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President Obama’s Resilience Plan Needs Federal Investments

Mount Charleston Wildfire

SOURCE: AP/Ronda Churchill

Smoke from the Mount Charleston wildfires hovers over the Las Vegas valley shortly after sunset, Tuesday, July 9, 2013.

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As the peak of hurricane season draws closer, it is a good time to discuss an overlooked but critical element of President Barack Obama’s recently announced Climate Action Plan. One of the three major parts of the climate plan will increase communities’ resilience to extreme weather. This portion includes valuable proposals “to prepare for the impacts of a changing climate that are already being felt across the country … by building stronger and safer communities and infrastructure.” The plan will marshal existing federal resources to help communities become more resilient to destructive extreme weather events, including storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, and wildfires.

The president’s resilience plan is beneficial but insufficient to protect Americans’ lives, homes, and businesses, as well as reduce federal disaster-relief spending. The plan does not specifically seek a federal revenue stream to fund resilience projects, though it encourages federal agencies to find resources in their existing—but shrinking, thanks to sequestration—budgets to fund these important tasks.

Additional federal resources for resilience are essential to accomplish these vital goals and ensure that all of our communities are prepared to deal with a more volatile climate in the future. We urge the federal government to estimate the cost of future resilience needs and identify and adopt additional revenue sources to pay for them as quickly as possible.

The United States has experienced severe bouts of extreme weather during the past several years. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, reported that there were a record 81 “major disaster declarations” in 2010. This record was broken in 2011, with 99 disaster declarations.* A CAP analysis found that there were 25 severe extreme weather events in 2011 and 2012 that each caused at least $1 billion in damages. These events caused a total of 1,107 fatalities and $188 billion in damages.

The draft National Climate Assessment noted that future extreme weather events will threaten the safety and stability of our homes, businesses, and infrastructure in the coming years. It found that the changing climate “[w]ill be disruptive to society because our institutions and infrastructure have been designed for the relatively stable climate of the past, not the changing one of the present and future.”

As extreme weather increases, it is essential to invest in measures that make communities better able to prepare to withstand the high winds, floodwaters, scorching heat, searing wildfires, and parched earth from extreme weather. Every $1 invested in resilience, or “pre-disaster mitigation,” reduces the cost of damages from these extreme weather events by $4, according to a study for FEMA.

Despite the savings from investments in resilience, federal disaster-recovery spending far outweighs investments in resilience. In the most complete accounting of federal disaster and resilience spending, recent CAP analyses found that while the federal government spent $136 billion on disaster relief from 2011 to 2013, it only spent $22 billion to help communities protect themselves from future extreme weather events. The federal government therefore spent $6 for post-disaster cleanup for every $1 it spent on future protection and preparedness.

The National Academy of Sciences, or NAS, report, “Disaster Resilience: A National Imperative,” explains that resilience efforts require significant financial investments. NAS notes that “significant investment is required to mitigate the losses of human life, risks to human health, and economic and social costs.” Furthermore, NAS has determined that the federal government does not have a reliable estimate of the total investment that would be required to build more-resilient communities.

NAS recognizes that protection for people and property—though very cost effective—is not cheap:

  • New York City’s plan to increase its resilience to future extreme weather events will cost the city $19.5 billion. It will, for example, spend $1.2 billion to elevate critical building equipment to prevent damage from future floods or storm surges.
  • The National Research Council reported that, “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has identified 160 additional villages in rural Alaska that are threatened by climate-related erosion, with relocation costs are estimated at $30-$50 million per village.” No funds have been provided yet for this effort.
  • In flood-prone coastal areas of Gloucester County, Virginia, FEMA provided nearly $12 million to raise 60 homes out of flood danger, with another 59 buildings waiting in line for assistance.

These projects are vital but expensive, and the president’s climate plan will provide more resources for resilience efforts under existing spending programs—but not via additional revenue. The plan states specifically that:

The President will direct federal agencies to support climate-resilient investment [by directing] federal agencies to identify and remove barriers to making climate resilient investments … and encourage and support smarter, more resilient investments.

Federal agencies’ ability to reprogram existing funds to invest in community resilience, however, may be constrained by current law that may not allow additional spending flexibility. It is therefore unclear how much additional revenue this effort will add to community-resilience investments.

The lack of significant levels of additional funds for resilience reflects the fact that the president’s plan does not require new legislation or additional appropriations and instead would use existing funds for resilience efforts. The lack of substantial new revenue for community resilience will make it difficult to achieve the plan’s resilience goals. In order to truly make a difference and help communities prepare for future extreme weather, additional federal revenue will be necessary.

Two states, however, will receive significant federal revenue to invest in resilience. The Disaster Relief Appropriations Act of 2013, passed by Congress earlier this year, includes funds to help New Jersey and New York recover from Superstorm Sandy. In addition, the law includes several billion dollars to help these states’ communities enhance their resilience to future storms and sea-level rise. But there will be little additional resilience assistance for the remainder of the nation.

It does not have to be this way, however. Earlier this year Rep. Lois Capps (D-CA) and 39 other representatives endorsed a CAP proposal to create a bipartisan blue-ribbon panel to estimate future resilience needs and recommend a dedicated source of revenue to assist communities with these investments. Congress could then enact this bipartisan recommendation to provide resources to help communities become safer.

Similar to the CAP proposal, the president’s climate plan has a State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness. The administration should require the governors, mayors, and other officials on the panel to estimate the total cost of extreme weather resilience needs, as well as identify a source or sources of federal revenue to assist communities with these huge costs. Congress could then adopt the resilience revenue recommendation or devise an alternative way to provide communities with additional assistance. A federal investment in resilience should reduce net federal spending in the long run because stronger communities mean less damage from extreme weather—and subsequently, less federal disaster-relief aid.

The centerpiece of the president’s climate plan is the first-ever carbon-pollution reductions from existing power plants, the largest domestic source of climate pollution. Unfortunately, these long-overdue pollution reductions will be inadequate to immediately stem the rising tide of extreme weather linked to climate change. It is therefore essential that the federal government provide significantly more financial assistance to at-risk communities so they can better resist damages from severe wind, rain, drought, heat, and fires. The president should mandate that the climate task force assess resilience needs and identify a revenue stream to invest in communities’ plans, which would save lives, reduce damages, and save taxpayers money.

Daniel J. Weiss is a Senior Fellow and the Director of Climate Strategy at the Center for American Progress.

* All of the 2010 disaster declarations were due to extreme weather, while 94 of the 99 disaster declarations in 2012 were due to extreme weather.

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