This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard United States Country Manager Nathan Holman
As the climate changes, so does the weather. Flooding, storms, and other extreme events are perhaps the most visceral marker of the danger we face as global average temperature continues to near 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels.
Billion-Dollar Weather Events
Since the start of 2021, the United States’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported eight “billion-dollar” weather events in the country. These are events (floods, drought, tornadoes, etc.) that caused at least $1 billion worth of damage.
The most extreme of these events has arguably been the drought and heatwave across the Pacific Northwest from August of 2020 until summer of 2021. Images of wildfires in California, Oregon, and Washington have captivated the world over the past year. Spurred on by dried vegetation caused by the drought, wildfires continue to cause significant damage throughout California.
Image from KTVU (https://www.ktvu.com/news/california-wildfires-so-far-in-2021-greatly-exceed-2020-levels)
As of July 2021, NOAA reports the following information regarding billion-dollar weather events in 2021:
|1. Western Drought and Heatwave||January to June|
(Wildfires in 2020 reported separately)
|2. Louisiana Flooding and Central Severe Weather||May||$1.3B||5|
|3. Texas and Oklahoma Severe Weather||April||$2.4B||0|
|4. Texas Hailstorms||April||$1.2B||0|
|5. Eastern Severe Weather||March||$1.4B||8|
|6. Southeast Tornadoes and Severe Weather||March||$1.6B||6|
|7. Northwest, Central, Eastern Winter Storm and Cold Wave||February||$20.4B||172|
|8. California Flooding and Severe Weather||January||$1.1B||2|
More information on each of these events can be found here: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/billions/events.
In addition to these billion-dollar events, the country is seeing an increase in the number of severe storms with no sign of slowing. As of August 4, 2021, NOAA had reported five named storms along the Atlantic – setting a new record for this stage in the season. In the last few weeks, Hurricanes Henri and Ida have also caused significant damage along the East Coast.
Current Policies & Preparation
Repeatedly, the country’s lack of preparedness for extreme weather events has made headlines. In February 10 million people were without electricity at the height of widespread power outage caused by winter storms and ill-equipped infrastructure in the South. In Fall of 2020, former President Donald Trump blamed the uncontrollable wildfires on poor forest management, as he denied links between climate change and the fires.
At the federal level, responsibility for extreme weather events lies largely with NOAA. The organization has numerous policies and procedures for dealing with natural disasters and storms. For example, NOAA conducts planning and practice exercises during times of “blue skies” to prepare for real events and brings together decision makers from all levels of government to ensure planning and preparedness in advance of severe conditions. NOAA also monitors and shares environmental information to ensure quick responses and preparation when weather events are appearing. Afterward, NOAA conducts surveys and assessments to assist on-the-ground responders and assess damage. The organization also plays an important role in recovery following natural disasters.
In addition, the federal government provides funding to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help communities prepare for extreme weather. FEMA provides aid and funds to states and local communities through various programs.
President Biden has been active in preparing for and responding to this season’s most significant weather events. In advance of this summer’s Hurricane Henri, President Biden convened a call between himself, State governors throughout the Northeast, the country’s Homeland Security Advisor, and FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell.
Following Hurricane Ida, Biden visited the same Northeastern states, as well as Louisiana, assessing the damage and meeting families who were impacted. There, he spoke about the importance of battling climate change in order to limit these types of disasters.
In early September, Biden approved a disaster declaration for the State of California and ordered federal assistance, shortly before visiting the State to speak again about the impacts of climate change and the importance of preparation for natural disasters.
As America continues to be affected by fires and floods, the Biden Administration has been sending clear signals about its prioritization of climate action as well as preparation for the severe weather events that inevitably flow from it. Going forward, if the government’s policies match the President’s declared interest in these issues, the United States may be able to seriously enhance its ability to adapt to climate change.
Strengthening Policies & Preparation
In May, the federal government announced it would double its funding to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), bringing their total funding to $1 billion. In August, the government increased this commitment and pledged a total of $5 billion toward FEMA. The announcement specifically targeted three programs: (1) Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities (BRIC) (new as of 2020); (2) the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program (HMGP); and (3) Flood Mitigation Assistance (FMA). It remains to be seen whether the additional funding to these programs will be enough to ensure communities are prepared for the ever-increasing occurrence of extreme weather events.
Ultimately, science-based policies are essential in preparing for the effects of climate change. After years of industry-favoring policies, the federal government is now signaling a focus on scientific expertise. Earlier this year, President Biden included NASA in the country’s climate taskforce and secured climate as a key priority for the organization. Looking forward, NASA may play an important role in predicting and preparing for extreme storms and other weather events.
To improve its preparation for severe weather, the United States must continue to prioritize scientific expertise and ensure science-based adaptation policies.
Current ability of the country to adapt to extreme weather conditions it faced in 2021:
Rating: ** Fair
Four Stars (****): Outstanding
Three stars (***): Good
Two stars (**): Fair
One star (*): Unprepared