the CDC emphasized that many of these deaths occurred in urban areas, particularly in low-income and communities of color. Lower-income neighborhoods commonly have fewer trees and darker surfaces, resulting in temperatures often 10–20°F hotter than wealthy neighborhoods with more trees and green infrastructure.

A wide range of other consequences result from the rise in urban heat islands. For instance, as we experience hotter days, the warming atmosphere traps in more moisture, resulting in episodes of extreme flooding. Communities are experiencing a variety of impacts such as personal property damage, infrastructure destruction, injury, and increasing morbidity and mortality. In addition to the health impacts of extreme heat, increases in urban flooding also lead to long-term impacts such as disease outbreaks and economic instability due to the destruction of businesses. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), annual damages from flooding are expected to increase by 30% by the end of the century, making it more difficult for communities, particularly low-income and communities of color, to rebuild. Implementing climate-resilient solutions for extreme heat provides multiplicative benefits that extend beyond the singular issue of heat. 

Integrating Climate Resilience in All Federal Funding Grants and Investments

As urban heat islands continue to expand in urban communities due to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and investments in dark and impervious surfaces, it is vital that the federal government integrate climate resilience into all federal funding grants and investments. Great progress has been made by the Biden Administration via the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and other policy interventions that have created regulations and grant programs that promote and adopt climate-resilience policies. However, many federal investments continue to promote dark and impervious surfaces rather than requiring cooler and greener infrastructure in all projects. Investing in more sustainable resilient infrastructure is an important step toward combating urban heat islands and extreme flooding. Therefore, federal agencies such as the EPA, Department of Transportation (DOT), Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Department of Energy (DOE), and others should be encouraged to adopt a standard for integrating climate resiliency into all federal projects by funding green infrastructure and cool surface projects within their programs. 

Strengthening Climate Policy 

To address extreme heat, federal agencies should fund nature-based, light-colored, and pervious surfaces and shift away from investing in darker and more impervious surfaces. This redirection of funds will increase the cost-effectiveness of investments and yield multiplicative co-benefits. 

Mitigating extreme heat through investments in green and cool infrastructure will result in better livability, enhanced water and air quality, greater environmental justice outcomes, additional tourism, expansion of good jobs, and a reduction in global warming. As an example, in 2017, New York City initiated the Cool Neighborhoods NYC program to combat heat islands by installing more than 10 million square feet of cool roofs in vulnerable communities, which also resulted in an estimated reduction of internal building temperatures by more than 30%.

Similarly, in the nation’s capital, DC Water’s 2016 revision of its consent decree to integrate green with gray infrastructure in the $2.6 billion Clean Rivers Project is set to cut combined sewer overflows by 96% at a lower cost to ratepayers than a gray-infrastructure-only solution. By implementing nature-based solutions, the DC Water investment also helps to reduce the urban heat island effect and air pollution, as well as localized surface flooding. One dollar invested in green infrastructure provides many dollars’ worth of benefits.

Plan of Action 

To combat extreme heat within communities, federal agencies and Congress should take the following steps. 

Recommendation 1. FEMA, DOT, EPA, DOE, and other agencies should continue to shift funding to climate-resilient solutions.

Agencies should continue the advancements made in the Inflation Reduction Act and shift away from providing city and state governments with funding for more dark and impervious surfaces, and instead require that all projects include green and cool infrastructure investments in addition to any gray infrastructure deemed absolutely necessary to meet project goals. These agencies should require teams to submit a justification for funding of any dark and impervious surfaces proposed for project funding. Agencies would review the justification document to determine its validity and reject it if found invalid. 

The Interagency Working Group on Extreme Heat or a similar multi agency task force should develop a guidance document to formally establish new requirements for green and cool infrastructure investments. Similar to the standards set by the Buy America and Buy Clean initiatives, the “Buy Green” document should create a plan for addressing extreme heat in federally funded projects. Once created, the document would help support additional climate-resilience frameworks such as the Advancing Climate Resilience through Climate-Smart Infrastructure Investments and Implementation Guidance memo that was released by Office of Management and Budget (OMB). While this memo provides much-needed counsel on implementing climate and smart infrastructure, its focus on extreme flooding makes it a narrow tool. The newly established Buy Green guidance will provide necessary support and information on extreme heat to implement related cool and green infrastructure. 

Recommendation 2. All federal agencies should factor in the new social cost of carbon.

