The Federal Emergency Management Agency is making it tougher for governors to deny man-made climate change. Starting next year, the agency will approve disaster preparedness funds only for states whose governors approve hazard mitigation plans that address climate change.
This may put several Republican governors who maintain the earth isn't warming due to human activities, or prefer to do nothing about it, into a political bind. Their position may block their states' access to hundreds of millions of dollars in FEMA funds. Over the past five years, the agency has awarded an average $1 billion a year in grants to states and territories for taking steps to mitigate the effects of disasters.
From 2010 to 2014, Florida received about $260 million.
"If a state has a climate denier governor that doesn't want to accept a plan, that would risk mitigation work not getting done because of politics," said Becky Hammer, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council's water program. "The governor would be increasing the risk to citizens in that state" because of his climate beliefs.
The policy doesn't affect federal money for relief after a hurricane, flood or other disaster. Specifically, beginning in March 2016, states seeking preparedness money will have to assess how climate change threatens their communities. Governors will have to sign off on hazard mitigation plans. While some states, including New York, have already started incorporating climate risks in their plans, most haven't because FEMA's old 2008 guidelines didn't require it.
"This could potentially become a major conflict for several Republican governors," said Barry Rabe, an expert on the politics of climate change at the University of Michigan. "We aren't just talking about coastal states." Climate change affects droughts, rainfall and tornado activity. Fracking is being linked to more earthquakes, he said. "This could affect state leaders across the country."
Among those who could face a difficult decision are Republican Govs. Rick Scott of Florida, Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Chris Christie of New Jersey, Greg Abbott of Texas and Pat McCrory of North Carolina — all of whom have denied man-made climate change or refused to take action. The states they lead face immediate threats from climate change.
The five governors' offices did not return requests for comment.
Environmentalists have been pressing FEMA to include global warming in its hazard mitigation guidelines for almost three years. FEMA told the Natural Resources Defense Council in early 2014 that it would revise the guidelines. It issued draft rules last October and officially released the new procedures last week as partisan politics around climate change have been intensifying.
On March 8, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting said the Scott administration instituted an unwritten ban on the use of "climate change" or "global warming" by Florida officials. Gov. Scott denied the claim, telling reporters in Tallahassee, "Well, first off, that's not true. At our Department of Environmental Protection, there's lots of conversation about this issue. From my standpoint, like every issue, my goal is: Instead of talking about it, let's do something about it."
Still the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility has filed a complaint arguing that a state employee, Bart Bibler of the Department of Environmental Protection, was reprimanded for speaking about climate change at an official meeting and keeping notes on the subject in official minutes.
The complaint says that on March 9, Bibler got a letter of reprimand, was ordered to take two days leave and then was told not to return until he had medical clearance of his fitness for duty.
"There's no such policy banning the use of 'climate change,' " DEP spokeswoman Lauren Engel told the Palm Beach Post. She had no specific comment on the Bibler case, the Post reported.
In the reprimand letter, provided by PEER to the Palm Beach Post, Marianne Gengenbach, chief of environmental services, said Bibler "engaged in personal political advocacy related to the Keystone XL Pipeline" and that he provided his supervisors a summary suggesting climate change was on the agenda when it wasn't.
"Your actions were disrespectful, unprofessional and represent insubordination," Gengenbach wrote.
According to PEER's complaint, Bibler — currently land management plan coordinator for DEP's Division of State Lands — attended a Florida Coastal Managers Forum on Feb. 27 at which climate change and sea-level rise were discussed.
PEER said Bibler later "was directed to remove any hot button issues, especially explicit references to climate change, and then was given a letter of reprimand for supposedly misrepresenting that the 'official meeting agenda included climate change.'"
FEMA wrote in its new procedures, "The challenges posed by climate change, such as more intense storms, frequent heavy precipitation, heat waves, drought, extreme flooding, and higher sea levels, could significantly alter the types and magnitudes of hazards impacting states in the future."
FEMA's disaster preparedness program has been granting money to states since the 1980s for projects as diverse as raising buildings out of floodplains and building safe rooms. States are required to update their plans every five years to be eligible for the agency's mitigation funding. Since 2010, FEMA has doled out more than $4.6 billion to states and territories as part of this program.
Republican-led regions constitute 8 of the top 10 recipients of this category of FEMA money between 2010 and 2014. Louisiana was No. 1, having received almost $1.1 billion from FEMA for hazard mitigation. New Jersey was third with nearly $379 million, and Texas fourth with almost $343 million. Florida was sixth.
The gubernatorial approval clause was included in the new guidelines to "raise awareness and support for implementing the actions in the mitigation strategy and increasing statewide resilience to natural hazards," said FEMA spokeswoman Susan Hendrick.
The new federal rules don't require public involvement in the creation of states' disaster preparedness plans, eliminating the opportunity for environmental groups and concerned citizens to submit comments or concerns about the assessments.
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