By Kevin Zerbe
Climate impacts are becoming more apparent across the country, including in coastal areas dealing with sea level rise, higher rates of erosion, more frequent coastal storms, and so on. While attributing any single event to climate change is still a bit tricky, the larger trend of increased coastal hazards is in-line with our understanding of climate impacts. For much of the country, climate change has moved into a phase where its impacts are no longer forecasts. We are now beginning to see the impacts of climate change affect our daily lives, with recurrent hazards that need to be addressed sooner than later.
This presents an opportunity for the climate adaptation and hazard mitigation fields to coalesce, and as a result, potentially help each other expand in their applicability and effectiveness. For hazard mitigation, considering climate change means plans will be more robust and more capable of meeting the demands of their “all-hazards” approach. For climate adaptation, it may mean the first viable opportunity to place adaptation options in a real world context and test them in ways beyond modelling scenarios by providing an incentivizing mechanism for states and localities to implement these options: disaster recovery funds. In other words, the confluence of climate adaptation and hazard mitigation is among the best ways for climate adaptation to move beyond the theoretical phase, wherein it truly contributes to bolstering the resilience of communities.
This isn’t a new discovery. The organization ICLEI has a helpful report on integrating climate adaptation and hazard mitigation, and additional analysis has been done at places such as Texas A&M and Columbia Law School. More importantly, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has acknowledged the necessity for hazard mitigation plans to consider climate change, at least at the state level. In March of 2016, FEMA’s State Mitigation Plan Review Guide went into effect as the agency’s official policy on natural hazard mitigation planning, backed up by the authority of Title 44 Code of Federal Regulations. The Guide requires state-level hazard mitigation plans to explicitly address how “future risk and vulnerability may be affected by changing future conditions… including long-term changes in weather patterns and climate on identified hazards.” As reported by InsideClimate News when the Guide was first announced, FEMA is essentially telling states that, if they want disaster recovery funds, they need to address climate change in their hazard mitigation plans.
As a climate adaptation specialist, this is music to my ears. This means that the adaptation options and strategies that I, my colleagues, and clients spend months (or even years) developing have a better chance of getting implemented. Hazard mitigation, given its direct tie to federal dollars both before and after a disaster, carries an authority that climate adaptation just doesn’t quite have (yet).
Consider that grants and other forms of financial assistance that are made available by FEMA under the umbrella of emergency preparedness. These allow people to elevate their homes, localities to build flood protection measures, and communities to restore their neighborhoods. Finding ways to include our climate adaptation strategies in these well-established preparedness and recovery actions might be our best way of seeing what actually works and what doesn’t. We’ll be one step closer to developing best practices in the field of climate adaptation, as well as communities that are truly resilient to current and future hazards.
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