Rockefeller's Climate Resilience Program Said to Be in Jeopardy

(Bloomberg) -- The Rockefeller Foundation intends to disband its 100 Resilient Cities initiative, the largest privately funded climate-adaptation program in the U.S., according to people familiar with the foundation’s plans.

The program was started by Rockefeller in 2013 to help U.S. cities -- including Boston, Miami, New York and Los Angeles -- as well as cities overseas prepare for threats related to climate change. Rockefeller plans to close the organization’s offices and dismiss its staff of almost 100 as soon as this summer, said the people, who asked to be anonymous because they weren’t authorized to discuss the move.

The Rockefeller Foundation didn’t respond to requests for comment. Neither did 100 Resilient Cities, which operates as a separate entity.

The potential shift comes as U.S. cities face increasing pressure from climate change, especially following a string of major natural disasters over the past two years. And it would coincide with a pullback in climate adaptation work by the Trump administration, which has reversed policies designed to prepare communities for global warming.

The resilience program, to which Rockefeller provided $164 million in grant money, pays for cities to hire “chief resilience officers’’ who develop and then implement strategies for coping with climate change. The initiative also gives cities access to the organization’s staff and external consultants, as well as to a global network of cities trying to grapple with similar problems.

Twenty-four large and medium U.S. cities use the program, among them some of those most exposed to hurricanes and rising seas, including New Orleans, Houston, Seattle and Norfolk, Virginia. But the initiative also drew in cities far from the coast, such as Tulsa, Oklahoma; Louisville, Kentucky; Pittsburgh and St. Louis -- places contending with other types of extreme weather, like flooding and heat waves.

The initiative’s approach is to define resilience broadly, in a way that incorporates the social and economic challenges likely to amplify the physical shocks of natural disasters. That approach matches the overlapping risks associated with climate change.

“Situations where multiple climate stressors simultaneously affect multiple city sectors, either directly or through system connections, are expected to become more common,” concluded a report released last year prepared by 13 federal agencies. “When climate stressors affect one sector, cascading effects on other sectors increase risks to residents’ health and well being.”

The 100 Resilient Cities initiative is mostly working, according to a performance review that Rockefeller commissioned last year from the Urban Institute, a Washington-based public policy think tank. The report, released in December, found that at least half the participating cities it studied were starting to institutionalize resilience into their planning and operations.

The demise of 100 Resilient Cities may be tied to a change in leadership at the foundation. The initiative was created by Judith Rodin, who was president of Rockefeller from 2005 to 2017. Rodin didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The foundation chose Raj Shah, who had run the U.S. Agency for International Development during the Obama administration, to succeed her. Shah pledged to continue supporting the initiative, indicating as recently as the end of last year that the foundation would provide additional funding, according to people familiar.

Then, last Thursday, Michael Berkowitz, head of 100 Resilient Cities, told employees that the group’s future was suddenly uncertain. The organization is expected to continue until a summit planned for Rotterdam in July, but perhaps not much beyond that, according to people at the meeting.

In its report last year, the Urban Institute noted that 100 Resilient Cities played a role unlike any other organization in fostering climate resilience.

“100RC is an innovation in multiple regards, not the least of which are its scale of interventions and depth of engagement,’’ the report’s authors wrote. “Alternatives to the Rockefeller Foundation’s charge do not exist.’’

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