Planning for the Future with Summer 2012 in Mind

Thank goodness the summer’s heat has abated -- yet 2012 set many records: record-breaking heat; the worst drought since the time of the Dust Bowl, now covering 65.5% of the US; and now, 2012 is also on track to break records for the most acres burned by wildfiresin the American West. The prior record was 2006, when more than 9.8 million acres burned (and the National Interagency Fire Center has been keeping records since 1960). As of mid-September, nearly 8.4 million acres in the U.S. had gone up in smoke —an area larger than the state of Maryland – but the year isn’t yet over.

Extreme weather events like heat waves, wildfires, drought, storms, and floods mean billions of dollars in property damage. In 2011, 14 US weather- and climate-related events each caused more than $1 billion in damages. The total bill exceeded $55 billion in property damage, breaking all records since these data were first reported in 1980, according to the National Climatic Data Center. Those estimates don’t include human pain and suffering: nearly 600 Americans died in last year’s events, according to a new National Academies study, Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative, and thousands more were temporarily or permanently displaced.

One thing to remember: the climate change caused by heat-trapping carbon pollution fuels some of these extreme weather events, making them more frequent and more severe.  Besides being linked to extreme heat and drought, climate change is linked to more frequent extreme rainfall events, which compounds flooding risks for coastal and inland communities. With climate change already making seas rise at ever-increasing rates, storm surge is an even bigger threat along the nation’s shores. That new National Academies report points out that the effects of climate change will “make the nation more vulnerable” to natural disasters. Climate change has been called “a threat multiplier” by experts in the national security community.  When we plan ahead for future natural hazards, we need to be fully aware of the challenges our towns and cities are facing, to protect our communities, and create healthier, more secure places to work, live and build futures. Climate change is among the factors that need to be included in hazard reduction planning.

Something else to bear in mind: the health costsfrom these climate-related disasters. NRDC scientists and UC Berkeley economists evaluated six climate change-related case studies that occurred in the last decade, from event categories that climate change’s likely to worsen in the future. We estimated health costs exceeding $14 billion, and over 760,000 interactions with the health care system. (These findings are described in the journal Health Affairs, in an article accessible from NRDC’s website here.) Better preparedness can help us avoid the health harms of extreme weather and limit costs.

FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Administration, is a leader in helping states, local agencies, and even individuals get back on their feet after weather-related extreme events, including those being fueled by climate change. States create Hazard Mitigation Plans (or HMPs) for dealing with natural disasters, which FEMA regulates and provides funding to support. Yet thus far, the effects of climate change have not been consistently included and dealt with in the HMPs that various states submit to FEMA for funding support. This leaves the people and places in many states at greater and greater risk of experiencing more severe hazards as climate change continues to affect our environment and health, and that’s a problem.

These are among reasons why NRDC and the National Wildlife Federation are filing a petition with FEMA today, to ask them to fulfill their legal duty to consider and support only those state hazard mitigation plans that describe the potential effects of climate change on natural hazard risks in their state. Because there’s no federal requirement for each state to create a climate change action and preparedness plan to protect public health from the wide range of effects of climate change, right now more than 30 states in the US have no such preparedness plan – and often, nothing on climate change in their HMP, either. That means the majority of US states are sitting in the cross-hairs of the effects of climate change, without taking first steps to prepare.

FEMA continues to be on the front lines of helping Americans prepare, respond, and recover when disaster strikes. We are beginning to experience first-hand what climate change looks likein terms of its effects on extreme events – the year 2012, with its heat, drought, fires, floods, storms and winds was so tough for many people’s health and livelihoods. People are asking how to plan ahead for these kinds of occurrences -- ones that we hope don’t turn into more disasters in the future. FEMAs willingness to make sure that climate change preparedness is included in Hazard Mitigation Plans could help do just that, and create healthier, more secure communities in all 50 states.

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