FEMA: Caught Between Climate Change and Congress
Experts say FEMA doesn't use short- or long-term climate science projections to determine how worsening global warming may affect its current operations.
Thanks to climate change, extreme weather disasters have hammered the United States with increasing frequency in recent years — from drought and wildfires to coastal storms and flooding.
It is perhaps surprising, then, that the U.S. agency in charge of preparing for and responding to these disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), doesn't account for climate change in most of its budget planning and resource allocation or in the National Flood Insurance Program it administers.
"Climate change is affecting everything the agency does, and yet it isn't given much consideration," said Michael Crimmins, an environmental scientist at the University of Arizona who is leading a project to try to improve FEMA's use of climate science data. "FEMA has to be climate literate in a way that many other agencies don't have to be."
A main problem, he and other experts say, is that FEMA doesn't use short- or long-term climate science projections to determine how worsening global warming may affect its current operations and the communities it serves.
Instead, FEMA continues to base its yearly budget and activities almost entirely on historical natural disaster records.
That practice is exacerbated by the fact that the agency is at the mercy of economic and political pressures. In addition to having to deal with years of recession that ate into its budget, FEMA has repeatedly been caught in the crosshairs of partisan politics that forced funding cuts and blocked proposed increases.
And so while the number of billion-dollar-plus weather disasters in the United States has increased 5 percent a year since 1980, FEMA's annual budget has stayed roughly the same, straining its ability to function.
"Recent events have been so big that they've swept through the agency, affecting every corner of funding," Crimmins said. "It is hugely problematic. FEMA is reeling and saying, 'Wait, we have to become more efficient at every timescale because this isn't sustainable from a budget stand point.'"
In 2011, 14 natural disasters with price tags of $1 billion or more struck the United States. As a result, FEMA was forced to divert funds from long-term rebuilding projects to cover the immediate response needs — things like food, water and shelter — for victims of Hurricane Irene. It faced a similar budget crunch following Superstorm Sandy in 2012, a year that saw $11 billion-plus disasters. In fact, FEMA has needed Congress to approve additional disaster relief funds nearly every year over roughly the past decade to handle the mounting climate-related damage.
FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program, which provides coverage for more than 5.5 million Americans, faces particular risks from warming. It's already $18 billion in debt from hurricanes Katrina and Irene, Superstorm Sandy and other disasters. And that deficit will only increase. According to a FEMA-commissioned study, released last year, flood zones could grow 55 percent in size by 2100 from mainly climate change, but also population growth along coastlines — doubling enrollment in the program and straining the entire insurance system. The report, recommended by the Government Accountability Office back in 2007, could eventually influence recommendations about how to reform the flood insurance program.
The 35-year-old emergency response agency has about 7,500 employees scattered across the country and operates on an approximately $10 billion annual budget.
FEMA spokesman Dan Watson denied claims that the agency is dragging its feet on including climate threats in its current budgets and plans.
"FEMA is working within its existing statutes and authorities to incorporate climate change adaptation into ongoing plans, policies and procedures," he wrote in an email. Watson pointed to the agency's recent announcement that it developed a way for states and regions to incorporate sea level rise projections into grant applications for disaster mitigation projects. The move was made in response to President Barack Obama's mandate last November that federal agencies help states adapt to climate change.
With the trend of extreme weather intensifying, critics say that reports and suggestions are not enough, and they are urging FEMA to take a more proactive and aggressive approach. Two leading environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Wildlife Federation, have petitioned FEMA for more than a year to overhaul its disaster mitigation program, asking to require — not just suggest — that communities include climate impacts in their grant requests and strategic plans.
According to the groups, FEMA officials agreed last month in a private meeting to meet that request and update the process by the end of the year.
"It is encouraging news ... a great example of the direction FEMA needs to be heading in more," said Rob Moore, head of the water and climate team at the NRDC.
"We can't afford to simply respond as disasters happen and muddle through," he said. "The time has come to look forward 20, 30 years."
Even if FEMA made global warming a top priority, however, experts agree that the agency needs a major increase in funds to deal with the coming threats.
That means approval from Congress — a difficult prospect. Republicans have threatened several times in recent years to reject additional relief funds following disasters, such as Sandy, without first slashing money from other government programs. Democrats have refused to deplete other programs for the sake of FEMA.
"It is very clear that FEMA isn't being given the resources to tackle the scope of the problem in front of us," Moore said.