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Obama Administration: New Federal Projects Must Account for Climate Risks

Words by Leon Kaye

For years when the federal government planned projects such as office buildings, government agencies relied on past environmental data while developing a plan. Agencies only had to dig up a Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) floodplain map, or a similar map “based on the best-available information.” But as of last week, that has changed.

In another executive order that will again cause the Obama administration’s opponents to scream and holler, but is the reality for today and the future, federal government agencies will have to take climate change risk into account for future planning. Here’s the kicker that some will take as a not-so-subtle jab at Congress: “The federal government must take action, informed by the best-available and actionable science, to improve the nation's preparedness and resilience against flooding.”

Considering about 40 percent of the U.S. population lives on the coast and over half within 50 miles of the shorelines — with a density six times that of the rest of the country — the federal government is simply following the lead of over 300 local and state governments already planning for climate change and resilience.

When drawing up plans, federal agencies have multiple options by which they can establish the flood hazard area in which future projects are located. First, again with that subtle jab, planners can use a “climate-informed science approach” to determine hydrological and hydraulic data to anticipate possible future changes in flooding based on — gasp! — climate science. They can also simply add two feet above the current flood elevation or three feet for critical buildings such as hospitals.

Prior to this executive order, such rules were only applicable if there was a 1 percent chance of flooding in the region — now the bar has been lowered to 0.20 percent. Project developers overall have more flexibility because they can also establish a flood plain based on updates to the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard (FFRMS). According to the Washington Post, the more stringent federal standards will increase the price of new federal projects anywhere between 0.25 and 1.25 percent -- a pretty small insurance premium to pay considering the continued population growth along the coasts and the increased chance of climate volatility, such as events similar to Hurricane Sandy, in the coming years.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced in 2012 that it would take climate change data into account when planning for more severe storms, but the Jan. 30 executive order is the first directive from the federal government that is proactive and actually has teeth. Whether the Obama administration’s opponents want to face the truth or not, the facts remain that the U.S. population will continue to increase, especially within the job-heavy Northeast and California coast and throughout the warmer climates and cheaper property of the Southeast. Those trends in turn will mean more federal government services, from courts to social services. It’s better to plan ahead and spend a small premium on risk than waste resources rebuilding and rebuilding, over and over again.

Image credit: Juranda

Based in California, Leon Kaye has also been featured in The Guardian, Clean Technica, Sustainable Brands, Earth911, Inhabitat, Architect Magazine and Wired.com. He shares his thoughts on his own site, GreenGoPost.com. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's worked an lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.

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