Obama: People Get Ready

Much ink has been devoted to President Obama’s laudable plan to cut carbon pollution from our biggest source: power plants. The US, and the world, have a seriously limited window to cut that pollution if we’re going to stave off the worst impacts of climate change.

But since carbon pollution stays in the atmosphere for many decades, we’re already locked in to a man-changed climate. You’ve experienced this: more extreme swings in temperature and rain and snow, more extreme storms and perhaps even hurricanes.

That’s why it was encouraging yesterday to hear the President announce some actions to prepare for climate change. Those came out of his State, Local and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness, a group of 26 officials who have worked since November to develop the proposals.

The recommendations and actions were encouraging, but they aren’t enough. More on that in a bit.

First here’s the skinny on the Task Force actions, they break down into three areas:

Providing Federal resources to support climate preparedness:

  • National Disaster Resilience Competition--$1 billion total pot for best practices disaster recovery plans.
  • Helping tribes prepare for climate impacts--$10 million.
  • Investing in the nation's rural electric system--$236 million to improve electricity infrastructure in the rural areas of eight states.
  • Developing advanced mapping data and tools--$13 million (great NRDC blog here).
  • More money for drinking water in the drought-stricken West (no amount given).

Rebuilding stronger and safer after natural disasters:

  • Establish FEMA Mitigation Integration Task Force Pilot Program—not a lot here yet, will be fleshed out by August, aimed at best, non-redundant practices for areas hit by disasters.
  • Require states to factor climate change into the hazard mitigation plans they have to submit to FEMA to be eligible for disaster relief. This is big, but there aren’t a lot of details available yet.

Building more resilient communities:

  • Committing to “Preparedness Pilots.” One in Houston, the other in Colorado. Not a lot of details yet, except goal of cross-federal agency coordination.
  • Making coasts more resilient--$1.5 million competition.
  • Improving stormwater management—new EPA program (great NRDC blog here).
  • Assessing climate-related health hazards—a Center for Disease Control Guide.


This is all well and good, especially in a time of a deadlocked Congress. But according to NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center: “The U.S. has sustained 151 weather/climate disasters since 1980 where overall damages/costs reached or exceeded $1 billion (including CPI adjustment to 2013). The total cost of these 151 events exceeds $1 trillion.”

That means serious, system-wide action to prepare for these incidents is needed, now. The real action is happening at the city level, but mostly in coastal cities like Boston and New York. Chicago is the lone exception away from the coast. To be fair, smaller cities and towns like Grand Rapids, MI and Keene, NH are also leading the way, but big cities are really where leadership is. In those places, large and small businesses, community groups, local, regional and state governments, NGO’s and low income advocates (the communities who suffer disproportionately from the impacts of climate change) have come together to identify a list of comprehensive vulnerabilities and way to plan to address them.

There are three keys to successful initiatives: political will, money and forward looking data. Many cities and towns have official programs to ‘green’ themselves, with bike share programs, expanded green space and some new building codes. But few have gathered together the necessary spectrum of leaders to take a hard look at future risks posed to their communities and the key infrastructure they all depend on—hospitals, transportation, power and communications systems. (Ever see any of those pictures, or read about medical staff carrying infants from neonatal intensive care units in their arms down multiple flights of stairs because storms knocked out power in the hospital? Not pleasant).

Meaningful planning requires the best available forward-looking, localized climate data. Most data available rely on historical information and if events like Sandy have proven only one thing it’s the past is no longer prologue. The problem is, those data forward looking are very rare. FEMA’s ‘100 year’ flood plain maps, the most universal tool in these cases, don’t factor in climate change. (Amazingly, that’s also true for the newly-minted ones for New York City, post Sandy—see previous link—which don’t even include areas inundated by Sandy).

One of the most substantial things to come out of the Task Force recommendations announced this week is the requirement that state’s consider/factor in climate change to the hazard mitigation plans they must submit to FEMA to be eligible for disaster relief dollars. That’s a stick that’s needed when mostly carrots are offered. NRDC played an important role in making this happen.

Fortunately, there are a bunch of tools and helpful planning documents that can assist cities and states in addressing the data gap, including one just released by the Georgetown Climate Center.

But ultimately, it all comes back to money. Foundations can’t cover this gap. The President’s announcement this week is a positive sign that shows some of the political will needed to prepare for the inevitable and serious impacts of climate change. Yet it’s not enough.

Humans have evolved and survived by developing increasingly sophisticated ways to protect ourselves. It’s time to take that next step.