Trump Ignores Climate Change. That’s Very Bad for Disaster Planners.
When Hurricane Irma swept through the Florida Keys in September, it brought a vivid preview of the damage that climate change could inflict on the region in the decades ahead.
The storm washed out two sections of the highway connecting the Keys, leaving residents stranded for days. With ocean levels rising around these low-lying islands, however, that interruption could end up seeming minor: By 2030, almost half the county’s roads could be affected by flooding.
“We know that the water isn’t going away,” said Rhonda Haag, the sustainability director for Monroe County, which is preparing to elevate vulnerable roadways in the Keys. But the task is so costly, up to $7 million per mile of road, that the county may ultimately require outside help.
In Washington, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is leading recovery efforts that could cost taxpayers more than $50 billion after devastating storms hit Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands. At the same time, the agency is wrestling with an even harder problem: how to help communities prepare for future flooding disasters that could be far more severe than anything seen this year.
Complicating that task is the fact that the Trump administration has mainly been hostile to discussions of global warming. In August, a week before Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas; President Trump rescinded an Obama-era executive order that urged federal agencies to take into account climate change and sea-level rise when rebuilding infrastructure.
Climate change remains a polarizing topic in the nation’s capital, and FEMA is caught in the middle. A recent report from the Government Accountability Office warned that rising sea levels and heavier downpours fueled by global warming could increase flooding costs in coastal communities by $23 billion per year by midcentury unless they start adapting now.
“There are plenty of people who want to debate the vocabulary” around climate change, said Roy E. Wright, FEMA’s deputy associate administrator for insurance and mitigation. “But Congress’ instruction was for us to attend ourselves to future risks and reduce the costs of future disasters. So as I look at the adaptation dimension, that’s about resilience. That’s resilience against future events.”
As the hurricane season unfolded, administration officials began hinting that they would craft a new federal flood standard, though it is unclear whether it would take into account climate-change forecasts. And, Mr. Wright said, FEMA is still moving forward with other initiatives aimed at helping states and cities defend against future floods. Even staes led by governors who reject climate science, like those in Wisconsin and Florida, are now taking steps to prepare for the worsening flood risks climate change could bring.
But the controversy around the climate rule illustrates how tricky preparing for future disasters can be in today’s political landscape, especially since experts argue that adapting to stronger storms and several feet of sea level rise could require upfront investments beyond what the federal government has been willing to consider to date.
“I don’t think the scale of what we need to do has sunk in,” said David W. Titley, a retired rear admiral and former chief oceanographer of the Navy who heads a climate center at Pennsylvania State University. “We’re not talking about elevating a few structures by a foot. We’re talking about elaborate flood defenses and relocation efforts that could cost billions — or trillions.”
Conflicts in Flood Preparation
Most of the planning for floods happen at the state and local level, with officials making decisions about where to build homes or how high to elevate buildings in floodplains. But if a severe disaster like a hurricane strikes, the federal government typically steps in with aid for recovery.
“Communities and states often want to allow as much development as possible, because they reap the tax revenue,” said Larry Larson, director emeritus of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. “But if there’s a major disaster, the federal government will bail them out.”
That, experts say, can lead to a type of moral hazard. Studies have shown that one dollar invested in pre-disaster mitigation can prevent four dollars in average losses. But if cities aren’t paying the full price for those losses, they may have less incentive to take costly or difficult measures to avoid flooding in the first place — like restricting development along coasts.
Under the National Flood Insurance Program, FEMA maps areas of the country at risk of flooding and requires homeowners in those zones to buy federal insurance policies and communities to enforce minimum construction standards, like elevating new homes above the 100-year floodplain, the area with a 1 percent probability of a flood in any given year.
There’s broad consensus that the flood insurance program is inadequate, partly because its maps are often outdated and don’t take into account future flood risks from expanding development or climate change, and partly because those minimum standards have often proved insufficient in the face of severe floods.
Because Congress is unlikely to refuse aid to desperate citizens after a major flood, FEMA often has to strategically nudge localities into taking preventive action.
After Hurricane Sandy battered the Northeast in 2012, FEMA officials took a harder look at what else the agency might do to encourage stronger flood preparation — particularly as climate scientists were warning that floods were expected to get worse over time.
“I discussed with President Obama where he said, ‘Craig, the discussion about climate change is over, we need to start thinking about adaptation,’” said W. Craig Fugate, the FEMA administrator from 2009 to 2017. “That’s where I went back to my team and said: How can we start planning for the future?”
In 2015, the White House issued an executive order requiring all infrastructure projects that get federal funding to be rebuilt two or three feet above the 100-year floodplain, or to take into account the best available climate science during planning. The order was opposed by homebuilders, who said it would increase costs. (FEMA had been working to implement the order when Mr. Trump rolled it back in August.)
Another Obama-era change: To qualify for disaster aid, states would have to consider the effects of climate change in the hazard mitigation plans they submit to FEMA every five years, detailing the risks they face from floods and other disasters, as well as possible steps they might take to minimize losses.
Most states aren’t scheduled to submit updated plans until 2018. But Wisconsin, a state whose governor has disavowed climate science, submitted one of the first mitigation plans in December and described in detail how global warming could affect the state and urged measures to prepare for things like heavier rainfall events. “Climate resilience,” the plan noted, “is a state and national priority.”
