With climate change implicated in a growing number of natural disasters such as floods and wildfires, members of Congress and witnesses at a 20 November congressional hearing called for stronger mitigation and adaptation measures to curb the increasing social, economic, and environmental risks and costs associated with these disasters.
Those measures include the federal government providing more information about risks to people and structures from natural disasters, adopting stronger building codes, discouraging people from building in harm’s way, and strengthening flood insurance requirements.
“Stop growing the risk,” Craig Fugate, former administrator under President Barack Obama of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, testified at the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis hearing on “Creating a Climate Resilient America: Reducing Risks and Costs.”
“The climate has changed, and we are seeing more climate-driven extreme weather events. It is not something that is 30 years down the road. As a result, we need to start talking about adaptation. Time has run out for debate; action is required,” Fugate said.
Fugate pointed to a U.S. Global Change Research Program report that found, for instance, that heavy-precipitation events in most parts of the country have increased in intensity and frequency since 1901, that the incidence of large forest fires in the western continental United States and Alaska has increased since the early 1980s, and that as sea levels have risen, the rates of tidal floods in many U.S. Atlantic and Gulf coast cities are accelerating.
“The stark financial reality today is that the federal government spends billions of dollars annually to deal with the effects of climate change and extreme weather while not spending nearly enough to combat future risk. It is critical that we build in funds for resilience on the front end of these federal investments,” Fugate said, adding that there is a huge cost benefit to the taxpayer in doing so.
Rep. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.), chair of the committee, said that many communities across the country are taking measures to adapt to climate change, but “they need a strong federal partner. Whether it’s through scientific information on what the future holds, climate risk data, resilience standards, or technical assistance tools, the federal government has an opportunity to help communities grow stronger in the face of the climate crisis—with a particular eye to communities that are on the front lines.”
Alice Hill, senior fellow for climate change policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, testified that the federal government can make immediate progress in reducing hazards risks by creating and enforcing resilient building codes, providing accurate risk assessments to inform land use decisions, and offering technical assistance to decision-makers.
Hill said that federal taxpayer dollars provided for either pre- or postdisaster efforts should be spent on improving resiliency. “The federal government’s growing generosity to victims of disaster creates a ‘moral hazard’ [where] communities and people place themselves at greater risk knowing that federal taxpayers will bail them out,” Hill said. “In the face of accelerating climate change, the federal government must reduce the incentives for people to settle in at-risk areas and to build in risky ways.”
The Increasing Cost of Floods
Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), said that floods are the nation’s most frequent and costliest hazard and their costs are increasing dramatically. Berginnis said that ASFPM estimates that average annual flood losses in the 1990s were about $5.6 billion but that this decade annual losses could be around $20 billion.
Berginnis said that “climate change is manifesting itself in several ways as it relates to flood risk,” with the two primary concerns being sea level rise and more intense storms.
According to ASFPM, improvements are needed in three broad areas: data, analysis, and information; federal agency programs and policies; and adaptation and hazard mitigation.
Some specific recommendations Berginnis mentioned include Congress fully funding the national stream gauge and tidal gauge networks and providing adequate funding to complete flood mapping of the nation.
Other recommendations include giving the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the mandate and budget to update U.S. rainfall frequency information at least every decade and minimizing the use of federal taxpayer dollars to rebuild in areas where there is a flood risk.
Berginnis said that if public assistance for disaster relief were conditioned on having the latest hazard resilience codes and standards, “I guarantee you almost every single community in the nation would have the latest codes pronto, because you can’t turn down that much assistance.”
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer