How a country’s government decides to address climate change sets the tone for climate change agenda across its, agencies, organizations and even their private sector. If government takes an aggressive approach, and sets a clear and actionable agenda, the people will rally around that agenda and the benefits will be evident not only for that country, but for the entire world. If, however, government takes a lukewarm approach, or denies the current or future impacts of the dramatic change in our climate, then agencies and other government representatives are limited in their ability to address and plan for those impacts. Countries without a clear agenda that do not make urgent the need to address climate change will see the same indifferent attitude in their population. A lack of action will ultimately play out globally as well.
In the United States, the White House has published many reports, been involved in global meetings, and supported other governments in setting agenda around climate change. Despite all this, clear and actionable tasks have not been requested of the American people. The US is the second largest contributor, behind China, to the world’s greenhouse gasses and global warming. As such, federal departments, government agencies, and public administrators at every level lack an understanding of their ability to impact outcomes.
With the release of the National Climate Assessment (May 2014), it is widely anticipated that regulations from the White House will follow – after all, we cannot report that climate change is happening, produce scientific data that points strongly toward human activities, and then do nothing. Strong direction from the top is definitely needed. Without top-down guidance, agencies are left on their own to determine what, if any planning and consideration will be given to climate change, global warming and the impacts of both on their specific missions.
Emergency managers and other public administrators are looking for direction as they begin connecting the dots between apparent changes and their own responsibilities. Soft language or argumentative discussion lend to poor planning and/or an overall lack of action as planners decide to wait for further or more clarifying instruction. FEMAs language attempts to tackle issues facing emergency mangers, but falls far short of being instructive or direct:
“Scientists predict that climate change will cause more intense storms, frequent heavy precipitation, heat waves, drought, wildfires, extreme flooding, and higher sea levels. This may alter the types and magnitudes of hazards that communities and emergency management professionals face, impacting mitigation, preparedness, and response and recovery operations…Emergency managers may therefore want to consider how changing natural hazard risks could impact their states, communities, and organizations in the future. At FEMA we call this ‘climate change adaption.'” (Reference: FEMA LLIS)
Using soft language like “this may alter the types and magnitudes of hazards” and “emergency managers may therefore want to consider” provides no direction, and implies a lack of necessity. In FEMAs defense, it is difficult to provide concrete direction when there is no support from top officials, and those who strive to make solid plans around even the most scientific information get turned away. When government branches like the Department of Defense are barred from considering the impacts of climate change on their global operations by the House of Representatives, as has just happened, there is little hope that other government extensions will attempt to do the same. As a result of the conflict between federal reports and federal action, more soft language will be found, and less proactive work will be done.
So where do Emergency Managers go for information and direction? Like Mother Nature, emergency management should stay non-partisan. FEMA may have to wait for the White House to develop and promote an aggressive climate change agenda before providing emergency managers with a framework for planning and mitigation; but local emergency managers have always been responsible for tailoring national frameworks and determining best practices in their local jurisdiction. For this reason, it is imperative that local agencies become champions for those outcomes they know to be inevitable. We need to get educated about changing hazardscapes, and become educators of our communities. We need to rethink the way we spend our small budgets, and secure equipment and services. But perhaps most importantly, we need to become true advocates for emergency preparedness regardless of the political landscape or possible opposition.
Direction for Emergency Management
Is climate change even a thing? In order to plan accordingly, we must first acknowledge that the climate is changing. While the planet is constantly evolving, the current rate of change is more rapid than predicted and, as a result carries more consequences than we are prepared for. Our current political landscape leaves a lot of ambiguity in this space, and as such it may be difficult for emergency managers to determine real hazard from political posturing.
In May 2014 the White House published the National Climate Assessment, clarifying for the first time that climate change is happening at an alarming rate and the impacts are real. Human activity is largely to blame for global warming and the rapidity with which the change is happening. The impacts of the changes are and will be far reaching, and if we do not take action to reduce our emissions, the impacts will get worse. The report indicates that many changes, including the rising sea levels and Arctic ice decline, surprisingly outpaced previous projections, and leaves little room for argument, stating “…we know with increasing certainty that climate change is happening now.”
However, in spite of this clear declaration, policy makers remain split in their views of climate change. Politicians from both sides of the aisle call into question the validity of the report’s conclusions, some state representatives worry that climate change reports will squash job opportunities as regulations become the action of choice, and many politicians have publicly refused to believe in the impacts of climate change. While the report was intended to be clarifying, the political divide leaves little or no direction for emergency managers and other public administrators.
The Department of Defense (DOD) published the “The Quadrennial Defense Review” which, according to the Secretary of Defense, “seeks to adapt, reshape, and rebalance our military to prepare for the strategic challenges and opportunities [the DOD faces] in the years ahead.” (QDR 2014) While this report focusses on ways to prepare the military and defend the United States, there is very clear language provided around the need to plan for the impacts of climate change. The report clearly states, “the Department will employ creative ways to address the impact of climate change, which will continue to effect the operating environment and the roles and missions that US. Armed Forces undertake.” (QDR page 25)
Unfortunately, the House of Representatives passed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization bill on Thursday, May 22, 2014, just weeks after the QDR was published barring the DOD from using any funds toward the assessment or mitigation of climate change implications on military operations.
So yes, climate change is a thing. The DOD runs the largest global operation in the world, and they know climate change is real and its impacts require planning. Politically speaking, representatives may have the luxury of denying action or funding around climate change, but as emergency managers we must look at the science and determine what makes the most sense for the populations we serve. After all, storms do not wait for elections nor only impact opposing constituents.
What are the facts? Lucien Canton, a veteran emergency manager, recently wrote an article for the Emergency Management Magazine Blogs, saying, “…there is no question that the world is experiencing unusual and extreme weather patterns. As emergency managers, we need to divorce ourselves from partisan discussions on climate change and maintain a risk-based objectivity and commitment to facts.” (Check out Canoton’s blog post here: January 8, 2014: http://www.emergencymgmt.com/emergency-blogs/managing-crisis/Climate-Change-Does-the-Emergency-Manager-Have-a-Role.html) With this in mind, there are two facts we should all be able to agree on, and therefore, a few questions we can answer for ourselves.
Fact 1: the climate is changing. Very few people actually dispute this. Are weather patterns shifting as a result of a natural cycle or because of human activity? – this question may be a source of some contention. But regardless of where you stand on that specific issue, there is no dispute that weather patterns are shifting, becoming more frequent and more severe.
Fact 2: Emergency management planning should always start with an assessment. Think back – when was the last hazard assessment done on your local area? They are time consuming and costly; consequently they do not happen often. But consider this; ten years ago New York City did no planning for tornados. Now the city averages a significant touch down almost annually, there are tornado readiness classes offered by FEMA in the region, and the NYC Office of Emergency Management has included tornados on their city hazards list.
This question was recently posed at an emergency management conference, if weather patterns are constantly shifting, why do we need to adjust our emergency management planning to fit the current change of climate? Don’t we respond regardless? The answer is two-fold:
First, there are four phases in emergency management: Planning, Response, Recovery, and Mitigation (or five phases, if working within the new-school approach that includes a “Prevention” phase). Only one of those phases is focused on response. The planning and mitigation phases are more methodical by necessity. It is in these phases – and even within the recovery phase – that Emergency Managers assess and plan for our response. This requires understanding of local hazards, and working to mitigate their impacts. If the hazards are evolving, so then must everything from funding, to planning, to equipment purchases and staffing.
Second, what we are actually experiencing is a rapid shift in the earth’s climate, brought about by an increase in temperature of the earth’s surface. One result of this change is an increase in extreme weather – not seasonally, but over a long period of time. Climate change as a term represents a shift in climate systems over periods of many decades or longer. So, an abnormally warm summer or a heavier than usual rainy season may not be indicative of climate change. However, a systematic shift in those seasons over the course of several decades – changes like a rise in the number of hurricanes, tornados, heat waves, amount of precipitation per rainfall – is indicative of climate change. A quick review of hazards over the last 10 years compared to the 10 years prior (or even further back if possible), will provide a cursory overview of possible changes in a region, and would indicate if a new hazard assessment should be conducted.
