Obama asks federal agencies to ‘prepare’ for climate change. Here’s what that means.

November 1, 2013

Climate scientists tend to agree that even if humans stopped burning fossil fuels today, we'd still see some further warming and climate change from all the carbon dioxide we've already loaded into the atmosphere. We'll need to adapt regardless — it's just a question of how much.

A rare "king tide" in Washington DC, which the EPA describes as a harbinger of what sea-level rise might look like.
A rare "king tide" in Washington D.C., which the EPA describes as a harbinger of what sea-level rise might look like.

The White House underscored that point on Friday when it issued a new executive order directing federal agencies to help states and communities prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea-level rise, storms, and droughts.

The Obama administration is still focused on cutting U.S. greenhouse gases — the official goal is to get carbon-dioxide emissions down 17 percent below 2005 levels by 2020. That's why regulators have set stricter fuel-economy standards for cars and light trucks — reaching 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 — and are planning carbon rules for coal- and gas-fired power plants.

But those cuts — even if paired with cuts by China, India, and other countries — can't halt climate change entirely. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for instance, estimates that global sea levels are likely to rise 1 to 2 feet by 2100 even if the world radically constrains its fossil-fuel use. (The IPCC estimates that sea levels could rise 2 to 3 feet or more if emissions go unchecked.)

To that end, there are a few key aspects of the White House memo:

1) Federal infrastructure spending will have to take climate into account. Agencies are supposed to examine their policies and find ways to help states prepare for the effects of climate change.

So, for example, federal disaster-relief programs that help coastal communities rebuild after a storm or flood will have to take into account the possibility that the next storm or flood could be even worse. Likewise, roads and bridges built with federal money will have to be planned with changing climate conditions — such as future sea-level rise — in mind.

2) Water- and land- management will get revamped. Agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Interior will have to review their land- and water-management policies to take shifting conditions into account.

For example, agencies will have to "evaluate how to better promote natural storm barriers such as dunes and wetlands" and figure out "how to protect the carbon sequestration benefits of forests and lands to help reduce the carbon pollution that causes climate change." (The EPA has already released its plans to this effect.)

3) The federal government will try to provide better data on what climate impacts are actually coming. As part of the executive order, federal agencies are supposed to offer better information "that state, local, and private-sector leaders need to make smart decisions."

One example: Back in January, a federal advisory council released a draft 1,000-page National Climate Assessment that looked at how climate change was likely to affect various parts of the United States. The White House explained that the information was aimed at everyone from "farmers deciding which crops to grow, to city planners deciding the diameter of new storm sewers they are replacing, to electric utilities and regulators pondering how to protect the power grid.”

There are also a few other bureaucratic aspects of the memo, like the creation of a new interagency "Council on Climate Preparedness and Resilience" and a task force with state and local leaders.

By and large, the federal government has been fairly slow in responding to ongoing climate change. One example: The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has usually based its analyses of flooding risks on historical data — which doesn't do much good if sea-levels are rising or storms are expected to become more frequent in parts of the country.

Only recently did FEMA announce that it would update its flood insurance maps from the 1980s and set up a "technical mapping advisory council” to look at how the agency might take global warming into account. It's a slow process, and often disruptive — its quite possible, for instance, that some homeowners could see their flood-insurance premiums rise as a result of the new maps.

But that broader shift in government has been a slow, uneven process. A recent analysis from the Center for American Progress found, for instance, that the federal government still spends $6 on disaster relief for every $1 it spends preparing for natural disasters, even though putting a greater focus on the latter could save money in many cases.

Further reading: 

-- Here's a more detailed breakdown of the Obama administration's climate plan.

-- Here are all the different orders that the White House has issued specifically on adaptation since 2009.

 

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