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What Happened After Congress Passed a Climate Change Law? Very Little

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has failed to set up a body that would make recommendations on how to deal with rising seas.

Water floods the Plaza Shops in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, on Oct. 30, 2012, New York. FEMA has failed to set up a body that would make recommendations on how to deal with rising seas.(Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Congress did something unusual last year. It passed a bill that acknowledged that sea levels are rising — i.e., that climate change is happening.

The measure in question, buried near the end of a 584-page transportation funding bill, also required some modest action: That the Federal Emergency Management Agency use “the best available climate science” to figure out how the flood insurance program it administers should handle rising seas.

FEMA’s first step was supposed to be to set up an advisory body, the Technical Mapping Advisory Council, that would make recommendations on how the agency could take the effects of climate change into account in its flood insurance maps.

But more than a year later, FEMA hasn’t named a single member to the council. Without any members, it has been unable to meet or make any recommendations. In July, the council missed a deadline set out in the law for submitting written recommendations for how the flood insurance program might deal with future risks related to climate change.

FEMA had developed a charter for the council by the end of August and was in the process of finalizing letters to solicit council members, according to the agency. Dan Watson, the FEMA press secretary, said he was unable to provide more up-to-date information because much of the agency’s staff has been furloughed under the government shutdown.

Few areas of the federal government are more directly affected by climate change than the flood insurance program and its maps, which determine the premiums that 5.6 million American households pay for flood insurance. The program fell deeply into the red after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy last year. It’s currently $25 billion in debt.

Many of the maps are decades out of date and therefore don’t reflect the rise in sea levels since the time they were drawn.

FEMA released a report in June estimating that sea levels will rise an average of four feet by 2100, increasing the portion of the country at high risk of flooding by up to 45 percent. The number of Americans who live in those areas could double by the century’s end, according to the report.

The law requires the council to outline steps for improving the “accuracy, general quality, ease of use, and distribution and dissemination” of the maps. Josh Saks, legislative director for the National Wildlife Federation, which pushed for the legislation, said that might include figuring out how to better take into account the way new development along a river, say, worsens flooding for those who live downstream.

Jimi Grande, the senior vice president for federal and political affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, a lobbying group, said the council would “absolutely” help make the flood maps more accurate.

“We need to know what the risks are to have an intelligent conversation as a country” about development in areas that are vulnerable to flooding, he said.

The measure was part of a broader package of reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program that phased out many of the government subsidies that had kept flood insurance premiums artificially cheap for many homeowners. The full-risk rates phased in for many policyholders on Oct. 1, despite vocal protests against them.

An operational mapping advisory council wouldn’t fix everything that’s wrong with the flood insurance program. As ProPublica has reported, some of the maps FEMA has issued in recent years have been based on outdated, inaccurate data, giving homeowners a misleading impression of flood risk and, in some cases, forcing them to buy insurance when they were not at great risk of flooding.

Taking climate change into account when setting flood insurance rates is also a complex task.

“That’s why we put the council in charge,” said Saks, from the National Wildlife Federation. “I can read the science and say storms are happening more often, and I can read the numbers and see that sea-level rise is happening. But I’m not an actuary, and I don’t know how you then translate that to” setting insurance rates.

The risk-modeling companies that private insurers rely on have struggled to take climate change into account in their models, but they are making progress.

“I wouldn’t be too surprised if within the next five years we could credibly start to incorporate climate change into aspects of the modeling,” said David F. Smith, the vice president of the model development group at Eqecat, a risk-modeling firm.

Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said he wasn’t surprised FEMA had been slow in setting up the council.

“It’s the rule, rather than the exception, that federal agencies miss the rule-making deadlines” set out in laws, he said. “Often they have to be sued to get back on schedule.”

Bruce J Fernandes

Oct. 15, 2013, 4:22 p.m.

Once again ProPublica is injecting its own political agenda into climate change.  The bill passed acknowledged rising sea levels… not rising sea levels aka climate change as your article’s first paragraph starts out.

The Hawaiian will disappear into the ocean over the next many thousand years because of changes…. maybe climate….. but until we get members of the scientific community that are universally trusted for their scientific work without any sense of a political agenda there is going to be skepticism on the part of enough people that any true agenda can never move forward.

When you look at the circus going on in Washington DC does anyone really want to trust anything more to our national government?  Has our national government shown any ability to handle what is on its plate now? 

If government ever wants to show the 50% that has simply lost interest in the ability of government to do anything right.  Instead of taking on more knowing overall government performance is deteriorating perhaps government should focus on its core, do a much better and competent job before asking its people for more responsibility.

The DUTCH have made a lot of low level play grounds and sports courts at a low level… so the flood waters fill them… and later drain.  In NYC… big basement containers could do the same rather than flood stores.

Asking someone to create accurate insurance rates based upon “a congressional acknowledgement” of rising sea levels increasing 4 feet over the next 83 years seems a bit specious. 
Maybe the “Technical Mapping Advisory Council” (at least they gave it a weighty name) should hold off until some legitmate data is presented that can be utilized in projections.  Will it rise suddenly or gradually?  WIll there be impacts at a 1 foot rise, a 2 foot rise ....?  What are they insuring if it is a permanent rise in the oceans.  WIll they put the houses on stilts.  WIll we pay to relocate them. A rising sea level is not an insurable event. A river flooding every 100 years is.  At some point either we relocate New York City or come up with a plan to deal with the rising tide.  Again, not insurance.  My guess is that if the ocean does rise that much, all of the very wealthy folks who have homes right on the beaches will figure out a way for our government to cover their losses at taxpayer expense. 
Leave it to the private sector.  When the pricing of the flood insurance becomes too high or they won’t offer it at all, then we will know there is trouble.  Insurance is designed to cover against events, not gradually changing conditions.  Speaking as someone who lives inland, I do not want to pay for the coastal dwellers losses, same as midwesterners shouldn’t have to pay for California when the earthquakes hit.

