Story at a glance

  • In 2018, Congress created a $16 billion program aimed at helping states prepare for coming natural disasters after the U.S. was ravaged by costly fires and hurricanes in 2017.
  • As conservative states apply for those funds, several have studiously avoided any mention of climate change, despite its role in exacerbating the very natural disasters the funds seek to protect against.
  • The failure to acknowledge the root cause of issues such as coastal flooding caused due to sea level rise or more frequent hurricanes reflects the fraught political landscape surrounding climate change in America.

Coastal states are applying for billions of dollars of federal funding intended to help guard against natural disasters, many of which are being exacerbated by climate change. 

But among several conservative states seeking the money, the phrase “climate change” is notably absent from their application materials, the New York Times reports. In its place, states have deployed creative phrases like “changing coastal conditions” and referenced the “destabilizing effects and unpredictability” of natural disasters that scientific research suggests are becoming more common because of climate change.

Texas’s 306-page draft proposal makes no mention of climate change, nor does South Carolina’s. Louisiana, despite aggressive plans to bolster its defenses against sea level rise and other challenges brought about by a warming world, only uses the phrase “climate change” once in an appendix on the report’s final page.

The $16 billion program was created by Congress in April 2018 after the disastrous fires and hurricanes of 2017. The program, to be administered by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is the first fund designed to ameliorate disasters which have yet to occur. HUD engaged in verbal contortions of its own to avoid mentioning climate change in describing the program’s goals, eschewing “climate change” and “global warming” in favor of “changing environmental conditions.” 

HUD’s avoidance of such terms reflects an understanding that some conservative states are more likely to accept funding to prepare for the increased flooding associated with sea level rise if it is not explicitly tied to climate change.

Former HUD official Stan Gimont was responsible for the program until he left the department last summer. He told the Times that not citing climate change was “a case of picking your battles.”

“When you go out and talk to local officials, there are some who will very actively discuss climate change and sea-level rise, and then there are those who will not,” Gimont said. “You’ve got to work with both ends of the spectrum. And I think in a lot of ways it’s best to draw a middle road on these things.”

Texas, Louisiana, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, Missouri, Georgia, California, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are all set to receiving funding under the program. With the largest totals going to Texas ($4 billion) and Puerto Rico ($8.3 billion).

Florida’s proposal is a notable exception among conservative states applying for funding.

“Climate change is a key overarching challenge which threatens to compound the extent and effects of hazards,” wrote officials in Florida, where Republicans control the state legislature and the governor’s office. 

If the money can do more to address the effects of climate change by avoiding mention of their cause, some argue the ends justify the means.

Marion McFadden, who was head of disaster-recovery grants at HUD during the Obama administration, sympathized with Gimont's dilemma. She told the Times that HUD was responding to the political realities in republican controlled states and echoed Gimont's point that some states would rather refuse the money than assent to the reality of global warming.

Others, such as Shana Udvardy, an analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists, argued that the absence of meaningful action on climate change only makes it more urgent that governments acknowledge the elephant in the room.

“We really need every single state, local and federal official to speak clearly,” Udvardy told the Times. “The polls indicate that the majority of Americans understand that climate change is happening here and now.”

Published on Jan 21, 2020