Public Health & Environment Voices to FEMA: Put Climate Change in the Picture

Thousands of public health professionals from across the U.S. and around the world are gathering in Boston this week at the 141st Annual American Public Health Association (APHA) Meeting to talk about the issues of our time. Climate-health preparedness is among the most pressing topics under discussion.

Dozens of panel discussions, oral and poster sessions, and side meetings are being held here in Boston on all the different faces of climate change and the ways it challenges public health. Extreme weather events compound the environmental health issues and inequities already faced by vulnerable communities. Extreme heat challenges agriculture not only in terms of crop yields but also stresses workers’ health. President Obama’s Executive Order issued last Friday highlights an urgent national need to prepare for the effects of climate change.

Climate change is indeed out in front here at APHA, too, as a priority issue. Today, a group of 19 public health and environmental groups are sending a letter [see Coalition sign-on letter to FEMA_11 04 2013_FINAL.pdf] to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Craig Fugate, urging FEMA to update its hazard mitigation planning guidance and tools for states to assess their hazard risks from climate change, and to clarify that states are required to consider climate change in their hazard mitigation plans.

The coalition letter is co-signed by NRDC, APHA, Trust for America’s Health, Sierra Club, the National Association of County and City Health Officers, the Public Health Institute, and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments along with a dozen other national and state groups.

Right now, many states are relying solely on historical information of natural hazard risks to develop their state plans. But climate change means that past events alone are no longer the best indicator of our future risks. An April 2013 General Accounting Office (GAO) report noted that climate change adaptation can increasingly be seen as “a risk management tool.” Hazard planning needs to be informed by the most up-to-date information and tools science can offer on how climate change is likely to affect local hazard risks.

Applying these tools to assess climate change risks as part of State Hazard Mitigation Plans (or SHMPs) will help communities prepare for future disasters and build their climate resilience. My NRDC colleague Becky Hammer said,

“Communities around the country are already feeling the impacts of climate change, and FEMA needs to make sure that all 50 states are ready and resilient. More robust disaster planning will help to minimize loss of life, prevent property damage, and protect federal taxpayers” from more fiscal exposure from climate change losses."

And Rob Moore at NRDC offered, “Making climate impacts a consideration today will help us avoid damage tomorrow, both by steering funds away from projects that don’t make good climate sense and towards infrastructure projects that do.”

I’ll be speaking on Tuesday Nov.5th at the APHA meeting on a panel with Peggy Shepard from WEACT and David Abramson from the National Center for Disaster Preparedness about preparedness lessons learned from Hurricane Sandy. We know some things already: coastal storms are already inundating more areas than shown on then-existing floodplain maps. This can leave tens of thousands of city residents less ready than they might have been to cope with floodwaters.

We can build healthier, more secure communities by including the most current information on climate change into state hazard planning to prepare and protect our flood-vulnerable coasts. FEMA can help states plan for the future with a fully climate-ready toolkit.