A new report from RAND Corporation assesses risks to National Critical Functions (NCFs) as a result of climate change.
NCFs are government and private-sector functions so vital that their disruption would debilitate security, the economy, public health, or safety. Researchers developed a risk management framework to assess and manage the risk that climate change poses to the NCFs and use the framework to assess 27 priority NCFs.
The team assessed risk based on a scale that the National Risk Management Center uses that ranges from a rating of 1 (no disruption or normal operations) to 5 (critical disruption on a national scale). A rating of 3 (moderate disruption) on the national level, although it still allows normal functioning on a national scale, should be regarded as highly significant and includes the potential for major disruptions or failure of NCFs at a local or regional level and for significant economic loss, health and safety impacts, and other consequences.
Using this risk rating scale and projected changes in eight climate drivers identified in the analysis (flooding, sea-level rise, tropical cyclones and hurricanes, severe storm systems, extreme cold, extreme heat, wildfire, and drought), the researchers examined how NCFs could be affected by and at risk from climate change in three future time periods (by 2030, by 2050, and by 2100) and two future greenhouse gas emission scenarios (current and high).
All 27 NCFs analyzed for this report are expected to experience at least minimal disruption from climate change by 2100 under a scenario based on current greenhouse gas emissions
By 2030, the NCFs at greatest risk are Provide Public Safety and Supply Water. These NCFs could face significant disruptions on the regional or local level due to climate change. Provide Public Safety governs already-strained responsibilities to protect against wildfire and hurricanes, and Supply Water faces risk of moderate disruption by 2030 due to flooding, wildfires, and long-term drought.
Flooding, sea-level rise, and tropical cyclones and hurricanes pose the greatest risk of disruption to the NCFs. These three climate drivers were assessed as posing the greatest risk of national disruption to the NCFs. Nearly all 27 NCFs are anticipated to be at risk of moderate disruption or greater by 2100 from sea-level rise, three-quarters of the 27 from flooding, and more than two-thirds from tropical cyclones and hurricanes. Other drivers presenting risk to the NCFs are severe storm systems, extreme cold, extreme heat, wildfire, and drought.
Because of the interconnected nature of U.S. infrastructure, risk to one NCF can cause cascading risk to others. Failure in the Distribute Electricity NCF has the highest potential for cascading risk in dependent NCFs, with more than 20 of the 27 NCFs requiring electricity to ensure normal operations. Disruption or failure of this NCF has potential for significant cascading and immediate effects on other NCFs, including those supporting food production, medical care, and water supply.
The report’s authors say the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) should consider prioritizing specific NCFs for further assessment, communication, and risk mitigation: the two at risk of moderate disruption by 2030 (Provide Public Safety and Supply Water) and the 11 at risk of moderate disruption by 2050 (Provide Public Safety, Supply Water, Distribute Electricity, Manage Hazardous Materials, Transmit Electricity, Transport Cargo and Passengers by Air, Develop and Maintain Public Works and Services, Manage Wastewater, Prepare for and Manage Emergencies, Provide Medical Care, and Enforce Law).
In addition, RAND says the consequences of NCF disruption should be factored into future assessments; CISA should continue to prioritize risk communication about the NCFs; and continue to update assessment of the risk to NCFs from climate change over time.