We Must Find Smart Ways to Prepare for Climate Change, or Growing Risks Could Lead to Fiscal Disasters

May 15, 2015 | 11:32 am
Jason Funk
Former contributor

The effects of climate change are becoming more apparent every day, from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans, white with bleached coral. Policy makers are beginning to realize that science can help them anticipate how risks are changing along with the climate, and this knowledge could help them control the costs of climate-related disasters, which taxpayers often bear. Thus, getting a handle on these risks is a crucial first step toward fiscally responsible policy – but some of our leaders still want to deny the problem. For taxpayers, this is a rare case in which doing something is cheaper than doing nothing at all.

Climate information is our most powerful tool in managing disaster costs

In a world with a changing climate, information has become our most powerful tool in dealing with future uncertainty. Thanks to the initiative, insight, and hard work of dedicated scientists, we have an unprecedented ability to look ahead and understand what changes to expect and how they will impact us. The good news is that our understanding and knowledge are only getting better with time.

The bad news is that the expected changes are mostly harmful, and could be catastrophic. We know with a great deal of certainty that our current choices about the fuels we use to drive our economy are putting us on a path for stronger, more frequent heat waves. We know that coastal areas will be increasingly affected by sea level rise. And we can also foresee more subtle changes that have big impacts, such as the gradual loss of Western forests, or the earlier melting of winter snowpacks, which threatens water supplies.

Fire rages near community

The Carlton Complex fire in 2014, fueled by drought and high winds, was the largest in Washington state’s history. Photo: KING5

Climate risks? Check.

Unfortunately, not all politicians get this connection. In a recent letter to the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), several senators challenged the requirement for states to consider the effects of climate change in their plans before they can become eligible for hazard mitigation grants, which are aimed at helping communities prepare for future calamities (this is not a requirement for the dispersal of aid after a disaster declaration).

This requirement seems sensible, like the checklist of health risk factors that most doctors require of us at an annual checkup. Is there heart disease in my family? How stressful is my work environment? How much do I exercise? These questions give our healthcare professionals key information about our risk factors that can tell them what to look for – and what changes they might need to recommend to us.

Doctor and patient with checklist

Just as doctors need to assess our health risks to recommend the best course of action for our health, communities need to assess their risk from climate change to decide how best to deal with it. Photo: ilmicrofono.oggion/Flickr

Similarly, “how much is my state at risk from climate change?” seems like a reasonable question for us to be able to answer before a state receives millions of taxpayer dollars to address hazards, some of which are affected by climate change. This is what businesses that are part of the insurance industry, such as SwissRe and Allianz, have been doing for years. So why shouldn’t states ask similar questions to protect taxpayers?

Some states are acting responsibly … others, not so much

Some states, like Florida and California, are already beginning to consider climate risks in their hazard mitigation plans. They understand how this helps to limit the need for spending when disasters occur. The hazard mitigation plans – and the FEMA grants that support them – are intended to help states manage their risks, by preparing in advance.

Now, if my state hasn’t thought about the role of climate change in disasters, then it no longer fully understands those risks. In a country that arguably has the most comprehensive and well-researched understanding of climate science, it only makes sense that we should take advantage of that science in our decisions about how to spend taxpayer money. Ignoring the science and hoping for the best is hardly a formula for good public policy.

Moreover, a hazard assessment that factors in changing climate conditions doesn’t need to be a burdensome task. The FEMA guidelines already require applicants to assess the likelihood of different hazards – now they just ask applicants to factor in climate change. So it is disingenuous, at best, for senators to say that these guidelines create extra red tape, when in fact it’s just about using the right information.

Furthermore, much of the work has already been done in some places. For example, a group of Nebraska scientists recently produced an independent report on current and expected climate impacts to that state. Spearheaded by University of Nebraska professors, the report was delivered to the state Senate. But apparently it never arrived on the desk of U.S. Senator Deb Fischer, who signed on to the FEMA letter. Had she read the report, she would have seen that the stakes are high for the critical sectors that drive her state’s economy – and the report itself could be used to justify far larger investments in preparedness for Nebraska.

