State Hazard Mitigation Planning Should Address Climate Change

Three major hurricanes have hit Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico recently and the damage was far extensive than had been planned for. The unprecedented catastrophic disasters are projected to have stunning price tags—anywhere from $65 billion to $190 billion for Harvey, $50 billion to $100 billion for Irma, and $40 to $80 billion for Maria.

According to the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration, the United States has suffered 212 disasters since 1980 that have cost more than $1 billion, totaling $1.2 trillion. Nine of the 10 costliest Atlantic hurricanes (not including Harvey or Irma) have occurred since 2000.

Exacerbating the growing cost and number of natural disasters is the reality that the global climate is changing. With these changes the frequency, severity, and duration of natural hazard events are likely to increase—a trend that should be of increasing concern for state policymakers and hazard mitigation agencies across the country. Effective response to natural disasters will require preparation and planning. Unfortunately, many states are not adequately including analysis of climate change impacts in their hazard mitigation plan and risk analysis, leading to missed opportunities for mitigation planning.

In accordance with federal law, all states must have an approved statewide hazard mitigation plan in place in order to receive federal disaster mitigation funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The state plans are required to include: a description of the hazard mitigation planning process; identification of the specific hazards, risks, and vulnerabilities in the state; identification and ranking of the mitigation actions available; and description of the process to integrate mitigation efforts across agencies and levels of government. States are required to update their plans every five years and submit them to FEMA for approval.

In 2015, FEMA put in place a requirement that state disaster plans would only be approved—thereby making the state eligible to receive federal funding for pre-disaster mitigation projects designed to build resilience—if they addressed the projected effects of climate change on hazard risks. In other words, whereas earlier states were using historical data to predict risk, the new requirements want states to also consider the probability of future challenges posed by climate change.

 “The risk assessment must provide a summary of the probability of future hazard events,” the new guidelines state. “Probability must include considerations of changing future conditions, including the effects of long-term changes in weather patterns and climate.”

FEMA doesn’t require states to discuss the cause of climate change, only that they outline its potential effects and how disasters will be handled. Furthermore, the climate change requirement only affects money state governments use to rebuild more resilient communities. It will not impact federal aid after a disaster.

FEMA’s new requirement is a much-needed change. While many hazard mitigation actions that increase community resilience can be undertaken without acknowledging climate change, hazard mitigation planning will be less effective and less efficient if those plans are based on historic climate data alone. For example, if state flood protection plans do not recognize that sea level rise and more intense storms are likely to result in higher flood levels in the future, state preparation to deal with future flooding is going to be inadequate in terms of protecting homes and families. According to real estate company Zillow, almost 1.9 million houses nationwide could be underwater by 2100 if sea levels rise 6 feet (EPA estimates sea level rise by the end of the century to be between 1 and 4 feet, with an uncertainty range of 0.66 to 6.6 feet)

Wisconsin became the first state to acknowledge the risks of climate change and in a plan finalized by the state’s Emergency Management Agency it takes a clear-eyed look at the risks the state faces due to climate-induced disasters.  The agency wrote, “While there remains some debate about the cause of climate change, there has been a documented change in weather patterns over time in Wisconsin. In the past 50 years, average statewide temperatures have increased by about 1.1®F. It is also likely that the state will see more extreme weather events.”

The plan also commits to taking actions that could help address the impacts of climate change, if not the underlying causes, including incorporating climate resilient mitigation projects into the prioritization for state funding, considering climate change impacts in other policies, decisions, and plans, and factoring in actions communities are already taking to reduce flood risk (like through FEMA’s Community Rating System).

Most other state plans were adopted prior to FEMA’s requirement to factor in climate change in risk analysis. A review of all 50 states hazard mitigation plans that were approved by FEMA during the period 2010 to 2012 found that eleven, primarily coastal, states including Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Vermont, and Washington included a thorough discussion of climate change impacts on hazards and climate adaptation actions. The bulk of the states, twenty-nine of them, either had no discussion of climate change or a minimal mention of climate change related issues. And the remaining ten states, including Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Wisconsin, emphasized the need for increased discussion of climate change related issues in future hazard mitigation plans. 

Given the uneven treatment of climate change concerns in state disaster planning efforts, it is to be hoped that FEMA’s new requirement can help spur additional climate change integration in hazard mitigation plans. In 2018 thirty-two states will update their hazard mitigation plans to comply with FEMA’s updated guidelines. Fourteen other states will follow in 2019. The schedule of state plan submittals can be seen here.