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Climate Change Risks Missing From FEMA’s National Preparedness Plans

The World Economic Forum’s 2011 Global Risks Report ranks climate change as one of the greatest risks, far outweighing other traditional risks such as terrorism and nuclear proliferation (though those risks should not be minimized, given their devastating potential). A risk “score” is determined by how likely a particular threat is, and how great the impact of that threat, if it materialized, would be. In this context, climate change is seen as a highly probable and high impact risk.

The White House’s Presidential Policy Directive 8 on National Preparedness (PPD-8) and the 2010 National Security Strategy recognize the importance of addressing such serious risks to the United States, with the former calling on the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in coordination with other agencies, to develop and maintain a “National Preparedness Goal defining the core capabilities necessary to prepare for the specific types of incidents posing the greatest risk to the security of the Nation.” The directive states that DHS may draw from the 2010 National Security Strategy, which identifies climate change as a security threat, among other issues. Under this directive, the Department has tasked the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to develop a set of National Response Frameworks to address such security risks.

In this context, it is very unfortunate that FEMA’s National Preparedness Goal, and recently released Draft National Frameworks do not mention climate change at all. Indeed, one of the four documents, the Draft Prevention Framework, only identifies one risk: terrorism (thanks to David Perera for bringing that to our attention). While in this case FEMA was boxed in by the presidential directive itself, which creates a framework limited to preventing “acts of terrorism,” that is a far too narrow a mandate for an agency like FEMA, which needs to be prepared for the greatest risks to the country.

Indeed, despite the devastating consequences of past unusual extreme weather events, such as hurricane Katrina and droughts in the Southwest, and consistent findings and projections on climate change’s relationship to the frequency and intensity of such extreme weather events (including the IPCC’s latest report), the agency’s frameworks do not identify preparing for the adverse impacts of climate change on natural disasters as worthy of note. Three of the draft national frameworks do tackle catastrophic natural disasters, as one might expect from FEMA, but they omit climate change entirely.

This is a bit puzzling for a few reasons. First, climate change is identified as a security threat in both DHS’s 2010 Quadrennial Homeland Security Review Report, and FEMA’s Strategic Foresight Initiative, which began in 2010. Secondly, the presidential directive (PPD-8) gave DHS-FEMA the mandate to include climate change, as mentioned above. Lastly, we have consistently heard very encouraging comments from leaders on the issue in the security community, such as Daniel Gerstein, Deputy Under Secretary for Science & Technology at DHS, FEMA’s parent department since 2003. However, we should have seen this coming. As highlighted by Dr. Sharon Caudle during Congressional testimony this past February, DHS’s September 2011 National Preparedness Goal, and its December 2011 Strategic National Risk Assessment in support of PPD-8, deliberately left climate change out.

The good news is that the draft frameworks are currently open to public comment, though not for long (April 2nd is the deadline). Furthermore, the PPD-8 requires the annual submission of a national preparedness report, which leaves the door open to including climate change in next year’s iteration. Hopefully, additions to the frameworks which include a broader consideration of risks, including climate change, will either make it into the final framework documents, or future national preparedness goals.

However, it is important to remember that this is not just a matter of paperwork. Reports such as DHS’s National Preparedness Goal, and framework documents like the ones highlighted in this article, can lead to critical preparedness grants for states and communities across the country. If those grants, and the projects they support, are not sensitive to the effects of climate change, people will ultimately be ill-prepared for future disasters. In short, preparing for the effects of climate change is a security imperative of the highest order, and failing to effectively do so could ultimately cost lives.


1 Comment

  1. [...] Though FEMA’s 2011 National Preparedness Goal, and subsequent Draft National Frameworks, did not include climate change considerations, it is encouraging to hear that climate risk and preparedness is being taken seriously by the DHS [...]

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