According to the report, investments in “more efficient irrigation practices, drought tolerant crops, and increased efficiencies in urban water use, among other measures” could reduce pressure on groundwater reservoirs, which are vital for cropland irrigation in times of drought. Nebraska was already among the top 10 recipients of federal disaster aid for fiscal years 2011 and 2012, receiving more than $2 billion in aid, primarily because of the impact of the drought and subsequent crop insurance program payments.

Instead of heeding the warnings and sensible advice of Nebraska scientists, Senator Fischer and the other signatories seem to prefer to undermine and cherry-pick the science, while expecting taxpayers from other states to provide costlier-than-needed bailouts, instead of investing in protecting Nebraskans from future climate change.

Instead of undercutting science, policy makers should be assessing all the information they can get their hands on, so that they can help prepare their constituents as much as possible for what’s to come, while keeping costs low for the American taxpayer. This makes good sense, for the same reason that a periodic checkup with a doctor is a good idea for everyone’s health. We rely on these trained professionals to tell us what changes are in the best interest of our future health, and most of us take their advice to heart. Not only does it give us the best chance of preserving our quality of life, it can also help us to avoid costly and disruptive health issues that are far, far more inconvenient and uncomfortable than a periodic checkup.

When geography demands action

Some politicians are beginning to understand how this same kind of thinking can apply to the climate change problem. Congressman Carlos Curbelo gets it, because he’s representing the southernmost district in Florida. He’s on the front lines, witnessing the unmistakable and inexorable rise of the sea. He’s responsible for safeguarding the Florida Everglades, which he has called “one of the world’s great natural treasures.”

At a recent Earth Day visit by President Obama, Congressman Curbelo said “I share the president’s concerns about sea level rise, and its effects on our drinking supplies, our economy, and our way of life. I am committed to finding common ground to mitigate the effects of climate change.”

The congressman’s commitment comes not a moment too soon. In Florida, it is estimated that $35 billion in current property value and 65,000 homes exist within one foot of elevation from the high tide line. With a foot of sea level rise expected in Florida by mid-century, these assets could see daily flooding in that time frame, while a much larger – and rapidly growing – share of Floridians’ homes lie in reach of storm surge today.

None of us – not the U.S. taxpayer, not the Florida homeowner, and not even Governor Rick Scott – can wish away the changing risks that accompany a changing climate. But, with federal support, we can prepare for them.

Longer, riskier, costlier fire seasons mean it’s time for a rethink

Senator Maria Cantwell, from Washington state, also gets it. She understands that her state needs to make changes in order to prepare for more intense wildfire seasons.

In western states, wildfire season has become longer and large wildfires have become more common in recent years, driven by warmer, drier conditions. Senator Cantwell sees that this is putting a strain on the budget of the Forest Service, which in recent years has had to borrow money from programs that reduce the risk of forest fires in order to finance its fire-fighting efforts – possibly putting her state at risk, if the budget falls short.

With scientists expecting hot, dry conditions to be more common as the climate warms, Senator Cantwell sees the potential for “fire borrowing” to spiral out of control, with the taxpayer footing the bill. Forest Service research has already indicated a 90 percent likelihood that its fire suppression costs for 2015 will be between $794 million and $1.657 billion, and state costs will add even more to that total.

Instead of continuing to borrow from preventive management funds to pay for wildfire suppression, Cantwell is developing legislation to safeguard funds for the preventative measures that reduce the risk of fire and limit the impact of fires when they do occur. This approach makes sense as a way to reduce the chance of destructive and costly fires down the road – it ultimately saves taxpayers money, even if it means spending a little more today. “If we are ever going to get ahead of the problem, the Forest Service needs to respond to wildfires in a fundamentally different way,” she said. Informed changes and fiscal responsibility go hand in hand.

Two sides of the same coin: fiscal responsibility and resource stewardship

At the end of the day, demands for greater fiscal responsibility and resource stewardship from our policy makers may begin to change attitudes. These two goals reinforce each other.

The impacts of climate change are already unfolding around the country, and as the costs mount up, taxpayers will realize that they are throwing good money after bad. Senator Jeff Flake articulated this logic in his critique of another disaster-payment bill, when he said “Paying for one disaster while furthering our current fiscal disaster doesn’t make sense.”

On this point, I couldn’t agree more. Climate change may lead to a series of fiscal disasters, unless we become smarter about our hazard mitigation planning.