Trump Ignores Climate Change. That’s Very Bad for Disaster Planners.

Trump Ignores Climate Change. That’s Very Bad for Disaster Planners.

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.”

“But,” she added, “I do think the federal government has woken up to the fact that we need to start thinking more seriously about future risk.”

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.


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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.”

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