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What will it take for FEMA to take climate change seriously?


As Hurricane Douglas bore down on Hawaii and Hurricane Hanna threatened the eastern United States, FEMA administrator Pete Gaynor came clean about climate change. He admitted to Congress for the first time, that, yes, climate change does make storms worse.

With climate change, Gaynor explained, storms become “more frequent, more costly, [cause] more damage.” That admission was a big switch: just a year earlier, when asked why storms had become frequent and more intense, he mustered an “I don’t know.” 

Then just a few weeks after Gaynor testified, FEMA released guidance for handing out money to state and local governments to prepare for disasters. Lo and behold, the document includes the words “climate change” and even provides incentives for communities that plan for “future risk.” Just like Gaynor’s testimony, this marked a big shift. 

For the past three years, FEMA and the rest of the Trump administration have refused to prepare the nation for the worsening events climate change brings. Their story is that climate change is no big deal, and they’re sticking to it. Take the 2019 National Preparedness Report issued in December 2019. It examines the crises that the nation had responded to in 2018 and, according to FEMA, evaluates the country’s preparedness and “identifies where challenges remain.” 

But in 2019, climate change didn’t even deserve a mention. When asked about the omission at last month’s hearing, Administrator Gaynor brushed off the question, saying that it’s “more of a thought piece about what was important to the nation.” 

Say what? By that analysis, Americans should consider it unimportant that scientists found that climate change made Hurricane Florence, the wettest tropical cyclone on record in the Carolinas, 50% wetter and 50 miles wider than it otherwise would have been. Or that climate change increased the probability by 1.1 to 2.3 times that the mid-Atlantic region would suffer the rains it did in 2018, one of the wettest years in close to a century, which then led to widespread flooding. They also should not bother themselves with tracing the roots of the Camp Fire, California’s deadliest and most destructive wildfire, to climate change. 

Gaynor and FEMA deserve a modicum of praise for being willing to admit what billions across the globe have already experienced, that climate change adds fuel to storms, wildfires, and sea-levels. What the Trump regime deserves rebuke for –in addition to their contorted attempts to bury discussion of the nature of climate risks—is the dynamite they have lit under environmental rules designed to slow rising temperatures. The latest stick just exploded.

Last week, the Trump administration issued its final rules gutting the Environmental Protection Agency’s methane pollution standards for the oil and natural gas sector — a move that could result in the annual release of  4.5 million metric tons of methane into the atmosphere. That’s the equivalent of about what a hundred coal-fired power plants would spew. Methane’s lifetime in the atmosphere is shorter than carbon-dioxide but it’s about twenty-five time more efficient at trapping heat. This is just the latest salvo in Trump’s roll-back of 100 environmental rules. What it means in real-life terms is more heat for the planet. And more heat is not a good thing.

How many times have you read a quote from someone after a storm—or a wildfire, or a heat event, or a drought—saying something like, “I’ve lived here thirty years and I’ve never seen it get this bad.” That’s what climate change does. It brings ever-worsening extremes. The last hurricane could be bigger than the one before that and so on and so on. That’s why researchers at Princeton and MIT have considered adding a Category 6 to the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale. It’s also why this summer a town inside the Arctic Circle registered its highest temperature ever—over 100 degrees Fahrenheit — and Death Valley in California also recorded the hottest temperature worldwide in the aptly named settlement of Furnace Creek—130 degrees Fahrenheit—what experts have indicated may be the third hottest temperature ever-before recorded. 

In the late 1880s, people began to keep records regarding temperatures around the globe. Before the climate started changing, records for cold temperatures or hot temperatures ran evenly, reflecting a stable climate. But just in the last 20 years, Americans have sweated through record-breaking heat twice as often as they have bundled up against the record-breaking cold. The global average temperature has risen and we are on course to see more heating in the next 50 years than we saw in the last 6,000 years in many places. The last five years were the hottest since recording keeping began. All this added heat, as Administrator Gaynor alluded to, carries consequences, and much, much bigger storms are just one of them. 

Climate change is not a question of “belief.” It’s a question of fact. The Trump administration has worked hard to hide the truth about climate change from Americans. During this administration, pretty much every agency crafting national strategy has ignored climate change as an issue that merits discussion. FEMA left it out of its 2018-2022 Strategic Plan. The President’s National Security Strategy dropped the topic altogether. So did the Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy issued in 2018. Instead, Trump and his team have actively sought to pull out the stoppers to reduce the rate of heating, including by announcing the intention to pull out of the Paris agreement the day after the November presidential election.

If the nation does not treat climate change as the danger it is, all Americans suffer. The Government Accountability Office has become a broken record, year after year issuing reports about the dangers of climate change, including the nation’s financial health. We can’t keep admiring the problem. With the Trump administration failing to come clean as to what’s at stake, we all need to speak up and vote for leaders who will act on climate. The time is now. Climate change is bringing more extremes for as far as the eye can see.

Alice Hill is a fellow at the Yale Program on Climate Change the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for Energy and the Environment at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is also co-author of “Building a Resilient Tomorrow.”She is a Public Voices fellow of the OpEd Project, in partnership with the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Tags Climate change denial Climate change in the United States Climate variability and change Federal Emergency Management Agency Global warming Physical geography

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