Every summer extreme weather events like heat waves, droughts, and wildfires harm communities across Texas. Due to climate change, many of these events are becoming even more severe and are happening with greater frequency.
Yet the official document guiding how the State of Texas reduces risks from natural disasters – the state’s Hazard Mitigation Plan – scarcely considers the impacts of climate change.
This is a costly and dangerous oversight. It’s one that has the potential to disrupt the state’s economy, threaten livelihoods, and endanger the health of citizens. With the Texas hazard plan currently under review by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for the first time in three years, we hope you will bring this oversight to the attention of Texans.
Texas plays a central role in developing its own hazard plan. But ultimately, it’s FEMA’s responsibility to ensure the state puts in place a plan that takes into account ALL the local dangers – including climate change – Texans see in their own backyards.
The last two years – 2011 and 2012 – were the hottest in Texas since record-keeping began more than a century ago. Across the state, Texans didn’t simply just sweat it out – they also worried about their livelihoods, their homes, and their health.
For example, Texas farms and ranches experienced devastating financial losses. In 2012, agricultural losses due to drought and heat waves in Texas topped $7 billion, and the Lone Star State’s storied cattle herd dropped by 600,000 cows – a 12- to 15-percent drop that has affected the economics of the livestock industry.
Extreme heat waves and droughts also heighten wildfire risks. In the past 25 years, 18 separate wildfires each have burned more than 50,000 acres in Texas. Most of these fires occurred during the 2011 fire season, when almost 4,000 homes were destroyed.
And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, deaths from extreme heat are expected to rise from an annual national average of about 700 now, to between 3,000 and 5,000 by 2050.
Federal grants designed to prepare for such disasters are made available to states that submit Hazard Mitigation Plans to FEMA. The Texas plan FEMA is currently reviewing mentions a long list of weather events, including inland flooding, hurricanes, tropical storms, droughts, fires, and other hazards.
However, climate change is mentioned only a handful of times, and its impacts are only vaguely mentioned in the context of rising sea levels. Climate change is NOT considered for estimating the frequency or the severity of the multitude of other natural disasters that are affected by climate change and that Texans regularly experience – including ruinous droughts, raging wildfires that in an instant uproot families, and deadly heat waves.
Make no mistake: Texas can and should improve its planning. The state should include climate change projections in the risk assessments and hazard profiles for flooding, tropical storms, hurricanes, droughts, wildfires, and extreme heat. The state should also better identify its vulnerabilities to climate change’s impacts, bolster public education efforts, and ensure that building codes and standards are designed to withstand more frequent and more severe natural disasters.
If climate change is not adequately integrated into the Texas plan under review, FEMA must use its authority under the Stafford Act to reject it. To rubberstamp preparations that all but ignore climate change would be needlessly exposing every corner of Texas – not just the seacoasts – to dangers and losses associated with climate change.
Addressing climate change head-on is smart, commonsense planning. It makes our communities and our economies more resilient. It protects our public health. It safeguards our property. And it reduces costs to taxpayers in Texas and beyond – in fact, the federal government found that for every $1 it spends on hazard mitigation, preparation, and planning, the nation gets $4 in benefits.
The Hazard Mitigation Plan in Texas can and should be improved. FEMA has the responsibility and the authority to make this happen. Now is the time to do it.