U.S. Moves To Confront Growing Risks of Climate Change

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WASHINGTON — For Pentagon officials, the warming planet could translate into more regional instability, more conflicts around the world, more humanitarian crises to respond to and 30 military installations becoming more vulnerable to flooding.

At the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the number of declared disasters in recent years shot up 50 percent — from 65 in 2004 to 98 in 2011 — and shows no signs of abating. Already, the agency is struggling to fund recovery efforts and is burdened by billions of dollars of debt.

U.S. Forest Service officials fret as the annual wildfire season has stretched from four months to 6.5 since the mid-1980s, and officials expect that trend to continue.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) told Congress Feb. 14 that the government faces a troubling amount of financial risk — in the form of exposed infrastructure, flood and crop insurance programs, emergency assistance and more — because of climate change. The GAO added the government’s fiscal exposure to climate change to its biennial list of high-risk government programs.

Even as government officials anticipate far more austere budgets for years to come, they also are anticipating tens of billions of dollars in additional costs due to the effects of climate change, according to dozens of new government reports, experts and federal officials.

“The science tells us it’s a future of hotter and hotter. It’s not going to get colder,” said Forest Service climate change adviser Dave Cleaves.

While agencies have taken steps to adapt to climate change and mitigate potential risks, they must do much more and must approach the issue in a coordinated fashion, the GAO said.

The government’s costs due to the changing climate are already taking a huge toll. A few examples:

  • Congress approved $50.5 billion for Superstorm Sandy recovery efforts.
  • The National Flood Insurance Program, which is run by FEMA, is nearly $20 billion in debt to the Treasury Department.
  • From 2004 to 2011, FEMA obligated more than $80 billion in federal assistance.

For the first time, all major agencies have issued reports explaining the specific challenges they face due to climate change. The White House posted those reports in February.

Among the most directly affected is the Forest Service. While the agency used to rely on past data to help predict wildfires, that information is less useful as the future becomes more volatile.

“We rely increasingly on good science and modeling and looking at a range of different scenarios,” Cleaves said. “Then we develop programs that work across as much of that range as possible.”

For example, the Forest Service is predicting that severe floods that used to happen once every 100 years will now happen about every 30 years. It is looking at expanding the culverts beneath road beds to allow for higher flooding.

The agency incorporates climate change into all decision-making. It has 130 climate change coordinators across its field offices and laboratories who teleconference regularly to compare research and exchange ideas.

Other agencies preparing for or adapting to climate change include:

  • NASA, which is spending $41 million to restore an eroding beach and seawall at Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The beach serves as a buffer between the ocean and NASA launch sites, but it has seen massive erosion and increased flooding in recent years.
  • The Army, which is beginning a pilot project at Fort Huachuca in Arizona to incorporate climate change considerations into annual facility maintenance, construction and renovation planning. By integrating climate change-related projects into existing planning and budgeting processes, they will not be a separate line item and will become part of the normal maintenance, repair and operations budget, said Wanda Johnson, an Army sustainability planner. This is the first step toward including climate change planning into all installation plans, she added.

“We will need to ask, ‘Have we incorporated all the climate change considerations in all the right places?’” Johnson said.

The Defense Department has an office — called the Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program — studying how the department can better integrate climate change-related initiatives into day-to-day planning, such as for facility planning guides and regional risk assessments.

One challenge, Johnson said, is to make climate change data accessible to individual facility and building managers so they can make informed decisions. “We don’t have that answer just yet, but all the federal agencies are collaborating on how to do that,” she said.

NASA is an important part of that collaboration as it collects extensive data on climate change, according to James Leatherwood, director of the Environmental Management Division at NASA’s Office of Strategic Infrastructure.

The agency is working on a draft policy that would require all new NASA facilities to be built approximately 1 to 1.5 meters above sea level to protect against flooding and storm damage. Two-thirds of NASA facilities are located on coastlines. “Ocean-level rise, storm events and hurricanes are critical issues for us to deal with and to make sure we provide reliable space access,” Leatherwood said.

For example, NASA is studying how to mitigate coastal flooding at Kennedy Space Center in Florida and developing strategies such as manmade drainage ponds and storm water control to lessen the impact of flooding when it does happen. “Adapting to climate change is one of the most critical issues facing the world today,” Leatherwood said.

Yet the government is poorly positioned to do that, the GAO said in its report. “The federal government is not well organized to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, partly because of the inherently complicated, crosscutting nature of the issue,” the report said.

President Barack Obama created an interagency climate change adaptation task force in 2009, but the panel has no ability to make important decisions or set priorities, the GAO added.