Dollars and cents

The warnings were there in terms that are readily understood – dollars and cents.

The Government Accountability Office reported that the costs to address the effects of extreme weather, fire, and other factors related to climate change are likely to increase beyond the $350 billion spent in the last decade. The independent and nonpartisan congressional agency recommended that the Executive Office of the President “identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses.”

Not long after that fall report, Moody’s Investor Service announced that it is adjusting its criteria to make climate change risk an important factor in weighing the credit worthiness of the cities and states it rates.

If the Trump administration was listening, there’s no sign it’s backed off moves in the opposite direction. The administration appears committed to doing away with an Obama administration requirement that climate change risk be considered for federally funded projects. In December, Trump’s first National Security Strategy did not include climate change as a key threat, as earlier versions had. And the National Defense Strategy, scheduled for release in January, is expected to remove mentions of climate change.

Gary Yohe, an environmental economist at Wesleyan University in Connecticut who has served on the International Panel on Climate Change and on the National Climate Assessment, said he is “not at all” surprised by the findings in the GAO report.

“He does not include projections of future climate in any of his decisions,” Yohe said of President Trump. “So he’s going to make some really big mistakes. He’s going to put infrastructure and rebuild roads in places that have been damaged by extreme weather and it’s going to happen again.”

Yohe joins others saying it’s time to re-think how we assess risk by switching from the common actuarial norm of what’s happened in the past to risk management – assessing future scenarios that include projected climate change effects.

“You don’t protect against the worst possible outcome,” Yohe said. “But you don’t just look at what the median is going to do over the next 20 years. You look at some of the ‘dark tales’ above the median which would cost you much more trouble.”

Trump policies notwithstanding, a number of U.S. towns, cities and whole states are doing just that. When it comes to climate change, they’re sticking with the approach that the public is going to need to pay now or pay later, and it’s a whole lot cheaper to pay now.

The public is going to need to pay now or pay later, and it's a whole lot cheaper to pay now. Click To Tweet

Rhode Island is among those leading the way with that kind of thinking.

Rhode Island–Small state, big changes

This tiny state, with about 420 miles of coastline, is looking down the barrel at an increase of as much as 10 feet of sea-level rise by 2100, according to NOAA 2017 figures, a number that could increase as scientists get a better handle on the impacts melting sea ice will have.

Unlike most other states, Rhode Island is a direct permitting state. That means the state’s Coastal Resources Management Council is the final word on what can go where and in what form for the areas in its jurisdiction. So the CRMC created its own resiliency initiative with the goal of looking into the future to better determine what to allow now.

To that end it has developed Special Area Management Plans – SAMPS – now working on the eighth along the beachfront. The group worked with the University of Rhode Island to develop STORMTOOLS, an online program that shows what storm inundation could do in multiple scenarios, including different levels of sea-level rise.

It also provides a Coastal Environmental Risk Index (CERI) so communities, businesses and anyone else can evaluate future climate risk and make decisions accordingly. That risk, as startling as it appears in maps detailed down to individual lots, may be slightly understated, said Grover Fugate, CRMC executive director, because it doesn’t include effects of wind or damage one structure may cause to another.

The state is implementing final rules that, along with Maryland and Massachusetts, will make it one of three among the nation’s 23 oceanfront states to require that sea-level rise be considered in all or most decisions in coastal management.

A consistent state-wide measure of risk

The cost to develop the Rhode Island systems was less than $500,000, much of which came from Superstorm Sandy funds. “But the cost to the state from a major event is HUGE,” Fugate said.

“What we’re doing is providing a consistent measure of risk across the state and then providing a tool that can be used by municipalities,” he said. “If somebody for instance is considering replacing a school, and they want to keep it out of a storm envelope with sea-level rise, we now have the ability to show them where they can build.”

For major infrastructure such as roads and bridges with long lifespans, Fugate recommends projects look 100 years ahead, and for homes, 30 years, the life of a typical mortgage. Money is part of the reason. Esthetics pushback from neighbors and planners is another.

“You’re determining whether a person’s house is going to survive or not. And in a post-storm situation, if we have information out there that says they should have built to a better standard but you didn’t want to let them because of esthetics, be ready for the lawsuit,” he said. “Secondly, you should be thinking about your tax base. If these homes can survive and have marketable value into the future, that’s your long term tax base.”

