Preparing for Climate Change: President’s Budget Misses Opportunity

February 2, 2015 | 2:32 pm
Rob Cowin
Former Contributor

Yeah, I get it. The president’s budget doesn’t really mean anything. It’s just a vehicle to lay out his vision for the country, right? Congress is controlled by Republicans, and most of the president’s fiscal priorities likely won’t be reflected in the budget he finds on his desk several months from now. But here’s one fiscal priority both parties should be able to support: pre-disaster mitigation, or …disaster preparedness.

Drought, wildfires, sea level rise, and flooding are growing threats in a warming world. These climate impacts and extreme weather events pose real risks to public health and safety. They can also destroy livelihoods, as well as businesses of all sizes across many different sectors of the economy.

The cost of abating and recovering from these disasters is formidable and puts extraordinary pressure on municipal, county, and state budgets. However, we can reduce these costs and some of our vulnerability to these disasters through federal-state partnerships that make wise and accountable investments in preparedness. That is why I am happy to see that the president increased funding for state and local disaster preparedness programs in his Fiscal Year 2016 Budget.

Increase funding to existing federal-state disaster preparedness programs

Programs like FEMA’s Pre-Disaster Mitigation (PDM) program are designed to help decrease overall risk to people, property, and infrastructure while also reducing reliance on federal funding when disasters occur. Every $1 spent on preparedness saves $4 in disaster relief, infrastructure and property damage, etc. The PDM program helps fund hazard mitigation planning and infrastructure projects that increase our nation’s resilience to the climate impacts we are experiencing.

The president’s FY16 budget provides $200 million for the Pre-Disaster Mitigation program, an increase of $175 million over current funding levels. While not sufficient to the scope of the task, the funding increase does signal the administration’s desire to be more proactive on hazard mitigation.

Last Congress, Senator Michael Bennet (D-CO) introduced the PREPARE Act of 2013, which would direct funds from the PDM program to establish a pilot grant program for state wildfire mitigation and preparedness. Programs like the USDA’s Western Watershed Enhancement Partnership are supported by Republicans and help reduce wildfire risks and contamination of water supplies by partnering with local businesses to clear hazardous fuels that can burn during wildfires and manage our forests responsibly.

The president’s FY16 budget funds two new coastal resilience grant programs at $50 million each, but an even greater commitment to investment would have been far more appropriate.

Missed opportunity to establish a federal Climate Resilience Fund

In his Fiscal Year 2015 budget, the president proposed a $1 billion Climate Resilience Fund that would help communities make the upfront investments in infrastructure necessary to reduce vulnerability to damage from extreme weather. Unfortunately the president did not include this policy in his newly released FY16 budget.

National estimates of the cost of adaptation and damage to property and infrastructure from sea level rise and storm surge alone could reach close to $1 trillion by the end of the century, so a Climate Resilience Fund or national extreme weather preparedness fund of some sort is an idea Congress should seriously consider. Simply acknowledging the need for national preparedness by appropriating more resources towards that end is a start. Continuing to just pick up the disaster relief tab on the back end is not good policy and is not a sustainable way to respond to increasingly severe weather events.

Reduce spending by reforming the National Flood Insurance Program

Another way the president’s budget can incentivize preparedness while appealing to a more conservative Congress is to gradually reduce the scale of federal subsidies to the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), similar to what the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012 would have done if Congress had allowed those reforms to move forward.

The NFIP is over $20 billion in the red, and coastal insurance rates need to come back in line with actual risk (while still protecting low-income property owners) in order to deter irresponsible development, reduce the burden on the taxpayer, and keep NFIP solvent.

Providing access to the best available science and most up-to-date flood risk mapping information is also crucial to increasing national preparedness. To that end, I am happy to see that the president’s FY16 budget includes $400 million for NFIP flood mapping efforts; an increase of $184 million over current funding levels.

Investing in disaster preparedness is good fiscal policy

Federal-state partnerships or federal funds focused on disaster preparedness can help reduce the cost and devastating impacts from disasters. We can save money and better protect our fellow Americans by making preparedness a national priority, and there are plenty of credible Republicans who agree. Programs or funds that help reduce known infrastructure vulnerabilities, facilitate smart forest management and resilient coastal development, or provide greater access to water conservation technology are worthy of investment.

The federal disaster relief tab is growing and in a world where climate change continues to exacerbate extreme weather and increase the likelihood that disasters will occur, we must be all the more vigilant about preparedness. While this was reflected as a priority in the president’s FY16 budget, the ambition of the financial commitment must be increased if we are to get serious about making our country more resilient to the impacts of climate change