The other Congress: an eye on natural hazards, and looking to adapt to climate change

Americans might be forgiven for thinking that Congress is “all-debt-ceiling,-all-the-time.”

But thankfully, even Thursday, July 28 of all days, there’s evidence that Congress is tending to the rest of the Nation’s business. Over at the House of Representatives, the morning featured a well-attended briefing put on by the National Mitigation Alliance. And what an Alliance it is! More than a dozen organizations already belong; others are joining. The morning’s speakers included a policy official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) – a federal agency; the National Emergency Managers Association (NEMA) – whose members are the heads of state-government emergency management agencies; the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), and the Natural Hazard Mitigation Association (NHMA) – a society comprising professionals from every aspect of hazard mitigation, including government employees and academics as well as private-sector members.  

What were they briefing?

A white paper recommending a national (not a federal) mitigation effort – an effort to reduce the impacts of natural hazards before they happen. Putting policy emphasis on land use (specifically refusing the temptation to build in riverine and coastal floodplains) and on construction practice as opposed to improving emergency response and recovery. Though the four speakers came from different perspectives, they put out a common message – that mitigation represents a societal investment, not a sunk cost. It:

-          Reduces fatalities and injuries

-          Minimizes property loss and business disruption

-          Cuts the amount needed to be set aside for emergency response and recovery

-          Speeds recovery from those disasters that still occur

The four speakers spoke to the importance of policies, collaborations and partnerships. But in addition to these generalities, they also got down to brass tacks. They spoke of safe rooms for providing families life-saving protection against tornadoes. They showed homes on stilts. They discussed buyouts of floodplains properties and restoration of such sites to their natural state. They produced extensive documentation of success stories, coming from across the United States.

Fast forward to the afternoon, and shift attention to the other chamber. Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL), chair of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, convened a hearing on federal disaster assistance budgeting. Ranking member Jerry Moran (R-KS) was also present. Durbin’s thesis? That the private sector, namely the insurance industry and the reinsurance industry, were doing a good job of risk management. Why? Because their assessments allowed for the possibility that social trends and climate nonstationarity might be altering the actuarial risk of floods, drought, wildfire, hurricanes, tornadoes and other threats. By contrast, in his view government agencies were failing to take any climate variability and change into account. He thought that as a result government might be underestimating future losses. So, he brought in a few witnesses to help him think through this matter. Three came from government: a representative of the Government Accountability Office, another from the Small Business Administration, and a third from NOAA. Durbin also invited a distinguished climatologist from the University of Illinois, and the President of the Reinsurance Association of America. You can see the webcast here.

The discussion was thoughtful, measured, nuanced. The experts, including the Senator, agreed that the profile of disaster losses was changing…that population increase and migration to hazardous areas had a lot to do with those changes…that the insurance and reinsurance companies were indeed factoring these changes into their risk assessments, but that the agencies were for the most part basing their analyses on the past history as opposed to future projections. The Senator allowed for the possibility that some might not think climate change was real but that he did. He concluded by saying that a number of folks on the Hill had concluded the subject was simply too toxic. They set it aside. He thought that was a mistake. So he’d put together this hearing.

It was a breath of fresh air.

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One Response to The other Congress: an eye on natural hazards, and looking to adapt to climate change

  1. saroj kanta nayak says:

    It’s really a breath of fresh air

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