Some states ignore climate change in disaster plans, but coastal states are on alert

When it comes to planning for climate change disasters, some states are far ahead of others.

That conclusion came last week in a study from Columbia Law School finding that many states -- particularly in landlocked areas of the country -- are not incorporating climate change into their state hazard mitigation plans, which are required under federal law for maximum amounts of disaster assistance. That lapse makes them more vulnerable to extreme events such as heat waves, hurricanes, floods and drought, according to the analysis.

"The longer states keep their heads in the sand, the more difficult it will be for them to cope," said Michael Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, which released the report.

The plans are required for states to receive disaster mitigation funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency after major events, like hurricanes. The plans -- which FEMA reviews and approves every three years -- require states to identify risks and delineate their preparation process to reduce disaster losses and protect communities. The plans also can guide state and local policies such as building codes and coastal development rules.

Study author and Columbia University student Matthew Babcock analyzed existing state hazard mitigation plans, most of which FEMA approved between 2010 and 2012. He searched for key phrases such as "global warming" or "sea level rise" and examined sections on hazards like flooding to see if there was inclusion of climate change.


States were categorized into four levels, with Category 1 including ones that have "no discussion of climate change or "inaccurate discussion" of climate change in their plans. Category 4 states were on the opposite end, having a "thorough discussion of climate change impacts" in their official frameworks. Category 2 and 3 states fell in the middle.

Landlocked states lag

Most of the 18 states in Category 1 -- where climate change was ignored or treated inaccurately -- fell in landlocked areas of the country, ranging from Tennessee in the South to Nevada in the West. Almost all of the Great Plains states, and landlocked regions of the South, are either ignoring climate change entirely or giving it "minimal mention" in their plans.

Idaho's plan, for example, has one mention of climate change, stating that there is an intense debate about the "projection of future events." Georgia, Indiana, Iowa, Nebraska, Nevada, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma and South Dakota do not mention the issue at all.

This is so even though the National Climate Assessment notes a range of climate risks in landlocked states. The Southeast, for example, is at greater risk of heavy rainfall, flooding, drought and severe thunderstorms, according to federal data cited in the report.

If landlocked states included climate change in hazard mitigation plans, it could bring them more funding for things such as additional state water storage, a mitigating factor for droughts, noted Gerrard. The plans also can alter state planning over issues such as how high buildings are elevated off the ground.

While it is possible for states to prepare for climate concerns such as sea-level rise without specifically mentioning it, the omissions may cause an "underestimation" of the degree of the problem, by looking at past trends on flooding, drought and heat rather than future projections, according to the report.

Coastal states are aggressive

At the other extreme, 11 states included a "thorough discussion" of climate change impacts in their plans and fell into Category 4, including most New England states, California, New York, Alaska, Maryland, Hawaii and Washington. Differing from its landlocked brethren, Colorado also ranked in Category 4.

FEMA does not require states to include climate change in the plans, a factor that prompted 19 environmental groups to send a letter to FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate this month urging the agency to "modernize the process."

FEMA did not provide a comment in time for publication.

Gerrard said there are two main reasons coastal states tend to be more aggressive. One is that coastal storms tend to be more strongly tied in many people's minds to climate change than some other issues like heavy rainfall. Second, many coastal states also happen to have administrations that are vocal about climate change impacts and are less hampered by state politics over the issue.

California is cited by the report as having one of the most detailed hazard mitigation plans, as it provides a description of climate change and "important concepts such as climate change adaptation and mitigation."

"This plan contains ... a listing of all of the state's climate change initiatives, an overview and progress report on the state's climate adaptation strategy, and a discussion of principles and recommendations for integrating climate change in current and future hazard mitigation plans," the report states.

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