Climate-Related Catastrophes Require Proactive Solutions and Preparation

Evan Isaacson

Aug. 10, 2016

Two people died on July 30 after a 1,000-year storm brought devastating flooding to the lovely and historic Ellicott City, Maryland, just outside of Baltimore. The 6.5 inches of rain that fell over the course of a few hours damaged or destroyed more than 150 vehicles and scores of buildings, and forced the rescue of dozens of people. It also sent more than 5 million gallons of sewage per day from several different sites into the Patuxent River and out to the Chesapeake Bay.

It didn't take long for a public official to ask if this tragedy was caused by climate change. I'll leave that question alone and let the scientists who study this sort of thing determine which specific weather-related disasters are most likely to be linked to climate change. But I'll raise a different question more specifically tied to the Ellicott City flood: at what point are state and local governments responsible for protecting our communities from the changes that are already happening?

Preventing or mitigating climate change is a problem of global proportions. There are certainly actions that states, cities, and counties ought to take to avoid further climate-related damage, but their failure to act usually does not directly and immediately result in harm to their own communities. However, it is squarely on the shoulders of our state and local officials to work together with residents to do everything they can to plan and prepare for threats, including adapting to specific, known risks to their communities from a changing climate.

Recently, I spent time reading through documents produced by state and federal scientists that identified and prioritized the climate-associated risks facing the Mid-Atlantic states and municipalities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Commonly cited impacts include things like increasing temperature (including water temperature), rising sea levels, and acidification of water – the sorts of impacts that can generally be expected globally. But one impact that is relatively acute in this region and comes with more severe hazards for people, property, and water quality is a significant change in precipitation. Historic data and modelled projections show that the Bay region will continue to face an increase in precipitation and, more importantly, a significant increase in storm intensity and a greater frequency in "off the charts" storm events like central Maryland experienced again in late July.

And while scientists continue to study the risk profile of climate change for various regions around the country, some government officials and academics have already been hard at work advising state and local policymakers of the options available to create more adaptive and resilient communities. For example, the top priorities of the Climate Resiliency workgroup of the Chesapeake Bay Program include not just studying, forecasting, and accounting for various climate-related impacts, but also determining how to promote policies that protect communities from these impacts. Among the many available options, two stand out: (1) incorporating the best available scientific estimates into all relevant planning and development documents; and (2) proactively creating more resilient communities.

Climate adaptation and resilience planning are really nothing new. Such planning efforts have been underway for years at various federal agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Transportation. At the state and local levels, many agencies and even some dedicated commissions have been tasked with devising locally relevant policy recommendations and adaptation plans specific to their jurisdictions. Their proposals include things like ensuring building codes and state procurement and capital project plans are designed for the climate of the future, conducting risk assessments about where to build and where not to (some policymakers are already asking questions about how to rebuild Ellicott City), and ensuring that new or redesigned infrastructure can handle precipitation events and storm flows for the climate of today and tomorrow, not the climate of yesterday.

In addition to these long-term preparedness plans, there are more immediate actions that local governments can take now to create a more resilient urban landscape. For example, Maryland's Department of the Environment has been promoting (and requiring through permit conditions) county efforts to reduce stormwater flows from streets, parking lots, roofs, and other impervious surfaces for more than a decade. Re-engineering our urban landscape to absorb rainfall in the same way as forests and natural landscapes through the funding of green infrastructure projects is one such solution. The federal EPA has more information on how local governments can take tangible and meaningful action now to incorporate climate adaptation activities through their stormwater management programs.

What is more important than the specific suite of policy actions that state and local governments choose is the speed with which they move. Plans today are only given effect years down the road, and building a meaningful number of climate resilience-based capital projects could take decades. As noted, scientists and planners have a good and ever-improving grasp of the local impacts of a changing global climate and how communities can prepare for them, and so policymakers have no shortage of available information. They simply need to act, and to do so now.

As we saw in late July, these 100-year, 500-year, and even 1,000-year storms seem to be happening far more frequently than their names suggest. If state and local officials choose to do nothing as the world around them changes, then they ought to be held responsible and accountable.

One final note – this post discusses responsibility and culpability in the broadest sense, but responsibility and accountability are just two of many facets of the growing body of law around climate adaptation. This is one of the most active areas of legal scholarship and policy advocacy being undertaken by Center for Progressive Reform Member Scholars and staff. Stay tuned for much more on the cutting edge of climate adaptation law and policy.

Read More by Evan Isaacson
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