Applauding climate preparedness in President Obama's action plan

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You’ve probably heard by now that President Obama made a landmark speech this week, announcing a major action plan to address climate change. Flipping through the President’s 20-page plan gives me goosebumps – there’s a lot to get excited about in there. The plan to cut carbon pollution from existing power plants has rightly gotten a lot of attention and praise, as described in Frances Beinecke’s blog as well as Dan Lashof’s blog.

Going beyond carbon pollution cuts, the President’s plan also deserves praise for its section to “Prepare the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change.”  Climate preparedness is a critical strategy that complements pollution reduction. Americans are already experiencing climate impacts, including more severe storms, floods, droughts, wildfires, extreme heat, and sea level rise. Not only is public health and safety at risk, but taxpayers are footing huge bills for climate-related disasters. A recent NRDC report shows that U.S. taxpayers paid $100 billion for extreme weather in 2012.

Why do we need climate preparedness?

Why do we need to cut carbon pollution AND prepare for impacts? Well, even if carbon pollution suddenly dropped to zero tomorrow, we would still experience the effects of climate change for decades, or possibly centuries. Carbon dioxide is unlike many other types of air pollution, because it stays in our atmosphere for a very, very long time. This means that some amount of warming is inevitable because of the carbon we’ve already put in our air over the past century. Climate preparedness means managing the unavoidable impacts, while cutting carbon emissions means avoiding the unmanageable impacts.

The President’s plan announced this week is not the first time the Administration has addressed climate preparedness. In 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order that directed the Interagency Climate Adaptation Task Force to develop recommendations and a national adaptation strategy. A lot of great work and several reports and plans have been completed, assessing current adaptation efforts and some next steps for agencies.

Highlights from the President's new plan

The new climate plan builds on the Administration’s work from the first term, and proposes several laudable actions worth highlighting:

  • Directing Agencies to Support Climate-Resilient Investment: This directive instructs federal agencies to remove barriers to, and encourage climate-resilient investments through agency grants or technical assistance. The plan includes the example of EPA’s commitment to integrating climate change considerations into State Revolving Funds for clean water and drinking water. Incorporating climate into ongoing federal processes and grant-making holds excellent potential for helping states and cities adapt to climate change. The Federal Emergency Management Agency should follow EPA’s example and address climate change in state grants for hazard planning. FEMA gives planning guidance and funding to states for reducing vulnerabilities to natural disasters. Unfortunately, FEMA’s guidance for “State Hazard Mitigation Plans” and grant requirements are silent on incorporating climate change projections and the latest science on climate impacts. President Obama’s plan should prompt FEMA to integrate climate change into requirements, tools and guidance for state hazard planning.
  • Preparing for Future FloodsFor federally-funded projects, the President’s plan directs agencies to follow new flood-risk standards that account for sea-level rise and other climate factors that affect flooding potential. This approach to flood-risk standards was pioneered by the Hurricane Sandy Rebuilding Task Force in April 2013, and the President’s plan now applies it to all federally-funded projects. This is a big step forward for climate preparedness. Although not part of the President’s climate plan, another big step that needs to be taken is to reform the National Flood Insurance Program to reflect the true risk of building in floodplains.
  • Supporting Local and State Decision-makersMuch of the power to prepare for climate impacts rests with local and state decision-makers, such as updating building codes, changing land use plans, and investing in emergency preparedness projects. A critical role for the federal government is to assist state and local governments in making good decisions. The President’s plan includes a new Climate Data Initiative and a centralized toolkit to provide better access to federal climate resources. This is a great step forward since navigating the fragmented resources provided by each individual federal agency can be difficult and overwhelming for local planners. In addition, the plan calls for a task force of local, state, and tribal leaders to advise Obama’s administration on how to better support local climate preparedness.

Moving forward

While these three initiatives I’ve highlighted are my personal favorites, the President packed many other great preparedness efforts into his climate action plan. I’m looking forward to the Administration’s next steps, especially for moving this plan forward and holding agencies accountable to these initiatives. The current Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force might be the focal point of these new activities, but I’m hoping that a new, stronger, and permanent committee will emerge to coordinate federal preparedness efforts. While the President’s speech got me jumping up in the air, I’m even more eager to see the developments on preparedness unfold over the next few months.