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World|Biden pledged $3 billion to help the world adapt to climate change. That’s not as much as it seems.

President Biden speaking on Tuesday during the COP26 summit in Glasgow.
Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Christopher Flavelle

The United States vowed at the Glasgow summit to start providing $3 billion each year, by 2024, to help developing countries adapt to climate change. The Biden administration called it “the largest U.S. commitment ever made to reduce climate impacts on those most vulnerable” worldwide, assuming that Mr. Biden can persuade Congress to come up with the money.

But how much resilience and disaster recovery does $3 billion buy? A White House official said that no one was available to talk about the pledge. So here are some recent comparison points:

  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency spent $50.2 billion on disasters over the past 12 months, federal records show. That’s about $3 billion every 22 days, for a country with just 4 percent of the world’s population. And this wasn’t even an especially bad year for storms.

  • After Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005, the United States spent $14.5 billion on a series of levees and pumps to protect the city of fewer than 400,000 people from future storms. But even that amount was enough only to guard against a medium-strength storm. If another Katrina-scale hurricane struck, the city would be likely to flood again.

  • This summer, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recommended spending $29 billion on barriers to protect the Texas coast from storm surge — a project known as the “Ike Dike,” so named because the idea gained support after Hurricane Ike devastated Galveston in 2008.

  • New Orleans and Galveston are a bargain compared with New York City. The Army Corps of Engineers considered spending $119 billion to protect the city from flooding. In 2019, Mayor Bill de Blasio said New York needed $10 billion just to protect the eastern edge of Lower Manhattan.

How much resilience can the world hope to get if Biden comes through on his $3 billion pledge? It might be enough to protect a smaller version of Miami. The Corps of Engineers recently proposed spending $6 billion for a six-mile long, 20-foot-high sea wall to protect Miami from the Atlantic Ocean. (Locals hated the idea, saying it would ruin the view.)

“Any amount of money invested is moving in the right direction,” Ed Johnson, former chief financial officer at FEMA and now head of EHJ-Solutions, a consulting group, said of Mr. Biden’s pledge. “But this should be considered nothing more than a small down payment.”

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