Coastwide
Credit: kwest/Shutterstock.com

USA - 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 widerthan 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.

Read more.

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."

Read also Responding to Climate Change / NASA