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Emergency Managers Warm to the Idea of Climate Change

Climate change is causing the traditionally response-based emergency management community to look to the future.

climate change/California Department of Water Resources
California Department of Water Resources
Whatever its moniker — climate change, global warming, climate crisis or unsubstantiated hype — many scientists and emergency managers have recognized that storms are becoming more intense, and that adapting and planning for more and possibly new weather-related threats needs to be incorporated into preparedness procedures. States have been developing climate action plans and some, like California, are taking it a step further by including climate change in their emergency planning and hazard mitigation plans.
Climate change’s effects can include intensified wildfires, higher sea levels, extreme rainfall, windstorms, diseases spreading to new areas, heat waves and more. From the Australian bushfires in February 2009, when hundreds of fires broke out during record-breaking temperatures, to the May flooding in Tennessee, which was the highest since recordkeeping began there in the 1880s, climate change is appearing in news headlines as reason why the storms are stronger than in the past.
Although climate change may not specifically be identified in emergency preparedness plans, some say it’s an issue that’s being addressed simply because of its nature. The all-hazards emergency management community plans for just that — all types of emergencies, whether manmade or natural. Changing climate and weather patterns automatically lend themselves to increased planning and new mitigation actions. Although scientists and planners have advice for how the changing climate can be included in emergency preparedness, the field is continuing to evolve as more information becomes available and agencies begin developing best practices.
“Emergency managers are generally in the office of police and fire, and they work on the here-and-now and from disaster to disaster, but they can translate these biological issues into their [planning],” said Bob Freitag, director of the Institute for Hazards Mitigation Planning and Research at the University of Washington.

Planning for climate change can mean looking at a state or jurisdiction’s current natural hazards and anticipating which of them will become more extreme in the future. One of the barriers to the new planning considerations is that the future being planned for isn’t likely to be next year, but many years from now. Emergency management also has traditionally been response-based, which can hinder how agencies include climate change in their planning.

Philip Mote, director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute and a professor at Oregon State University’s College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences, explained three ways climate change is affecting or will affect the nation’s communities:

  1. Extreme precipitation will lead to flooding, and “there’s a risk that the past will not be an adequate guide to the future,” Mote said.
  2. Extreme rainfall will increase in the middle and high latitudes. Although there is evidence this will happen, Mote said what jurisdictions in particular will be affected by extreme precipitation can’t be accurately predicted at this time.
  3. Windstorms and hurricanes will be more intense. “I think there’s a general agreement that storms will get somewhat more intense, but not necessarily more frequent nor have geographic expansion,” he said. “So don’t, for instance, expect areas that have never experienced a land-falling hurricane to experience one.”

Shifting Paradigms

Every state and local jurisdiction faces the potential for disasters that are unique to their geography, which makes it difficult to say exactly how climate change should best be incorporated into planning. However, Adaptation Manager Missy Stults with ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability  said although emergency planners may not be purposefully integrating climate change into their plans, they are already dealing with it by default. “What the climate is doing is manifesting itself in weather patterns that are changing,” she said. “They’re getting more intense, more frequent, and emergency response personnel are at the front lines of that.”

Stults believes that climate change be thought about more openly and holistically, which means working with nontraditional stakeholders to “think about the full breadth of what these impacts will mean.” Climate change will impact infrastructure, social situations and public health, to name a few, so all the players need to be included in the planning process, including community and religious organizations.

Including climate change in emergency plans also means changing the historical thought process. “It’s very hard to determine that any single event is tied to climate change, but what we do know is that as the climate changes we’re already seeing impacts, and those impacts are going to get more frequent and potentially more intense,” she said. “For emergency planners and response personnel, it becomes really important to start planning for a changing paradigm. We can’t plan based on historical situations anymore because history is literally being changed.”

Basing plans off of current information will become a new trend in emergency planning. Stults recommends looking at the last few years of data instead of historical trends because events like 100-year floods could become a one-in-10-year storm event — and the new 100-year flood will be significantly more intense.

Planning Heats Up

Proving to be a forward-thinking state, California added climate change to the 2007 version of its Multi-Hazard Mitigation Plan. “It was not until Hurricane Katrina drew the attention of the news media to scientific evidence on intensification of storm events that climate change was recognized as an emergency management topic,” the plan said.

