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FEMA: Plan for Climate Change or Risk Emergency Funding

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Leadership & Transparency

With winter just around the corner and El Niño still a probable forecast, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has news for state governments: Prepare for climate change now or risk losing access to funding.

The agency has just released a draft of its forthcoming State Mitigation Plan Review Guide, which includes new guidelines in assessing and planning for climate change. Entitled a 'Draft for Public Comment,' the document highlights some key changes in FEMA’s regulations for those states receiving federal emergency funding – including the need to prepare for, and assess, climate change risk.

States have always been required to formulate hazard mitigation plans, which help the governments assess their potential risk to environmental disasters. However, mitigation plans largely rely upon historical data, such as previous disasters, to spell out mitigation procedures. This is the first year in which states will be expected to “look forward” and assess their future risks for yet unprecedented climate change events.

FEMA vs. state governors

This requirement isn’t liable to sit well with some state governors, specifically those who have expressed doubt about the existence of human-made climate change.

That list includes Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma, which have all benefited from federal funding during recent disasters, yet have either weak climate change policies or have gone on record to question its existence.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry attempted to sue the EPA in 2012 for attempting to regulate climate change, despite the fact that his state has been experiencing an exceptional drought. During that same year, Texas was deluged by more than 9,000 wildfires. Perry’s administration applied for and received funding to fight 25 large fires, before being told by FEMA that its cash-strapped funding, which provides priority support for survivor assistance and relocation, was not available to fight any more Texas wildfires.

The $1 billion FEMA emergencies

FEMA’s dwindling funding is at the heart of its new policy change, which aims to improve states’ ability to prepare for and deal with environmental threats before they become crises. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, the cost and frequency of environmental disasters are growing. Floods, droughts, snow storms and tornadoes have taken precedence in recent years, with costs averaging around $1 billion for each occurrence in 2013.

Still, FEMA isn’t setting itself up for an easy fight with state governments, particularly when it comes to those administrations that refuse to accept that climate change may be man-made. In July, the Center for American Progress published a breakdown of U.S. governors according to their views and policies regarding global warming issues. Fifteen have gone on record to question the origin of climate change, and in some cases have taken steps to block legislation that would regulate or recognize the existence of global warming trends. Those 15 include Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina, all of which have relied on FEMA funding for natural disasters in the past four years.

Earlier this year, Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin signed a bill that would allow residents who generate their own energy from wind or solar to be charged a state fee. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCroy has gone on record to state that climate change is “in God’s hands.” Since that time, his administration has all but stopped implementing climate change strategies and has lifted a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the state. North Carolina has been forced to access FEMA funding more than six times since 2010.

NRDC: Is FEMA wording clear enough?

Some environmentalists have suggested that FEMA’s draft wording may not be strong enough to make it clear to administrations what they need to do to meet the new guidelines.

Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Becky Hammer has pointed out that the FEMA’s requirement to states that it begin “assessing risk in light of a changing climate” may be too vague for state disaster planners to know how to implement this new requirement.

It may be that the concept of how to deal with future climate change threats is still a challenge for FEMA as well, as it tries to grapple not only with the increasing financial burden of unexpected climate disasters, but also the challenge of finding the right wording to get the urgency of action across to state governments .

Still, while some state governments are still wrestling with this concept, others are already implementing changes to address climate change. More than a dozen states have taken steps to meet climate challenges, including California, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. Another 12 are lukewarm on the issue but have begun to introduce climate change into the discussions about how best to protect their state resources from environmental change. Whether FEMA would deny funding next year as it implements these new guidelines is still up for debate. But the new draft wording, along with the Obama administration's many other changes, signal a shift in federal funding policies.

The comment period for these new guidelines ended Friday. FEMA has not announced when the final version will be out, but will likely include some changes that NRDC and others have put forward to clarify just how states should prepare for environmental changes that come with the controversial issue of global warming.

Hurricane Katrina damage (2005) - USDA;

North Carolina tornado (2011) - USASOC News Service

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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