How do I get educated on Climate Change? The answer here is simple, read. There are a number of current reports that are very informative. The data for this paper comes primarily from the following sources:
The National Climate Assessment (2014)
The Quadrennial Defense Review (2014)
The Progress Report of the Interagency Climate Change Adaption Task Force (2010)
America’s Climate Choices Series (2014)
Climate Change Evidence & Causes from the Royal Society and U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2013)
All of these reports provide scientific conclusions and suggestions in the closing. That being said, the data is the data. Weed through the political edges and find the facts – this is very challenging as every report has an agenda and every author has an opinion (including this one).
It goes without saying a Google search will yield you a host of web sites from private blogs, to the science community, to the government. Here are a few that provide great and usable data and represent a cross section of opinions:
- WRI.org (the World Resource Institute)
The National Climate Assessment 2014 has an interactive web site with a region by region breakdown tool of current status and possible impacts. (Look up your Region here: http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/highlights#submenu-highlights-regions) Start by looking at your state and region, then maybe the country; but remember the data is global. Scientists are talking about the world, even if your concern is just the 49,000 people in Gilroy, California. It is the job of Emergency Management to bring the data home and make it relevant locally.
What actions can I take right now? There is an endless supply of information about climate change and it is up to each of us to determine how we apply it to our day-to-day practice. The first recommendation is to get educated. Agree or disagree with your local politicians, but as an emergency manager you need to be educated. Here are a few initiatives you could apply in your emergency management office right away:
- Revisit your hazard assessment. Recognizing that these assessments take resources, time and money that most local emergency management agencies just don’t have, perhaps just review the severe weather responses coordinated by your local agency over the last 20 years. Ask yourself, have you planned for the events you are coordinating most often?
- Do a plan review. Take a look at the plans you are using. When was the last time they were updated? Do the responses, checklists, and stakeholders still make sense? When was the last time you trained them out?
- Take a look at your budget. When planning we often forget to review our budgets – especially for those line items that seem to be static year in and year out. Look at the equipment you are purchasing; have you had what is needed for the last several events? Are you purchasing additional generators in the summer, or are running out of salt in the winter?
- Develop your staff. Take a hard look at your current staffing. Do they have the education and training needed? Do they understand evolving hazards and know the communities those hazards threaten?
- Be open to information from a variety of sources. Because the impacts and outcomes of climate change are still a matter of discussion, you will need to hear information, compare it to data you already know, and constantly evolve a list of facts that are relevant to you. Additionally, being open to new information serves as a great example to those who work with and for you.
Since we started perfecting the use of machines during the Industrial Revolution of the late 1700’s through the 1800’s, humans have been leaving an indelible footprint on the earth. As impactful as that impression has been, no impact has been greater than that seen just since the 1970s – just in the last 40 to 50 years. As technology advances and the population of the world grows, so too does our impact on the planet. We share the outcomes of that impact globally.
Emergency management is a challenging field. Our job is to plan for scenarios that people do not want to think about, using projections and data not everyone agrees on. We do not have the luxury of engaging in arguments about the finer points of climate change, and waiting for an outcome and agenda that suits everyone. Our job is to prepare our populations for the inevitable shifts in weather patterns, severe storms and a host of other hazards yet to be determined, regardless of the political landscape. If those who would lead us do not give clear direction, it is incumbent upon each of us to get the information and educate ourselves.
This is a call to action, for emergency managers to proactively reassess their hazards, review their plans, and revisit their needs and resources. Start a new conversation with the communities in your purview; get them involved in their preparedness by educating them on the evolving hazardscape, and holding open discussions on the impacts of climate change.
At the end of the day, we must do what we have always done – follow through on our own research, plan for the risks, and educate our populations. Only then can we truly prepare our communities and champion readiness.
Post Script: A complete list of references and links can be found on the EMMP web site under Climate Change.