FEMA Gets Real About Climate Change

For years, states could ignore global warming when creating their disaster-preparedness plans. Not anymore.

Can you imagine asking your doctor about your chances of having a heart attack without providing any information about your diet, your stress level, your daily exercise regimen, or your family history of heart disease? It’s absurd to think that a medical expert could give an informed prediction without taking your biggest risk factors into consideration.

Yet for many years, this is precisely the approach that many states took when they assessed their vulnerability to extreme weather events and crafted disaster-mitigation plans. By ignoring the effects of climate change in their analyses, these states were like doctors trying to estimate a patient’s likelihood of a massive cardiac event without gathering much of the relevant information.

In March 2015, however, all that changed. After a three-year campaign by NRDC, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, announced that states would be required to factor climate change into their hazard-mitigation plans. In order for individual plans to be approved by FEMA—and in order for states to be eligible for federal funding related to pre-disaster mitigation projects—these plans must now also be approved by the state’s highest elected officials. In other words, state governments must begin acknowledging “that future hazards may not follow the same pattern as the disasters the state has experienced in the past,” says Becky Hammer, an attorney with NRDC’s Water program.

This was a hard-earned victory. Back in 2012, NRDC and the National Wildlife Foundation first petitioned FEMA to change its requirements for the approval of state disaster-mitigation plans—many of which had effectively been rendered incomplete or insufficient by new variables tossed into the mix: more frequent (and more powerful) storms, extreme flooding, rising sea levels, protracted drought, more intense heat waves, and others. At the time, only a few states (such as California and Connecticut) had willingly considered the effects of global warming and related weather change in their disaster planning.

A levee along the Inner Harbor Navigational Canal being broken in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, allowing water to flow towards New Orleans, August 2005

AFP via Getty Images

Nearly a year later, FEMA responded—denying NRDC’s request to require climate change considerations in state-submitted emergency plans. (The organization did, however, agree to incorporate “elements of climate change, as appropriate,” into all future guidance for state and local governments.) Undeterred, NRDC recommended its proposed FEMA changes to President Obama’s 2013 Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. And in 2014, Hammer and several colleagues met twice with FEMA officials to discuss ways of implementing these recommendations.

This time, FEMA listened. President Obama soon announced the upcoming changes, but the updated guidelines weren’t published until the next year. Even then, states were given another year to prepare before the requirement officially went into action, in March 2016. Now comes the difficult part: determining what, exactly, the “consideration of climate change” actually looks like within the context of a mitigation plan.

Moving forward, FEMA must work closely with states in developing and refining tools for assessing the impacts of climate change on disaster preparedness. Conceived thoughtfully and used properly, these tools could help create profiles that properly weigh whether a particular state is more (or less) likely to experience increased or intensified flooding, drought, storm activity, or other extreme weather event in a given time frame. Armed with this information, states will be in a much better position to translate the conclusions from their individual risk assessments into unique, effective, and cost-efficient strategies.

Unless state disaster-mitigation plans result in the implementation of these unique strategies, the value of the new rule will be lost. Climate change is a genuinely global phenomenon, but it can and does play out in dramatically different ways at the local level. By requiring states to investigate just how it’s playing out within their respective borders, FEMA is practicing disaster-preparedness medicine responsibly: by getting as much information about the patient as it can, up front, before issuing any kind of prognosis or treatment protocol. The results could indeed be life-saving.

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