U.S. House Targets Early Government Efforts to Help Citizens Prepare for and Cope With Effects of Climate Change

by Robert Verchick

June 22, 2011

Imagine you are building a beach house somewhere on the Gulf Coast and that I had some information about future high tides that would help you build a smarter structure, avoid flood damage, and save money in the long-run. Would you want that information?

Not if you follow the reasoning of Representatives Steve Scalise of Louisiana or John Carter of Texas. Both are concerned about the Obama administration’s recent efforts to make federal programs stronger and more resilient in the face of climate change. Scalise sponsored an amendment (H.AMDT. 467 to H.R. 2112) that prevents the Department of Agriculture (USDA) from pursuing its plan to assess climate vulnerabilities in its programs. Carter did the same (H.AMDT. 378 to H.R. 2017) for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And this month the Republican-led House of Representatives, with little fanfare, passed both initiatives (Scalise roll call, Carter roll call). I doubt either proposal will move past the Senate, but these efforts show how far some in the Republican Party have drifted from the geographic realities of their own states. And they underline the point that in the next election cycle Republicans seem likely to oppose any initiative whatsoever intended to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions or help with adapting to a changed world.

Forgive me for saying so, but our climate is changing. In the last 50 years, the ambient temperature in the United States has risen 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Overall precipitation in that time has increased by 5 percent. The amount of rain falling in the heaviest downpours in the United States has increased an average of 20 percent in the past century. In the last 40 to 50 years, many types of extreme weather events like heat waves and droughts have become more frequent and intense. Coastal storms in the Pacific and Atlantic have also intensified. And in the last half-century, sea level has risen up to 8 inches or more along some areas of the coastal United States. These trends are expected to continue or accelerate into the future. This information and more is available in the 2009 report, "Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States," issued by the U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP), a consortium of thirteen federal agencies and departments. This peer-reviewed survey synthesizes a mountain of direct observations and other data accumulated over the last one hundred years.

Whether you think these climate-related changes are the result of human activity (the scientific consensus), sunspots, age spots, or the Tooth Fairy, these developments command your attention—and the attention of the federal agencies that work for you. 

President Obama’s Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force (on which I once served) is working with agencies like the USDA and DHS to help them reduce new climate-based risks and take advantage of new climate-based opportunities. Efforts like these are particularly important to the country’s southeastern region, which includes Louisiana and parts of Texas. In that region, the USGCRP report predicts “increased illness and death due to greater summer heat stress,” a “[d]ecline in . . . agricultural crop production,” more “fish kills and loss of aquatic species diversity,” a “decline in production of cattle and other rangeland livestock,” and, of course, more intense storms like hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Gustav.

I know what you’re asking: If all this is true, why doesn’t Congress want government agencies to know about these challenges? The answer appears to be that Congressional Republicans think that Americans cannot yet AFFORD to know.

Representative Carter, for instance, says he’s afraid that all this fretting about climate change will divert DHS’s “scarce funds” from more important threats like illegal immigration and "cyber-attacks from Russia and China." Never mind that FEMA, an agency within DHS, has already logged 38 climate-related disasters this year and logged 81 last year (the most since 1953).

Representative Scalise says that USDA’s desire to consider climate effects in farm policy "constitutes a backdoor attempt to implement the Administration's job-killing cap and trade scheme." I’m still not exactly sure what this means, and I’ve watched the video-taped speech. Cap-and-trade is about reducing greenhouse gas emissions, not adapting to an already changing climate. And I can’t think of anything more “job-killing” than encouraging Texas ranchers to double-down on livestock grazing when droughts are on the rise. But Scalise’s idea seems to be that having more knowledge about climate-change impacts would push us toward unaffordable policy, so we’re better off staying in the dark.

As an educator, it’s hard for me to accept the idea that knowing less is good and knowing more is bad. But then Capitol Hill can be a strange place. Still, if I were building a house on the beach I think I’d want to know more about dangerous tides, not less. A flood of information would be the least of my worries.

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Robert R.M. Verchick holds the Gauthier ~ St. Martin Eminent Scholar Chair in Environmental Law at Loyola University, New Orleans, is the Faculty Director of the Center for Environmental Law at Loyola, and is a Senior Fellow in Disaster Resilience Leadership, Tulane University. He is the President of the Center for Progressive Reform.

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