“The Climate Change Challenge:  An Update from Washington” – Christina DeConcini, World Resources Institute

ELPR 2014 - PICTURE 6Ms. DeConcini is the Director of Government Affairs for the World Resources Institute (WRI).  WRI is an environmental think tank with its majority of work in developing countries, but also does work in climate change and sea level rise in the US as well.

 

Ms. DeConcini started out her presentation by touching on a few key items discussed during Friday’s session.  She stressed that while 1/3 of the United States is having an unusually cold weather this winter, it is all about trends and not single events or seasons.  To this she added the facts that the U.S. has had 346 consecutive months hotter than the 20th century average and this is the 37th consecutive year with temperatures above the global average.  These trends in global warming have had substantial and disastrous consequences.  Since 1980, $1 trillion have been spent in post-climate disaster clean-up efforts.  With 1 billion people worldwide living in at risk low-lying coastal communities, the potential for increased damages is likely.  Closer to home, the Hampton Roads area of Virginia has the highest sea level rise on the east coast and is second only to New Orleans in population size located in areas at risk to sea level rise.  She added that almost every military facility in Eastern Virginia is threatened by sea level rise, including the world’s largest naval base and home to the Atlantic Fleets aircraft carriers.

 

Ms. DeConcini then shifted to her discussion by starting the fact that sea-level rise is no longer an issue of whether it is happening, but rather what can and should be done about it.  She proceeded to give some examples of local initiatives intended to address this concern.  While the federal government has been slow to initiate sea level rise based programs, local communities that are faced with the issue head on have been more proactive.  For example, Miami Beach is spending an estimated $206 million to renovate their storm water drainage system to help mitigate anticipated flooding associated with projected long-term sea level rise.  It is a settled issue that investment in community resilience abates post storm event damages in a 1 to 4 ration.  Essentially, for every $1 that is spent on community resilience based projects there is a realized $4 savings in post storm clean up.  With this fact in hand, it is imperative that more communities follow Miami Beach’s lead and take a proactive approach.

 

The topic turned to the issue of what was happening in Washington concerning sea-level rise and related legislation.  Unfortunately, “gridlock” is the word of the day in regards to federal government sea level rise initiatives.  The fundamental leading cause for this failure to act is the number of Congresspersons who simply refuse to believe that global warming and sea level rise are occurring.  If they do not believe in a serious threat, they are certainly going to approve spending money on mitigating that threat.  One-hundred and nine times Congress voted to undermine environmental initiatives, with a large portion of them related to climate change and sea level rise.  Recently, Congress passed legislation intending to push back the timetable for the implementation of the Biggert-Waters Act.  The Biggert-Waters Act would impose increases in certain flood insurance policies to reflect the actual costs associated with the risks instead of keeping them artificially low.  Additionally, on June 1 EPA is expected to issue carbon pollution standards for existing power plants but it is receiving significant Congressional push back with trade associations working to stop these standards from being enacted.

 

Ms. DeConcini pointed out that while Congress was not currently interested in promoting sea level rise based legislation that the President and Executive Branch was a different story. The President’s Climate Action Plan contains specific details about local initiatives on resilience-based investments.  Included in the plan is a call for a Task Force on Climate Preparedness.  This task force would be comprised of State, Local and Tribal representatives with a goal of providing guidance to the President on local issues and suggested initiatives.   While this is an encouraging step in the right direction, greater level of coordination is needed between executive branch and local governments than in the past.  Federal agencies, in response to Obama’s adaptation initiatives, have been incorporating that into their strategic plans.  For example, some grants from these agencies are specifically aimed at adaptation-based endeavors.  However, concern about the level of federal involvement, including funding, leading to strings and conditions placed on that involvement may potentially lead to blocks on localized adaptive initiatives.

 

Ms. DeConcini commented about how heartened she is to meet law students who are interested in climate change and sea level rise and will dedicate their lives on these issues and speak up for those that do not have a voice.  She used her remaining time to touch on a number of other concerns.  Environmental issues have historically not been partisan- based concerns and there is hope that the current trend will abate.  As an example, England is a conservative government and there environmental issues are not driven by partisan concerns.  As costs of dealing with these issues increase (as most recently seen with Sandy), it will become more and more difficult to continue to ignore them.  She expressed concern about the Investment Tax Credit (ITC) being allowed to expire and the need to stress the connection between ITC and its benefit to renewable energy and climate change as a means of getting it back in action.

 

By: Jim Patterson

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