President Trump issued an executive order Tuesday that cancels federal climate change risk management strategies — some of which the president himself is using to protect his own business investments.
Trump’s wide-ranging energy and environment directive rolls back Obama administration actions to safeguard federal assets and community infrastructure projects from the impacts of climate change, including skyrocketing rebuilding and repair costs in the face of more extreme weather and sea level rise. The rollbacks come despite proven financial benefits of preparing for climate change.
Meanwhile, the president is taking steps to protect his own business ventures from climate change threats. For example, the Trump hotel and golf course in Ireland has requested a permit to build a seawall to protect it from sea level rise, more extreme storms, and erosion driven by climate change.
“If farmers and resort owners and mayors and naval planners all build with an eye toward how the future might change, then those changes as they arrive won’t be so harmful or expensive,” the conservative Manhattan Institute’s Oren Cass wrote Wednesday in an op-ed for FoxNews.
Many Trump voters supported his candidacy because of their desire to elect a president who would run the government like a business. By asking agencies to cast aside cost-savings and risk management strategies that his own company and other businesses employ, Trump is not meeting this expectation.
In fact, lots of companies recognize the benefits of reducing the risks of devastating and costly climate disasters. Even massive oil companies, including Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, Total S.A., Statoil, and Royal Dutch Shell, are protecting billion-dollar infrastructure assets from rising sea levels, more severe storms and hotter temperatures, even as they publicly downplay the certainty of climate change science.
“American businesses know that profit and protecting the environment go together,” said Nigel Topping, CEO of the We Mean Business coalition. “We ask the U.S. government to reject a false choice between energy independence, job creation, and action on climate change.”
Like many risk management strategies, investing in resilience to climate change pays big dividends. Every $1 invested in disaster risk reduction and community resilience saves $4 in future disaster costs. The insurance company FM Global estimates that businesses that made a $7,400 investment to reduce extreme weather risk ahead of Hurricane Katrina averted an average of $1.5 million in losses. This cost savings was 200 times higher than the initial investment.
The Office of Management and Budget has estimated that climate change will drive up the annual cost of dealing with disasters in coastal areas by $19 billion by 2050 and by $50 billion by 2075.
Since 1980, U.S. communities have been hit by 203 extreme weather and climate disasters that have each caused at least $1 billion in damages. Together, these 203 disasters cost the nation more than $1.1 trillion.
By rolling back progress to reduce the risks and costs of climate change, the Trump administration will likely increase demands for federal disaster assistance, drive up infrastructure maintenance costs for federal, state and local governments, increase household financial instability, and burden private businesses’ bottom lines.
Until now, federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the Department of Interior, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have been taking action to reduce climate change risks to federal assets and communities.
The Department of Defense, for example, is reducing the risks from extreme heat, severe storms, and sea level rise to U.S. troops and military bases by installing flood protections, improving stormwater management, adjusting training schedules and locations, and improving energy efficiency.
After the Northeast suffered catastrophic damage from Superstorm Sandy, the Department of Interior invested $167 million in projects to revitalize communities while protecting them from future storms and sea level rise by restoring badly eroded beaches, removing storm debris, and repairing roads, buildings, and trails. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) provides data on projected sea level rise to help local leaders in coastal communities, such as Tybee Island, Georgia, protect drinking water, homes, and roads from flooding, and to lower flood insurance premiums.
Among the Obama-era climate actions that President Trump revoked is an executive order entitled, “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change.” The order, which came in the wake of Superstorm Sandy in 2012 — a disaster that caused $65 billion in damages and killed 147 people — directed federal agencies to help states, communities, and tribes reduce the risks and costs of climate change.
It also called on agencies to improve their planning to protect federal infrastructure, community development projects, and their own operations, from more extreme weather driven by climate change. Hundreds of billions of dollars in federal assets are located in floodplains or in coastal areas that are threatened by more flooding from rising seas and heavy downpours.
Trump also canceled the Council on Environmental Quality climate change guidance to agencies. The guidance asked federal agencies to consider climate change in their environmental reviews for infrastructure projects — from permitting new pipelines and coal mines to new wind and solar energy projects. The guidance called on federal officials to weigh options to both curb greenhouse gas pollution, and to ensure that infrastructure projects are built to withstand more extreme weather and other climate change effects.
Experts suggest that tearing up the NEPA climate guidance will expose major infrastructure projects to litigation and delays — while also raising the risk that projects will be built without taking climate change into account.
Another now-defunct presidential memorandum from the Obama era called on federal agencies to take coordinated and significant steps to reduce climate change risks to U.S. national security. Cancelling the order will likely increase the risk that more frequent and severe extreme weather events will drive food and water shortages and escalate conflict in volatile regions of the world.
In 2014, the U.S. defense strategy defined climate change as a “threat multiplier,” and an August 2016 National Intelligence Council report concluded that climate change will pose “significant national security challenges for the United States over the next two decades.”
According to national intelligence experts, a growing number of conflict regions around the globe share a common thread: Their economic, political, and social instability is exacerbated by climate change. For example, Syria’s ongoing civil war, which has spawned one of the most severe refugee crises in recent history, started in part due to the impacts of climate change, according to the nonpartisan Center for Climate and Security.
Even current Sec. of Defense Mattis has said climate change “is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today” and that the military should “incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.”
Trump’s executive order made a lot of headlines for encouraging coal production, throwing the Clean Power Plan into jeopardy, and denying climate science. But rolling back this series of orders to build climate resilience and risk reduction into the government’s everyday management will have notable and costly long term impacts on the way the country operates. Infrastructure delays, elevated national security risks, and hefty disaster recovery and rebuilding bills are on the horizon.