FEMA Waking Up to the Future Cost of Climate Change

Last week the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) released a study that told us what a lot of us already knew…that climate change will bring an increased risk of flooding due to sea level rise and heavy rainfall.  But for FEMA it was the first attempt at estimating the impact climate change on the already overburdened National Flood Insurance Program, which it administers.

The map below shows the result of FEMA's analysis. Flood prone areas along the nation’s rivers could increase by 45%, with increases of 100% on rivers in the Pacific Northwest and tributaries to the Great Lakes. On average coastal areas are expected to see a 55% increase in size of areas prone to flooding, mostly along the Eastern seaboard. Increased flooding is projected even in areas that are expected to be more arid and dry, due to the intense and flashy nature of future storms as the climate warms.


Peter Lehner has an excellent Switchboard post from yesterday about how FEMA’s analysis fits into the broader climate picture. 

Along with the dramatic increase in areas susceptible to flooding comes a large increase in the number of people that will likely be covered by the National Flood Insurance Program.  The number of policy holders along rivers will likely increase by 80% by the year 2100 and the number of coastal policies may increase by 60%  to 130%, depending on whether we begin to move population away from the coast or we try to keep our population in place – and in harm’s way.

The report does not put an exact dollar figure on the impact to the nation’s bottom line.  But prior to Hurricane Sandy, the debt owed by the National Flood Insurance Program was $18 billionPost-Sandy that debt has climbed to between $25 and $30 billion. Until the premiums paid by policy holders rise to cover the damages, this debt will continue to grow, and grow even faster thanks to climate change.

FEMA now estimates that the average losses taxpayers will cover for each flood insurance policy will increase by 50% and 90% between now and the year 2100. Butthe cost of premiums paid by policy holders is only expected to rise 10% to 40%, so it seems unlikely that the National Flood Insurance Program will ever be solvent, absent major reforms.

In 2012 changes were made to the National Flood Insurance Program that allowed FEMA to charge higher premiums on properties that have been flooded repeatedly and second homes, but these did not go far enough, especially given the increased risks posed by climate change.  The National Flood Insurance Program still represents a subsidy to build in harm’s way. 

But the release of this report is an indication that FEMA may be waking up to the reality of climate change.  Given the agency’s focus on disaster preparedness and post-disaster recovery, you might expect FEMA to be at the forefront of efforts to make our communities more resilient and ready for our climate future.  But that has not been the case. Ironically, FEMA has lagged far behind other federal agencies’ efforts to adapt.

FEMA does not even provide guidance to states on how to incorporate climate change into their disaster preparedness plans, which must be submitted to FEMA for approval every three years.  Some state’s do incorporate projections of climate-induced sea level rise, flooding, and/or storms into their plans, but far too few. NRDC has asked FEMA to require states to assess climate change risks but we have yet to hear back.

FEMA should move immediately to make reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program and make much needed reforms to address climate change in their disaster preparedness planning efforts with states.   

  • Price flood insurance commensurate with the actual risks of flooding.  Private insurers have been pulling out of areas like Long Island and Florida for quite some time, because they recognize that risks and the costs. FEMA has a role to play in providing insurance, but it should not be priced so low that it’s a subsidy to build in harm’s way. 
  • Direct FEMA to factor climate change into state plans for dealing with disasters. Most state plans that FEMA approves rely on historical data to determine the size, frequency and severity of the natural disasters they need to prepare for.  But in a rapidly warming climate these historical data are not necessarily accurate predictors for the scope of future droughts, floods, and storms.
  • Require states to incorporate climate preparedness into existing plans for managing our rivers, lakes and coastlines.  NRDC and American Rivers have already put together a “how to” guide on climate preparedness planning called Getting Climate Smart.  

And lest we forget, how about regulating carbon emissions from the biggest single source of carbon pollution—existing power plants? This is not a FEMA decision, but nothing could help stave off the projected impacts of climate change like ending the pollution that’s warming our planet.  EPA has the authority to do this, and NRDC has an innovative plan for reducing carbon dioxide in a way that is cost-effective and fair.