Putting climate change politics before people

Yesterday was a sad day for common sense in Washington, DC. The House of Representatives approved an amendment [subscription required] by Rep. John Carter (R-Texas) that would keep the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from participating in the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which is helping to ensure that federal agencies are preparing for potential climate change impacts and that they will continue to function smoothly and efficiently in the future.

It’s hard to imagine what Rep. Carter and 241 of his colleagues are thinking. You don’t have to believe in cap and trade or even that climate change is caused by humans to see that temperatures have been rising and extreme storms have become more powerful. You just have to look at the records. It doesn’t take much common sense to realize that it might be a good idea to think about those changes when planning how we’re going to spend taxpayer money. Nor is it a bad idea to talk to other agencies to make sure they’re not duplicating efforts or working at cross purposes.

Representative Carter’s defense is that EPA and NOAA are already working on climate change. To begin, much of EPA’s work on climate is related to mitigation, i.e. reducing carbon pollution. He doesn’t seem to get that distinction. But more importantly, every agency needs to thinking about how future change of any kind will affect their operations. The fact that EPA is thinking about climate change does nothing for DHS. Worse yet, DHS is highly vulnerable to climate change. For goodness’ sake, FEMA is part of DHS, and it administers the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP)! Increased flooding is one of the key impacts of climate change, and if the future looks anything like the floods we’ve seen along the Mississippi River in the past month, there needs to be some serious reflection about how NFIP should change.

House Republicans who made this vote are constantly saying that private enterprise is smarter, more efficient, etc than government.  Well, take a look at just how much further along the private insurance industry is on climate change than the federal government’s subsidized and inefficient flood insurance system under DHS/FEMA.  NFIP has done a poor job keeping up relative to their private sector brethren like Swiss Re, Munich Re, Gen Re, which are the major reinsurers in the globe. All these companies are considering climate change as a risk. But NFIP’s failure in this regard is actually not so much a reflection of the people in the agency but rather the law that they operate under – one imposed by Congress.  Reforms are necessary and they need to include more consideration of climate risk. Failing to consider climate change in NFIP leaves taxpayers vulnerable to HUGE outlays of cash for a system that is in constant default.

With the climate data from the best scientist organizations throughout the world all saying the same thing, it is the height of lunacy to suggest that the risk of catastrophe is zero.  According to the private sector insurers, the risk is actually quite high.  Tying the hands of the agency in charge of this is about as dumb a choice as congress could make. Would private industry bury its head in the sand about science and probabilities of risk? Of course not.  With billions if not trillions of dollars on the line globally, they’d be out of business very quickly if they did that. 

At the same time, the costs of doing better planning and coordination are actually quite low. We’re not talking about implementing a cap and trade system here. It’s just about planning and coordination. The positives far outweigh the negatives unless you’re trying to make a political statement.

This is a particularly disturbing example of putting ideology in front of good policy. Sadly it’s part of a trend that has some members of Congress burying their heads in the sand to prove that they’re the most anti-science of the bunch. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face. Unfortunately the consequences will reach far beyond Representative Carter’s petty actions. It’s hard to see this as anything but cynical politics at its worst, and a case that, with an ounce of foresight, runs counter to the stated goals of lowering the debt and using government resources efficiently. Putting blinders on DHS and keeping them from coordinating with other agencies will not serve the American people or the federal budget well.

For more constructive suggestions on how we can save money while also preparing for climate change, view our brand new report on the topic.

Andrew Fahlund contributed to this blog.