WASHINGTON (CN) – State and local governments have been overwhelmed by the cost of natural disaster cleanup unfolding across the U.S. over the last two years. With climate change further intensifying storms, experts told lawmakers Tuesday the time is now to equip agencies with the funding they need to plan for the worst.
The House Oversight Subcommittee on Environment met for the third time in as many months to discuss climate change. Tuesday’s hearing zeroed in on analysis from former senior Federal Emergency Management Agency officials who argued that with the benefit of hindsight from recent hurricanes, it should be clear to all who are looking: climate change will play a bigger part in what will be demanded of state, local and federal governments when disaster strikes.
FEMA in March removed the words “climate change” from its strategic emergency planning report for 2018 to 2022. Instead, the report only cited increased risk from “natural hazards.”
Congressman Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., said Tuesday the omission undercuts the seriousness of the threat climate change poses to human life and does a disservice to assessing the true economic cost that follows.
“Pretending climate change doesn’t exist is not a plan,” Tlaib said before asking former FEMA head James Witt if he thought the removal of the reference plays a part in how the agency actually responds to the tasks it faces.
“Climate change is a big part in what we’re seeing today. Last year, there were 240 tornadoes in May. This May, there were 500. The flooding in the Midwest was 16 feet higher than the highest we saw in 1945,” Witt said. “I don’t think not including it affected response to recent disasters but it will affect them in the way of long-term planning and how to mitigate. It has to be a qualifier.”
Witt served as director of FEMA under former President Bill Clinton and he recalled the challenges he faced during his tenure over 20 years ago. In his time, he said, the agency had 2,600 employees. Now, there are roughly 9,000.
“FEMA today has had 220 disasters in two years. I had 340 in eight years. You can tell it’s changing very quickly and climate change is a big part of it. There’s a lot to be done, especially on the side of training new FEMA employees,” Witt said.
Overhauling how FEMA provides access to temporary housing in places like California, where the cost of affordable housing is already an obstacle, should be a primary goal, said Christopher Currie, director of disaster recovery at the Government Accountability Office.
He said there should also be creation of community trusts that can be tapped before an emergency even strikes so that the final blow is somewhat softened.
“Since 2005, the federal government has spent almost $450 billion on disaster response and recovery. This is not a sustainable path for the future,” Currie said.
Getting seniors enrolled in disaster assistance programs, expanding public grants that go toward rebuilding and evaluating how we invest in infrastructure so it won’t need to be totally replaced after each storm hits, means the federal government must totally change how it perceives preparedness.
“After a disaster strikes, that means Mother Nature dictates where we spend our dollars. We need to change that. FEMA should have an additional pot of money to allocate before disaster hits so we can be more strategic,” Currie said.
Judith Curry, an author and climatologist who has long criticized widely accepted climate science as “alarmist,” told lawmakers she felt the federal government’s time would be better spent on eliminating regulations that gum up a state’s ability to address current vulnerabilities.
Echoing President Donald Trump’s sentiments that wildfires in California could have been avoided with better forest management, Curry held back laugher as she spoke.
“It’s not climate change. It’s all these regulations that have built up along with the underbrush. Saying this is the fault of climate change is a waste of time,” Curry said.
Michael Mann, one of the first scientists to connect an increase in emissions to faster rates of climate change, rebuffed the assertion.
“There are scientists who have looked at changing fire suppression factors and human caused climate change and what they’ve concluded is you’re looking at the tripling of wildfires over the past few decades. What they have found is at least half of those are due to warming and drying of the planet. This is the perfect storm that creates these massive fires,” Mann said.
Committee Chairman Harley Rouda, D-Calif., noted Greenland lost 2 billion tons of ice two weeks ago due to warming temperatures, which was nowhere near what scientists expected at this point.
FEMA may be underestimating the impact climate change will have on natural disasters moving ahead, Mann said.
“Now we’re underestimating extreme weather frequency. We underestimated how fast the ice would melt. Climate change is pain. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something. Most likely, fossil fuels,” he said.