In December 2023, the EPA announced an updated number for the social cost of carbon – $190 per ton – as part of a new rule to limit methane emissions. The new social cost of carbon number is not yet included in federal projects for all agencies, nor in federal grant funding applications. Not updating the social cost of carbon skews federal funding and grant investments away from more climate-friendly and resilient projects. All federal agencies should move quickly to adopt the new social cost of carbon number and use the number to determine the cost-effectiveness of project concepts at all stages of review, including in environmental impact statements prepared under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Recommendation 3. The Ecosystem Services Guidance should be fully adopted by federal agencies.

In early March 2024, the OMB released guidance to direct federal agencies to provide detailed accounts of how proposed projects, policies, and regulations could impact human welfare from the environment. The Ecosystem Services Guidance is designed to help agencies identify, measure, and discuss how their actions might have an impact on the environment through a benefit-cost analysis (BCA). We recommend that FEMA, DOT, EPA, DOE, and other funding agencies adopt and implement this guidance in their BCAs. This move would complement Recommendation 2, as factoring the new social cost of carbon into the Ecosystem Services Guidance will further encourage federal agencies to consider green infrastructure technologies and move away from funding dark and impervious surfaces. 

Recommendation 4. The Federal Highway Administration (FHA) should revise its list of standards to include and then promote green and cool infrastructure. 

The FHA has established a list of standards to help guide organizations and agencies on road construction projects. While the standards have made progress on building more resilient roadways, much of the funding that flows through FHA to states and metro areas continues to result in more dark and impervious surfaces. FHA should include standards that promote cool and green infrastructure within their specifications. These standards should include the proposed new social cost of carbon, as well as guidance developed in partnership with other agencies (FEMA, DOT, EPA, and DOE) on a variety of green infrastructure projects, including the implementation of cool pavement products, installation of roadside solar panels, conversions of mowed grass to meadows, raingardens and bioswales, etc. In addition, we also recommend that FHA strongly consider the adoption of the CarbonStar Standard. Designed to quantify the embodied carbon of concrete, the CarbonStar Standard will supplement the FHA standards and encourage the adoption of concrete with lower embodied carbon emissions. 

Recommendation 5. EPA and DOE should collaborate to increase the ENERGY STAR standard for roofing materials and issue a design innovation competition for increasing reflectivity in steep slope roofing. 

Since 1992, ENERGY STAR products have saved American families and businesses more than five trillion kilowatt-hours of electricity, avoided more than $500 billion in energy costs, and achieved four billion metric tons of greenhouse gas reductions. While this has made a large impact, the current standards for low-slope roofs of initial solar reflectance of 0.65 and three-year aged reflectance of 0.50 are too low. The cool roofing market has advanced rapidly in recent years, and according to the Cool Roof Rating Council database, there are now more than 70 low-slope roof products with an initial solar reflectance above 0.80 and a three-year aged solar reflectance of 0.70 and above. EPA and DOE should increase the requirements of the standard to support higher albedo products and improve outcomes. 

Similarly, there have been advancements in the steep slope roofing industry, and there are now more than 20 asphalt shingle products available with initial solar reflectance of 0.27 and above and three-year aged solar reflectance of 0.25 and above. EPA and DOE should consider increasing the ENERGY STAR standard for steep slope roofs to reward the higher performers in the market and incentivize them to develop products with even greater reflectivity in the future.

In addition to increasing the standards, the agency should also issue a design competition to promote greater innovation among manufacturers, in particular for steep slope roofing solutions. Authorized under the COMPETES Act, the competition would primarily focus on steep slope asphalt roofs, helping product designers develop surfaces that have a much higher reflectivity than currently exist in the marketplace (perhaps with a minimum initial solar reflectance target of 0.5, but with an award given to the highest performers). 

Recommendation 6. Congress and the IRS should reinstate the tax credit for steep slope ENERGY STAR residential roofing.

ENERGY STAR programs are managed through Congress and the IRS, who are in charge of maintaining the standards and distributing the tax credits. Though the IRA allowed for a short-term extension of the tax credit for steep slope ENERGY STAR residential roofing, the incentive has since expired. Given the massive benefits of cool roofing for energy efficiency, climate mitigation, resilience, health, and urban heat island reduction, Congress along with the IRS should move to reinstate this incentive. Because of the multiplicative benefits, this is fundamentally one of the most important incentives that EPA/DOE/IRS could offer.

Recommendation 7. DOE or DOT should conduct testing for cool pavement products.

