Climate

Former FEMA Director Who Oversaw Katrina Does Not Accept Sea Level Rise

CREDIT: AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta

Former FEMA director Michael Brown testifies on Capitol Hill in this May 18, 2005 file photo.

Michael D. Brown, the former Federal Emergency Management Agency director who resigned in disgrace after criticisms of how he handled the storm, is also a climate change science denier, particularly on the idea that seems most relevant to his former profession: sea level rise.

In a longer interview with ThinkProgress about his post-Katrina life, Brown got into his controversial stance on climate change — namely, his opinion that it’s not a human-caused problem, or a big deal.

Brown isn’t so different from a lot of conservatives who deny the science of climate change. But as the former director of the agency that manages natural disasters, his position on the issue is notable. He also still gives speeches on emergency preparedness, and sometimes appears on Fox News to criticize FEMA policies. He might, then, at least acknowledge that some natural disasters — flooding, drought, and wildfires, for example — would get worse because of climate change, because those would undoubtedly place a strain on emergency response.

Brown did concede that the climate was changing. But he wouldn’t acknowledge that humans had much to do with it. “I believe that any effect that man has on climate is de minimus,” he said. “But I do believe that as the climate changes — which it invariably will — that we learn how to mitigate against climate change.”

This rhetoric is sort of a trend among conservatives right now. It’s become obviously ridiculous to say that climate change isn’t happening at all (even though there are a few high-profile politicians who still do it). Instead, the cool thing now is to acknowledge things like our warming oceans, sea level rise, more intense droughts — but doubt how much carbon emissions play a role. That way, politicians can say they have solutions to climate change, but only in the form of adaptation to those effects. No efforts, however, to stop those effects from happening.

Brown isn’t a politician. Even if he were still director of FEMA, it wouldn’t much matter where he stood on reducing carbon emissions, so long as he acknowledged that the risks of natural disasters were increasing. That would seem to be the prudent thing to do as the director of the federal government’s disaster preparedness agency.

But in the ThinkProgress interview, Brown actually did doubt some of the data that says disaster risk is increasing — namely, sea level rise. The way Brown sees it, the sea levels will not rise the way scientists predict they will. This is partially proven, he said, by the fact that people are still buying and developing big properties on the more vulnerable areas of the East Coast. If Brown could be convinced that sea levels were rising, though, he did said he would support adaptation measures.

“I suppose — and I don’t believe this — that if sea levels are rising, instead of lowering the sea level … we ought to figure out ways to mitigate and build better structures that will mitigate the effects of rising sea levels,” he said.

Empirical data put together by researchers from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The UNESCO Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, and Australian National University among others have shown a steady rising of the sea. How badly this sea level rise will accelerate depends on the pace of certain ice melt. Right now, solely with the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, global sea levels could rise four feet within the next 200 years or so. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has high confidence in projections of increasing Greenland surface mass loss, and medium confidence in rapid glacier loss, both of which would contribute significantly to sea level rise.

How sea levels have risen since 1870.

How sea levels have risen since 1870.

CREDIT: Church 2008

Brown’s not in charge of FEMA anymore. But he still speaks publicly about emergency management, so his stance on sea level rise is interesting — particularly because of how it’s affected Louisiana. Along with levee construction and oil and gas production, sea level rise has helped the state lose 1,880 square miles of coastline in the last 80 years, according to the National Climate Assessment. Native American tribes there are quickly and abruptly losing their land to the ocean. Much more land is projected to be lost if carbon emissions continue at their current pace.

Brown, however, is not really the one who needs convincing.