It’s Time to Factor Climate Change Into Disaster Policies

Gina-Marie Cheeseman

Not mentioning climate change doesn’t make it go away. Without consideration of climate change in disaster and emergency management is fatally flawed. We will always be chasing our tail, reeling from the latest disaster.

Natural disasters are occurring at an alarming frequency. A person is displaced by a disaster every second. Disasters displace three to ten times more people than war and conflict. Every year since 2016, 26 million people on average are displaced by disasters. That equals one person fleeing every second. In 2018, over 17.2 million people fled disasters in 125 countries and territories.

Climate change will increase the frequency of droughts, wildfires, and hurricanes. As the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey states on its website, “With increasing global surface temperatures the possibility of more droughts and increased intensity of storms will likely occur.” NASA admits that “it is very likely that it [climate change] will impact future catastrophes.”

Climate change needs to be factored into disaster policies

Disaster policies need to factor in climate change, as studies prove. A 2019 study looked at the vulnerability of South Asia to hydrometeorological hazards and concluded that “climate change is expected to influence many of these hazards.” A study a year earlier found that the effects of climate change on natural disasters are expected to increase humanitarian crises. The study recommended that health and human service organizations, emergency departments, and educational institutions need to prepare for disasters influenced by climate change. A 2012 study that looked at the effects of climate change on hydrometeorological disasters concluded that policymakers, climate scientists, and health researchers need to “jointly develop adaptation strategies.”

Trump's gutting of FEMA

President Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) removed discussions about climate change from its strategic plan in spring 2018. The strategic plan serves as a guide for the federal agency’s response to natural disasters through 2022. It states that “disaster costs are expected to continue to increase due to rising natural hazard risk, decaying critical infrastructure, and economic pressures that limit investments in risk resilience.” The strategic plan does not mention what is expected to increase disasters and disaster costs.

The Department of Homeland Security notified Congress in July that it would transfer $155 million from FEMA to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), NBC reported. Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan claimed that “any potential transfers will not impact our ability to respond to this storm or any other storms in the rest of the hurricane season.”

SmarterSafer releases a congressional guide for disaster policy, a national coalition of taxpayer advocates, environmental groups, insurance interests, housing organizations, and mitigation advocates, released a congressional guide titled “A Road Map for Successful U.S. Disaster Policy.” The congressional guide is touted as being an approach to a federal disaster policy that protects the environment and better prepares Americans for natural disasters and saves taxpayers money.

The congressional guide includes a list of recommendations for setting disaster policy. One of those recommendations is encouraging efforts to reduce the damage prior to a disaster occurring. Specifically, the guide recommends that Congress fund pre-disaster mitigation “more robustly, incentivizing investment in cost-effective mitigation, focused on community-wide, nature-based mitigation that protects whole areas, saving lives and property.”

Taking climate change into consideration is a key part of the recommendations including the recommendation to require studies on wildfires, with a consideration of future conditions. Another recommendation is to reform the national flood insurance program, which should include updating and improving mapping techniques and requiring FEMA to make information available on risks and mitigation.

We are in a different paradigm

Merriam Webster defines a paradigm shift as “an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way.” A paradigm shift is needed to properly prepare for the impacts of climate change on natural disasters. The time to prepare is now.

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Tina M. Wiles
Tina M. Wiles

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Climate Politics & Policy