“...increasing the portion of the country at high risk of flooding by up to 45 percent.” That number is taken a bit out of context. The 45% part sounds significant and dangerous but the portion of the country that falls into that category is relatively small. Grabbing a random number out of the air, if say, 5% of the country falls into that category, even in a worst case (by the given numbers) scenario, that portion would only increase to 7.25%.

Elmar Veerman

Oct. 16, 2013, 2:18 a.m.

@W. Cherry: Here in the Netherlands we do have areas that are designated for flooding if necessary, but that has nothing to do with sea level. They are used in periods of heavy rain and/or swollen rivers. Coastal defense is something entirely different.
Others: try not to deny the obvious. You have a lot of work to do if you want to avoid the huge damage the combination of sea level rise and storms may cause in the next decades. It will cost billions, but saves much more.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 16, 2013, 7:11 a.m.

How do we handle rising sea levels in a country with the most wealthy people and corporations owning ocean front property?

Two words come to mind here. CARBON TAX.

(Just ask the folks in the Land Down Under how they like it, and how well it works)

Mr. SHAHISLAM

Oct. 16, 2013, 3:28 p.m.

Climate does change human lives but humans’ scientific ideas can’t change climate -period.

Alison Dalton Smith

Oct. 22, 2013, 5:57 p.m.

As Daniel Moynihan said, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion but not their own facts.”

Fact: Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities. (http://climate.nasa.gov/scientific-consensus)

Fact: As the ocean warms, the density decreases and thus even at constant mass the volume of the ocean increases. (IPCC, http://www.ipcc.ch/ipccreports/tar/wg1/411.htm)

Fact: Between 2012 and 1990 human behavior has increased the greenhouse gas warming influence by 32% (AGGI).  (NOAA, http://www.esrl.noaa.gov/gmd/aggi/)

So no, ProPublica is not pushing its own agenda when it states that “rising seas” and “climate change” are one and the same.  The time of burying our heads in the sand and sowing doubt where there is fear is over.

Be Brave.  Join the ranks of rational thinkers.

Bruce J Fernandes

Oct. 22, 2013, 6:12 p.m.

The climate is changing.  What we don’t know and evidently cannot be quantified is what has happened over the past 15 years that has altered the scientific view for which scientists with a political agenda choose to blow off rather than explain.  We also see carbon dioxide emissions being reduced by greater use of natural gas and less use of coal which is happening in the US by private sector initiative; NOT punitive taxes we all know will never be used in any productive manner by the US government.

I would appreciate it if the government would be given sufficient time to completely ruin the healthcare system in the US before they take on the next goal of ruining the entire energy sector here.

We are not Europe.  We are not willing to live in the cracker boxes they call their homes in Europe.  We are not willing to live with utility bills that are thru the roof like in Europe.  We are not willing to sign over our destiny to a distrustful government that has shown time and again an inability to do much of anything right.

Maybe Americans will finally rise against the present path toward socialism once our great healthcare system has been destroyed by the new system which is free healthcare for people of color as a form of reparations.

We all know there are solutions that can be private-sector driven without need for endless taxation.

There is a little known fact that Pelosi asked for a 50 year revenue analysis of the impact on carbon taxes.  She asked for that to be done to see how much revenue would be available for her wet dream programs tilting us to the other side of socialism.  There is no trust in this government to do anything in the direct best interest of the people.  You got healthcare thru and now we are at the beginning of the destruction of that system.  I don’t think the people will give democratic politicians any power to destroy the private sector energy system.

We all know the goal was to get ahold of both at the same time so the democratic party could take over over 25% of the private sector… you got healthcare now leave us alone to learn how to live with the subpar overly expensive healthcare system you created.  Keep your hands off energy because we all know the outcome of that one once put into government’s hands.

John Henry Bicycle Lucas

Oct. 22, 2013, 7:54 p.m.

Bruce, I agree.

Sad part about it is, we already have a “smart grid” in place and up and running. This system will eventually be discovered to be a little more than a “smart grid”.

People are constantly finding ways to live off of the “grid”.

Remember the initiave signed by GHW Bush way back in the 1980’s about R-12 refregerant? Well, now auto shops must have a recycler at a huge cost to recover the replacement for R-12 known as R-134a. OK if shops must have this to recover R-134a, why can anyone go to walmart and buy as much as they have in stock, go outside and dump it into their automobile, and let it leak all they want into the atmosphere? This R-134a is also a greenhouse gas and another replacement for the R-134a is right around the corner at a cost X a factor of 5. Wonder if walmart will sell it, too?

Most of the refregerant winds up in the atmosphere, anyway. R-22 is also used in commercial buildings, but those guys do not haul the recovery machine up 3 flights of stairs.

My opinion it is all a scam, but one thing for sure is, we cannot keep dumping stuff into the atmosphere we cannot breathe.

We cannot mandate one regulation here in our country and the third world nations do as they please. Polutants do not respect borders.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:
After the Flood

After the Flood: The Challenge of Rebuilding as the Climate Changes

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, ProPublica is investigating the response to disasters as the climate changes.

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