Lawmakers demand answers over FEMA’s omission of climate change from key document

"Did FEMA consult with any scientists or climate experts on the strategic plan?"

Contractors apply a FEMA tarp to a home damaged by Hurricane Maria and without electricity on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Contractors apply a FEMA tarp to a home damaged by Hurricane Maria and without electricity on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. CREDIT: Mario Tama/Getty Images

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) says its decision to omit any mention of climate change from the agency’s strategic plan was essentially an oversight. Lawmakers want to know if any experts were consulted in drawing up the document itself, which is meant to guide the agency’s work over the next four years.

In a letter sent Wednesday to FEMA Director Brock Long, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) asked for more information regarding the agency’s 2018-2022 Strategic Plan. FEMA has come under fire for the document, which did not contain a single reference to climate change despite the agency being responsible for overseeing recovery from hurricanes and wildfires, both of which are being affected more and more by rising temperatures.

Advertisement

“What statistical, scientific, or mathematical analyses were used in formulating the plan?” asked Ellison. “What scientific frameworks were used to identify the strategic goals and strategic objectives?”

“What individuals or offices within FEMA or the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) were involved in the plan?” he continued, going on to inquire about White House involvement as well as any input from outside organizations or other individuals who may have consulted on the document.

“Did FEMA consult with any scientists or climate experts on the strategic plan?” he underscored.

The congressman requested a response to the queries by May 14.

Ellison’s Wednesday letter is the latest move in an ongoing back-and-forth. FEMA released its strategic plan on March 15 with no mention of climate change contained anywhere in the 37-page document. In an initial March 29 letter to FEMA, Ellison queried the agency tasked with coordinating disaster responses and mitigating such occurrences about why references to climate change did not appear in its strategic plan.

Advertisement

“Given the extraordinary devastation caused by natural disasters last year, I was surprised to find that FEMA removed all mentions of climate change from its 2018-2022 Strategic Plan,” Ellison wrote, going on to call the shift “inexplicable” in light of devastating catastrophes linked to climate change in 2017.

“It is puzzling to understand how FEMA could meet the emerging challenges of 21st century disasters while ignoring the mounting evidence of the link between climate change and weather events,” he continued.

FEMA director Long responded on April 12, essentially informing the congressman that the agency had simply forgotten to include any mention of the phenomenon, according to the Huffington Post.

“There was no decision, and no direction, to deliberately avoid or omit any particular term in the writing of the 2018-2022 Strategic Plan,” Long replied to Ellison.

Last year was the most expensive year on record for U.S. natural disasters since the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) first began monitoring such trends in 1980. In 2017, natural disasters racked up $306 billion in costs across the country.

Advertisement

Virtually every region in the United States suffered some form of natural disaster in 2017, ranging from hailstorms and drought in the Midwest to blazing fires on the West Coast. A series of devastating hurricanes also left numerous islands and the Gulf Coast reeling last fall.

Texas is still recovering from Hurricane Harvey and the island of Puerto Rico has endured the longest blackout in U.S. history. Puerto Ricans still do not have full access to electricity or many basic necessities following Hurricane Maria, which struck the island as a Category 4 hurricane on September 20 last year.

Scientists and climate experts have said that hurricanes like Maria and Harvey were likely made worse by climate change. They say warming waters allowed for the storms to gain power quickly, exacerbating the damage they caused. An onslaught of pouring rain, flooding cities, and destroying dams, has also been directly linked to climate change.

“While hurricanes are a natural part of our climate system, recent research suggests that there has been an increase in intense hurricane activity in the North Atlantic since the 1970s,” wrote the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) last December. “In the future, there may not necessarily be more hurricanes, but there will likely be more intense hurricanes that carry higher wind speeds and more precipitation as a result of global warming.”

The White House has downplayed the extent of the damage caused by hurricanes last fall, especially with regards to Puerto Rico. Before a month had even passed after Hurricane Maria, President Trump emphasized that FEMA’s workers could not stay “forever” to help the island recover. Traditionally, parts of the United States far more equipped to deal with hurricanes than Puerto Rico have taken many years to rebound after hurricanes less powerful than Maria.

Advertisement

FEMA has already faced considerable criticism over its handling of post-disaster relief in Puerto Rico. Island residents have slammed FEMA over food shortages as well as back-and-forth over food and water aid, which the agency indicated it would end in January only to walk back that decision after public outcry. In March, Puerto Ricans rallied at FEMA headquarters demanding increased aid to the island and accountability over the agency’s failures.

But the agency does seem to have acknowledged that flooding is a national problem. In April, FEMA asked Congress to make national flood insurance more affordable, addressing a large income gap prevalent in communities vulnerable to flooding. Of those areas in Texas hardest hit by Harvey, upwards of 80 percent of residents lacked flood insurance.

FEMA’s flood insurance request to Congress notably contained no reference to climate change, going only so far as to note that disaster costs are expected to rise in coming years due to “rising natural hazard risk, decaying critical infrastructure, and economic pressures that limit investments in risk resilience.”

Climate change skepticism is a theme which runs deep throughout the Trump administration. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt has repeatedly denied and downplayed climate science, as has Sec. of the Interior Ryan Zinke. Newly-appointed Sec. of State Mike Pompeo has called the Paris climate agreement a “costly burden” and is himself a climate skeptic.

References to climate change have also disappeared from a number of government websites. A report released last month indicated that one EPA website has removed mentions of the phenomenon from its international priorities page. An EPA spokesperson told ThinkProgress at the time that the move was in keeping with “the current administration’s priorities” and that information from prior presidencies is still available through an archive on the website.

Congressional Democrats have also called on the Department of the Interior’s inspector general to look into whether the National Park Service (NPS) has violated its scientific integrity in removing mentions of climate change from a report on sea level rise. Zinke has claimed his department does not change so much as “a comma” in such reports.