Currently, cities looking to reduce extreme heat are increasingly looking to cool pavement coatings as a solution but do not have the capacity to conduct third-party reviews of the products and manufacturers’ claims, and they need the federal government to provide support. Claims are being made by manufacturers in terms of the aged albedo of products and also their benefits in terms of increasing road surface longevity, but to date there has been no third party analysis to verify the claims. DOE/DOT should conduct an independent third party test of the various cool pavement products available in the marketplace.

Recommendation 8. The Biden Administration should provide support for the Extreme Heat Emergency Act of 2023.

On June 12, 2023, Representative Ruben Gallego (D-AZ) introduced the Extreme Heat Emergency Act of 2023 to amend the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act and include extreme heat in the definition of a major disaster. This bill is a vital piece of climate resilience legislation, as it recognizes the impact of extreme heat and seeks to address it federally. The Biden Administration, and FEMA in particular, should provide political support for the act given its transformative potential in addressing extreme heat in cities. Failing to update the list of hazards that FEMA can respond to with public assistance can amount to a de facto endorsement of policies and projects that harm our environment and economy. Congress should work with FEMA to alter the Stafford Act language to enable designating extreme heat as a major disaster. 

Recommendation 9. Create an implementation plan for a National Climate Resilience Framework. 

In September 2023, the Biden Administration issued the landmark National Climate Resilience Framework. It is our understanding that an implementation plan for the framework has not yet been developed. If that is the case, the Administration should move forward expeditiously with developing a plan that includes the proposed recommendations above and others. Ideas such as creating a standard guidance for climate resilience projects and factoring the new social cost of carbon should be included and implemented through federal investments, grants, climate action plans, legislation, and more. With help from Congress to formally enact the plan, the bill should require the Administration to issue guidance for all federal agencies referenced in the implementation plan to incorporate climate resilience in all funded projects. This would help standardize climate resilience policies to combat extreme heat and flooding.

Cost Estimates 

This proposal is largely focused on redirecting current appropriations to more resilient solutions rather than requiring more budget capacity. Agencies such as FEMA, DOT, EPA, and DOE should redirect funds allocated in infrastructure budgets and grant programs that promote dark and impervious surfaces to green and cool infrastructure projects. Items that will incur additional costs are including heat in FEMA’s definitions of natural disasters, the suggested cool roof design innovation competition, and the analysis of cool pavement technologies.

Conclusion 

Combating extreme heat urgently requires us to address climate resilient infrastructure at the federal level. Without the necessary changes to adopt green and cooler technologies and create a national resilience framework implementation plan, urban heat islands will continue to intensify in cities. Without a dedicated focus from the federal government, extreme heat will continue to create dangerous temperatures and also further disparities affecting low-income and communities of color who already do not have the adequate resources to stay cool. Shifting federal investments to address extreme heat through green and resilient infrastructure extends beyond political lines and would greatly benefit from policymaker support.

This idea of merit originated from our Extreme Heat Ideas Challenge. Scientific and technical experts across disciplines worked with FAS to develop potential solutions in various realms: infrastructure and the built environment, workforce safety and development, public health, food security and resilience, emergency planning and response, and data indices. Review ideas to combat extreme heat here.

Frequently Asked Questions
Why is it so important to designate extreme heat as a major disaster?
Extreme heat is the leading cause of weather-related fatalities in the United States among natural disasters. Designating extreme heat as a major disaster through the Stafford Act would provide more resources to communities across the U.S. for climate mitigation and resilience. This includes the adoption of green infrastructure such as cool roofs, cool pavements, trees, and solar PV, which lower surface temperatures and help reduce urban heat islands.
How will factoring in the new social cost of carbon number to all federal agencies impact climate resilience work overall?
Requiring all federal agencies to factor in the new social cost of carbon will enable the agencies to properly evaluate and greenlight proposed projects that are climate-friendly and promote resiliency within communities. The new social cost of carbon number will help to create a national standard across agencies to move away from funding projects that promote dark and impervious surfaces.
What are the first steps to getting this proposal off the ground? Is there a timeline for implementation?
While there is no established timeline for implementing our proposal, we strongly recommend that federal agencies such as FEMA, DOT, EPA, and DOE take these recommendations into consideration as soon as possible. As extreme heat continues to impact communities, it is imperative for solutions to be quickly funded and deployed. While recommendations such as amending the Stafford Act and creating an implementation plan for a National Climate Resilience Framework are expected to take some time, there are a variety of actions that agencies and Congress can take immediately to create a national standard for combating extreme heat through green and resilient infrastructure.