FEMA also began folding climate adaptation into a program that allows cities to receive discounts on their flood-insurance premiums if they take additional steps to reduce their flood risk. Under the Community Rating System, cities can now get credit for planning for the effects of rising sea levels. Officials in the Florida Keys are planning to take advantage of these credits as they map their vulnerable roadways.
A week before Mr. Trump entered the White House, FEMA also unveiled a proposal for a “public assistance deductible,” in which states would be responsible for a greater portion of the cost of disaster recovery unless they took steps like enacting stricter building codes to limit exposure to disasters. While this proposal, which is not yet implemented, may face pushback from states and homebuilders, environmentalists and fiscal conservatives say it could lessen the moral hazard around flood policy.
Experts caution that FEMA can only do so much on its own. “They can’t force the hands of communities,” said Laura Lightbody, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Flood-Prepared Communities initiative. “Ultimately it’s up to local leaders to take responsibility.”
Climate Change, a Political Flash Point
Since coming to office, Mr. Trump has moved quickly to repeal Obama-era policies focused on curbing the greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change and has vowed to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord.
But, apart from the rollback of Mr. Obama’s flood order, the Trump administration has been more restrained in directly targeting measures aimed at adapting to future disasters. While the Environmental Protection Agency has scrubbed mentions of global warming from its website, FEMA’s climate adaptation page remains.
Mr. Wright, who has held his FEMA position since 2013, said the agency was still pursuing many of the mitigation efforts begun under the previous administration while working to quadruple investments in pre-disaster mitigation by 2023. And administration officials are now contemplating a new federal flood standard that could guide post-disaster rebuilding efforts.
Asked whether skepticism about climate change might impede these efforts, Mr. Wright said, “I have never experienced that as an obstacle. And I say that full stop.”
Mr. Fugate, the former FEMA administrator, was warier: “The direction of this administration has been so uncertain, and you hope that they’re not just focused on getting rid of anything that might suggest that climate change is a problem.”
Alice C. Hill, who helped develop the Obama administration’s climate resilience strategy, had a different concern: Unless the administration was actively engaged on adaptation efforts, it was less likely that such programs would expand in the future.
“Within any administration, it’s easy for the urgent to overcome the important,” she said. “At some point, climate change will become urgent, but for now it’s still in the important category — it doesn’t need to get done today. So unless somebody’s actively pushing on agencies to act, it won’t get done.”
For example, in 2012, Congress created an advisory council to help FEMA improve its flood insurance program maps. The council has made dozens of recommendations, including ways that FEMA could produce maps that accounted for climate risks to help communities plan for the future.
But the task is costly, requiring airborne mapping of much of the country, and Congress hasn’t provided sufficient funds for FEMA to implement it. And in his first budget, Mr. Trump proposed further cuts to mapping programs.
Ms. Hill said adaptation programs may have the best chance of survival if they’re not explicitly framed as climate measures. “This whole issue has become highly politicized,” she said. “But the longer I’ve worked on this issue, the less I care what we call it. You can just talk about fiscal risk. This is a fiscally conservative approach.”
That framing may catch on. In October, Representative Mark Sanford, Republican of South Carolina, wrote a letter with 14 other lawmakers calling on the White House to reinstate a federal flood standard. The letter avoided mention of climate change, but noted that flood disasters were getting worse over time — and federal taxpayers were on the hook.
“Taxpayer dollars are being spent to rebuild or repair public infrastructure — sometimes multiple times,” the letter said. “It makes no sense.”
‘A Long Way Still to Go’
While climate experts praised some of the steps FEMA has taken to push localities to prepare for climate change, they argue that far more is needed.
“I’m proud of the work we’ve been doing here” on mitigation, Mr. Wright said. “But looking at Harvey, Irma, Maria — it puts a very bright light on it. We’ve got a long way still to go.”
In the Florida Keys, scientists project that ocean levels may rise between 2 and 7 inches by 2030, and between 9 and 24 inches by 2060.
“We can probably handle what’s happening over the next 20 years, but when we look beyond that, that’s a very different conversation,” Ms. Haag said. If sea-level rise ends up at the high end of current projections, the Keys may need more extensive aid from the state or federal governments to adapt.
Dr. Titley notes that the Netherlands may spend hundreds of billions of dollars to climate-proof its shores. “And their coastline,” he said, “is only the size of Massachusetts and Connecticut combined. Do the math.”
Robert S. Young, who directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines, asserts that federal lawmakers may eventually have to take more drastic steps. In the 1980s, Congress passed the Coastal Barrier Resource Act, which identified barrier islands most at risk of flooding and declared the federal government would no longer send aid to those areas.
“It may be time to start adding places to that list,” Mr. Young said. “We need as a nation to decide whether it makes sense for the federal government to hold every shoreline in place forever.”
A move like that would be politically explosive. In 2012, Congress passed a bill to reduce subsidies for federal flood insurance in high-risk areas, to better reflect the hazards involved. But after protests from homeowners, Congress partly reversed itself two years later.
“If climate adaptation is a marathon, we’ve run about the first 50 yards so far,” Dr. Titley said. “Grudgingly.”