Minimizing the Costs of Extreme Weather

To see the economic costs of extreme weather you don’t have to look all the way to Russia where last summer’s heat wave caused extensive wildfires and crop losses roiled world markets for wheat.   Nor do you have to look as far as Europe where in the summer of 2003, a 1-in-500 year heat wave caused at least 35,000 premature deaths.  No, extreme weather events have recently occurred within the United States. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, extensive flooding in the region in 2008 caused damage estimates of $8-10 billion. In Nashville, Tennessee, in May 2010, a 1-in-1000 year storm caused floods resulting in more than $3 billion in damage.  

Whether you think these are just isolated incidents or are part of the emerging pattern of climate change, there is one thing we can all agree on. These events result in significant economic loss and to the extent we can build greater resilience into our economy to minimize losses from extreme weather, we will all be better off.

The good news is that over a dozen states and many more localities have already beginning to plan for more climate-resilient communities. This week the federal government took a giant step forward in leading this effort. Last Friday, the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) announced Implementing Instructions for all federal agencies to use in taking common sense steps to making their programs and assets more resilient to climate change.

Anybody who is concerned about the federal government making the wisest use of its limited resources should applaud this announcement. What types of actions will be required by agencies? The Department of Defense, for example, would begin to consider the impact of rising sea levels in planning the future design and use of  properties it owns in low-lying coastal areas. In planning major water projects, the US Army Corp of Engineers would begin to consider how future changes in water availability will affect how it designs and where it locates future projects. The Dept. of Health and Human Services would begin to consider if communities have adequate plans for dealing with public health emergencies related to heat waves. The Department of Transportation would consider future changes in sea level when designing and locating new transportation infrastructure.

CEQ’s guidance requires each agency to phase-in efforts by first developing broad polices and goals. It then requires that agencies undertake vulnerability assessments to determine where significant risks exist,  identify a number small number of priority actions that should be undertaken this fiscal year, and develop a more detailed adaptation action plan for FY2013. Ther guidance is careful not to call for establishing new programs, but instead urges agencies to modify how they currently do business under existing programs to more carefully consider the risks of climate change. 

Many of the agencies are well along in doing exactly this and the CEQ guidance was developed by an interagency task force of those leading their agencies’ efforts. The CEQ guidance was issued under the E.O. 13514, which requires agency to also begin actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions under the broader framework of enhanced sustainability.

We have recently completed two reports that address the role of federal adaptation. Adapting to Climate Change: A Call for Federal Action recommends actions the federal government can take to “mainstream” adaptation across programs. Climate Change Adaptation: What Federal Agencies are Doing is a resource documenting adaptation activities within each federal agency. We also recently organized a workshop highlighting leading federal adaptation activities and updated its Adaptation 101 Report.   

While political battles continue to be fought over efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, one hopes that the steady stream of extreme weather events around the world provides clear enough evidence of the importance of beginning now to build an economy that is more resilient to such conditions. 

Steve Seidel is Vice President for Policy Analysis