Tucked into President Obama's announcement on climate change yesterday was a detail that disaster experts say could spark widespread changes in coastal development.
The understated measure had no dollar figure attached to it, and it seems to sidestep an explicit reference to climate change. Obama never bothered to mention it. But it could prompt states to think hard about things like sea-level rise and then come up with plans to avert damages, observers say.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency will for the first time ask states to consider the dangers of "climate variability" in plans they have to submit to Washington, D.C., in order to receive disaster aid.
It's a bureaucratic measure with muscle: It's possible that if states refuse to sift through the potential perils from warming, it might make them ineligible for federal funding used to repair and strengthen public facilities like roads and bridges, some experts say.
"This is huge. This has the potential for actually inducing behavior for reducing our risk," said Edward Thomas, a former FEMA official who's now president of the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association.
Until now, FEMA required states to identify hazards using previous disasters as a road map for future vulnerabilities. The agency will now draft guidance that asks states to identify risks that are in front of them, perhaps by using science-based tools that show the reach of rising sea levels and bigger storm surges.
It could affect every state, potentially stirring controversy in Republican strongholds where climate change is sometimes considered a political statement rather than a scientific one. Still, Thomas thinks the administration might have stepped carefully around that problem by emphasizing climate variability over human-caused climate change.
"I think this is an incredibly exciting moment," Thomas said. "The only concern I have is I hope this doesn't become politicized."
FEMA has just begun to draft the new guidelines, and it's unclear if it will be mandatory or voluntary for states to identify, analyze and address their climate risks, according to a FEMA official. That's a key question. If it's mandatory, states like Alabama, Louisiana, North Carolina and others might face a difficult political choice between publicly identifying their climate hazards or perhaps surrendering some disaster aid.
Current plans underachieve
The plans, known as State Hazard Mitigation Plans, are a requirement of the Disaster Mitigation Act of 2000. States are ineligible for grants from several disaster assistance programs if they fail to file one, so the requirement is rigorously adhered to. The plans benefit federal taxpayers by reducing damages from disasters.
Asked if states could lose funding if they don't include the climate-related portion of the plan, the FEMA official said that will be determined as the agency crafts the guidelines. FEMA will seek input from the states.
"The new guidance is going to include climate change," the official said.
Gavin Smith, executive director of the Coastal Hazards Center of Excellence at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, expressed doubt that FEMA would withhold funding from states.
"The devil's going to be in the details of whether FEMA mandates it," he said of the upcoming guidance. "But I'd be surprised if they did."
Instead, he said, the agency might offer carrots, rather than sticks, to states that explore ways to reduce their risks from climate change. Either way, yesterday's announcement is bound to improve the way that states think about their risks.
Analyzing sea-level rise and other climate impacts can help a community justify stronger codes and standards right after a disaster, Smith said. Instead of requiring a 1-foot freeboard -- when a home is built a foot above the likely height of a flood -- some towns might go with 2 feet.
In other words, acknowledging bigger risks might break the habit of local leaders of doing as little as possible to comply with federal standards, Smith said. He and other researchers recently finished a six-year study of state hazard mitigation plans. They found that very few states surrendered developable land to reduce risk, and "almost none" addressed climate change.
"We found that the plans are, generally speaking, fairly weak," Smith said. "They're trying to meet the minimum standards, which is do the minimum to gain access to pre- and post-disaster mitigation funds, rather than using this as a means to comprehensively assess and reduce risk."
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