As Hurricanes Hit, Think Global Warming

The new hurricane season is upon us, and by all accounts it is going to be another severe one. Yet more than eight months after Hurricane Katrina made landfall, 40,000 evacuees still wait for FEMA trailers, and our disaster response system remains woefully under prepared.

Katrina exposed many things about America, from the dangers of concentrated poverty to the deep need to reinvest in the infrastructure of our communities. But perhaps most starkly, it put in real human terms the devastating toll that climate change can have on our economy and our society if we remain unprepared.

It is time to face the fact that global warming is upon us and we had better get ready — just as we prepare for other disasters, both natural and unnatural, from earthquakes, to forest fires, to chemical disasters. Today, glaciers are melting and storms are increasingly severe and costly. We are starting to feel the real pain.

The North Atlantic’s “conveyor belt” that brings warm water to the Northern Hemisphere has slowed down by 30%. Surface ocean temperatures are getting warmer, which will make hurricanes more intense. Drought and the encroachment of disease and pests threaten food production. A Pentagon study recently found that global warming could directly harm our national security by exacerbating regional and national conflicts, triggering future wars over resources like water.

It is essential that the U.S. curb the release of harmful global warming emissions, but we have now reached another point as well. We must begin to prepare for the increasing threat of disasters driven by global warming, even as we grapple with the policy debate over how to manage carbon emissions.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, amid one of the most devastating hurricane seasons on record (last year was the most expensive year for covered disaster claims in the history of the insurance industry), public debate must finally shift from questioning the basic science of global warming to getting on with reducing the impact that climate change will have on the safety and security of our economy and society. The policy debate must take on the real and immediate risks imposed on Americans, the vulnerability of our communities, and the potential dangers of inaction.

Hurricane Katrina, regardless of its cause, was a vivid reminder of the human and economic costs that America and the world can expect from more severe storm incidents in a world increasingly faced with climate disruption. In the face of high risk and high costs emergencies, the sensible path is to improve our readiness and prepare our response. Without such preparation, America will be caught off guard yet again in the face of staggering and foreseeable human tragedies.

A policy that prepares Americans for increasingly severe natural disasters should focus on improved planning, investments in information on risk and vulnerability, and improved incentives for building new infrastructure that increases the resilience and preparedness of communities. We learned from Hurricane Katrina the consequences of not adequately preparing for disasters.

Poor preparation in the face of mounting evidence of vulnerability cost the country billions of dollars and many innocent lives. What’s needed today is a national Global Warming Preparedness Act that requires every federal agency to report on and prepare for global warming disasters, including the effect that foreign disasters could have on national security.

The Act should mandate that every state and local government assess its vulnerability to more intense hurricanes, water shortages, drought and wild fires, rising sea levels, and other potential global warming impacts that could affect the United States in the decades to come. The act should also provide the resources to get the job done.

Congress should order the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate a national Global Warming Preparedness Plan in partnership with state-level emergency management agencies. These agencies should anticipate emergency management needs. States could create their own Global Warming Preparedness legislation as well.

In all of these efforts we should integrally involve the public in making our nation more prepared. Public input is critical. Not only would that improve the plans, it would also help ensure that the plans are followed in the moment of need — something that will make us all safer.

Finally, preparedness requires a Global Warming Disclosure Act for property owners and publicly traded corporations to disclose risks to their property and businesses from global warming to potential buyers and investors. Such requirements would ensure that government and business can work together responsibly to make a safer, more prosperous, and more resilient society that faces squarely the real risks to our economy and to the communities we call home.

A Plan for Global Warming Preparedness:

Map vulnerabilities via a National Global Warming Community Impact Assessment

The federal government should invest in a solid foundation of information for decision-makers and establish a national program to assist states and localities in undertaking formal assessment and disclosure of climate risk and potential regional impacts. The government and non-governmental organizations have undertaken a number of important studies, exposing the risks and vulnerabilities of key regions of the country and key sectors of the U.S. economy to potential impacts from global climate change.

This research from the U.S. Global Change Research Program, the Environmental Protection Agency, NASA, and other agencies would represent a sound basis from which to build the information infrastructure necessary for federal, state, and local planners to assess risk and vulnerability. Like earthquake or flood mapping, vulnerability to severe natural disaster as a result of climate change is a critical public function that should be assessed as part of any plan for preserving and enhancing public safety.

Develop state-level global warming preparedness plans

Using the information assembled through the National Community Impact Assessment, state and regional planning agencies, in conjunction with FEMA, should develop improved management plans for emergency preparedness in the event of natural disasters exacerbated by global warming, ranging from large scale coastal erosion to drought, fires, severe storm events, and disruptions to municipal water and energy supplies from the loss of snow pack. These plans should outline both emergency responses and long-term strategies and should identify information technology, institutional supports, and planning tools needed to facilitate timely action in the event of a disaster.

Set financial disclosure requirements for documented threats

Global warming hazards should be incorporated into public disclosure requirements for property owners and managers of publicly traded companies on environmental risks and liabilities, similar to requirements governing flood plains and earthquake zones. A national protocol of Global Warming Threat Levels could be established for various potential impacts arising from global change.

Establish a national fund for critical infrastructure investment

Building on the example of the National Highway Trust Fund, a dedicated resource should be established to meet new and growing threats to homeland security at both the national and community level from climate change. This fund would support enhanced levee construction and wetland restoration, emergency transportation and evacuation planning, investments in critical transportation infrastructure, improved flood mapping, distributed energy infrastructure, and resources for improved drought response and land management practices. This fund should also address first responder and homeland security infrastructure needs. As our nation bears the costs of increased risks to our security and economic stability, we must share those costs equitably across society to enhance the common good, not pass on the expense as a burdensome, unfunded mandate to the states.

Build smart micro-grids for emergency energy security

To reduce costs and improve system reliability and reaction times in the event of blackouts and service disruptions from natural disasters, it is essential to invest in smart and secure micro-grids. These would include on-site generation of renewable electricity sources that can withstand interruptions in flows of natural gas and electricity, while continuing to ensure critical services like traffic signals, pumping stations, emergency response services, and other critical energy needs. During the largest blackout in U.S. history in August 2003, 50 million people went without power at an estimated total regional cost of $8 billion dollars. A modest investment in distributed renewable energy generation throughout the regional electrical grid could have prevented the cascading blackouts and protected citizens and ratepayers. Distributed energy generation and a smarter electrical grid will dramatically improve the security of the national energy infrastructure, reduce costs, and improve recovery times in the event of disaster.

The Center for American Progress is conducting research on global warming preparedness in partnership with the Breakthrough Institute thanks to a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

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Bracken Hendricks

Senior Fellow