STORMTOOLS and risk evaluation also provide the state with a legal safety net said Teresa Crean, a coastal community planner with URI’s Coastal Resources Center who is working with the Beach SAMP designation.

“If you choose to invest in capital properties and you acknowledge some level of coastal risk and a storm comes and wipes you out – it protects the state and municipalities from being sued,” she said. “‘Oh, you didn’t disclose to us what our risk profile was.’ Well with STORMTOOLS, yes we have.”

She cites a recent incident involving the design of a new pedestrian bridge in Providence. STORMTOOLS showed the bridge had been undersized and needed to be redesigned with an additional 18 inches to two feet of clearance.

“There is an argument to be made for getting this into the design phase of projects early so you are minimizing risk and spending public dollars wisely,” she said.

Crean and Fugate said municipalities are interested in using STORMTOOLS for areas outside state jurisdiction – but with limited funds and inexperienced planners, the towns generally are hoping the state will do it for them.

In the meantime the state is also battling the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which, after Sandy hit in 2012, curiously lowered the elevations needed for structures to avoid flood risk in parts of the state.

Instead the state is doing its own flood risk evaluation and mandating elevation requirements based on them.

Fugate said things like this “drive me nuts.”

On climate risk, don't shoot where the target is, shoot 'where it's going to be.' Click To Tweet

“If we don’t figure this out and deal with it, we are dooming ourselves to a very, very bad economic future,” he said. “Skeet shooters don’t shoot where the target is, they shoot where it’s going to be. If we want to hit that target, we need to start shooting where it’s going to be.”

Wenatchee, Washington — 2015 wildfire was ‘tipping point’

It isn’t that Wenatchee, Washington, nestled between the foothills of the Cascade Mountains and the desert in the north/central part of the state, hadn’t experienced wildfires before. But with the June 2015 Sleepy Hollow fire, things changed.

Set by a mentally disturbed individual during a 100-degree-plus heat wave with already dry conditions, it erupted in a firestorm that destroyed 30 homes in one night and sent an ember in to the town’s fruit warehouse district, creating more destruction.

“I think the Sleepy Hollow fire was just the tipping point for our leadership to say we want to put together a comprehensive response,” said Allison Williams, Wenatchee’s executive services director.

So the town went to Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit that specializes in land use planning and has been active in the West helping woodland communities fortify themselves against fires.

Wenatchee had a wildland urban interface code (WUI – pronounced woo-ee), which Headwaters strengthened. They added code to define building materials and worked with the fire district on code enforcement, which in turn was working with plant providers and box stores to provide less flammable vegetation.

Headwaters also navigated overlapping jurisdictions with the county, state, and federal government.

Ray Rasker, an economist and executive director of Headwaters Economics, said cost was a big driver – not climate change. He pointed out that fighting fires of the rate and intensity wildfires have grown to has the potential to wipe out the entire Forest Service budget.

Rasker said people talk about drought, fire suppression tactics that produce fodder for ever-bigger fires, and the continued homebuilding in harm’s way as mountain towns become more desirable for retiring boomers and others and municipalities are eager to have the additional tax base.

“It’s not like the city council in Wenatchee suddenly said ‘Oh my God, climate change; we need to do something about that,'” Rasker said. “What they have responded to is a lot of these communities being hit by fire. Over and over and over they’re getting hit by wildfire and they know it’s costing them a lot of money.”

While wildland fire strategies are town- and state-specific based on the regulatory framework and the specific needs of the area, Rasker pointed to three broad priorities:

  • improving wildland fire fighting capabilities;
  • improving the condition of land using the ecological role of fire; and
  • creating fire-adapted communities that have learned to live with fire.

Areas of remediation include new homes that require flame-retardant materials; specific landscape materials and techniques; risk mapping; and coordination with capital improvement plans. But how those areas are addressed will be based on what any state statutorily allows them to do, and politically what they’re able to do.

“The swath of country where they’d rather not do anything to prepare for wildfire, that’s their choice,” Rasker said. “The tragedy of that is that ultimately it’s paid for by the U.S. taxpayer, but even worse, it’s paid for in terms of firefighter lives.”

But asked how hard it is to convince communities to spend money now to avoid paying to clean up after, Rasker said: “You know what? It’s getting easier and easier.”

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