Various directives from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger such as AB 32, which calls for reducing California’s greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020, makes it clear that climate change needed to be addressed in the multihazard plan, according to Ken Topping, the project lead for the California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly) advisory team that helped the state prepare the 2007 mitigation plan, said. Current events  happening at the time also indicated the importance of including climate change in California’s plan, added Mike Boswell, co-director of the project and an assistant professor of City and Regional Planning at Cal Poly.

Although Topping referred to the topic’s inclusion in 2007 as a placeholder for the next version, it included information on several climate-related hazards: avalanches, coastal flooding, erosion and sea-level rise, drought, extreme heat, and severe weather and storms. It also noted that “most hazards aggravated by climate change can be expected to intensify over the long term, but there is a need for near-term action to mitigate certain impacts.”

The plan is updated every three years. For the 2010 update, Boswell said climate change will have a more central focus. “One of the things that we’re adding in is we’ve produced a whole set of reports on the forecasted effects of climate change on the state,” he said. “So we have a lot more science than we did in 2007 to draw on, and we’ll be incorporating that into the report.”

The team studied all the climate-related hazards that were identified in the state plan and drew on science to explain what the potential impacts of climate change are on those hazards. “The state plan isn’t just about Cal EMA [the California Emergency Management Agency] doing hazard mitigation,” Boswell said. “It’s about how do we coordinate and integrate all the efforts of the state agencies that are responsible for hazard mitigation.”

Planning for climate change’s effects will require participation from all the agencies and organizations — governmental and nongovernmental — in a state or jurisdiction, said ICLEI’s Stults. Collaboration is critical because this planning will require a new level of connectedness. For example, the King County (Wash.) Climate Change Response team includes representatives from public health, transportation, environmental services and natural resources, which illustrates how expansive the planning can be.

Mitigating the Risks

When it comes to emergency preparedness, planners determine actions that can be taken to make a disaster’s effects less severe — create evacuation routes, have disaster supply kits on hand, conduct training drills, etc. Mitigating for climate change can be done in the same manner.

“The emergency management community is more used to dealing with the disasters that are present and at the moment,” Topping said, “so the mitigation planning has the basic questions of: Are we there yet? Have we done enough? Are we gaining on the solutions? You never are quite there, and climate change just makes that worse.” He added that this may be a topic people don’t think they need to address at the present moment, but the time to tackle it is now.

According to Topping and Boswell, issues California will face are:

  • Increased wildfire potential in areas that are already susceptible, which will create more response challenges.
  • Flooding due to more intense storms and declining snow pack in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Earlier snowmelt will increase flooding, therefore making flood mitigation more important.
  • Declining water supplies will affect firefighting. “Parts of the state and its communities are going to have to re-engineer their water systems,” Topping said.
  • Sea-level rise will cause communities to determine if they should adapt by withdrawing from areas.

And although reducing emissions of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere sounds like more of a concern for environmental protection agencies, Stults said it will create a win-win situation for everyone. If a government employs energy-efficiency efforts, not only will greenhouse gases be reduced, but the demand on the energy grid will also be lessened. “So if a storm comes through and your grid is shut down, you’re not vulnerable,” she said. “You just increased resilience; you just did both a climate adaptation and a climate mitigation strategy.”

Public Participation

Planning and mitigating for climate change isn’t strictly an activity centered on government. The public can and should be involved, just like it would be when preparing for other disasters. However, one barrier to public (and sometimes government) participation is that climate change is controversial. It’s a contentious issue that’s been debated and will continue to divide skeptics and believers. What people think about climate change is already predetermined, according to Mote from the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute. “They tend to respond by throwing up their hands and saying either, ‘It’s a big problem; I can’t solve it,’ or ‘It’s a load of baloney,’” he said.

Mote said the most efficient way to approach people about climate change is to say: We are paying attention to how risks are changing and planning accordingly. “That’s a fairly safe statement that tends to not raise hackles, and I think that would play well in the sense of showing responsibility without inflaming people,” he said.

The Institute for Hazards Mitigation Planning and Research’s Freitag said actionable change only occurs when a person hears the same information from multiple sources that are credible. With the right messaging, governments could be among those sources. Stults said people are more likely to listen to their local government representatives than scientists.

“They’re much more likely to open the door if the police officer is there and listen to what the officer says than they are to a scientist who is out canvassing about climate change, or even me as maybe their neighbor,” she said. “Local governments have an in; people generally understand that they’re there to serve them and that’s a really unique conduit to having effective change.”

Although it may be 20 or more years until the major impacts of climate change are felt in the U.S., to meet the all-hazards planning approach of emergency management, it’s a topic state and local government officials are addressing today.