P!Npoints: Another Reason Climate Change should Top Lawmakers’ To-do Lists

P!Npoints: Another Reason Climate Change should Top Lawmakers’ To-do Lists
Victor B. Flatt, and Jeffrey Stys explain how global warming impacts storm-zones
and the laws that govern them

Climate change will do more than raise the average temperature of the Earth. The energy added into the climate system will affect weather patterns in many parts of the world. While it is difficult for most climate scientists to specify whether any weather pattern is itself “caused” by climate change, increased violent weather is consistent with climate models. Moreover, there are changes which we know are related to climate alteration that intensify the harm extreme weather systems cause. Thermal expansion is one of the changes that could trigger this result. As the global temperature rises, the world’s oceans will absorb the added heat and expand. This, in turn, causes sea levels to rise.

In the last four years, the western Gulf of Mexico has experienced 4 major hurricanes: Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike. Resulting damages totaled tens of billions of dollars as well as major loss of life. We know storm zones in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana or North and South Carolina will face hurricanes again, and that the sea level rise accompanying climate change will make future storms’ impact on lives, health and property, more pronounced.

While the world is frantically working on policies to lower and mitigate further climate change, it is too late to stop the climate from changing at all. Even if no more greenhouse gases were added to the atmosphere, average worldwide temperature, and thus sea level, will continue to rise for at least forty more years. This means that the world must prepare to deal with increased hurricanes, and other climate change weather damage.

Unfortunately, the policy response to this truth has been lagging. The concept of climate change adaptation has made it onto the national and international climate change agendas, but only in the broadest of terms, namely transferring money to areas damaged by climate change. Indeed, how areas harmed by climate change should be compensated, will be one of the major issues debated at the Copenhagen climate conference this month. But much more is required.

1 Victor B. Flatt is the Tom & Elizabeth Taft Distinguished Professor in Environmental Law and the Director of the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources (CLEAR – www.law.unc.edu/centers/CLEAR) at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Law. Jeffrey Stys is a principal in Strategic Decision Associates, which has worked with CLEAR, the United Way, the City of Houston, the City of Galveston, and CNA on long term disaster recovery projects. (http://sdaconsultants.com/SDA.html)

At the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation and Resources (CLEAR) at the University of North Carolina Law School, one of our main goals is to examine how laws should be altered to more efficiently deal with our future world, a world with a changed climate. At the top of this list is how to deal with weaknesses in our current legal and regulatory systems where extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, are concerned.

From the work of Jeffrey Stys, of Strategic Decision Associates, in managing long term recovery from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike, we have determined what legal changes are needed to make our society more resilient to increased and more severe hurricanes and other violent weather. The most important of these changes is planning for long term disaster recovery before a disaster occurs. We currently have laws (weak though some are) that warn and evacuate individuals before and amidst disasters, and those that encourage mitigating harm during disasters. However, we have no comprehensive, long term recovery plans for impacted zones after natural disasters occur.

Stys has found that non-profits play a key role in disaster response and could greatly benefit from enhanced pre and post planning activities, in conjunction with local emergency management organizations. Recovery systems have to be created and nurtured during times of great upheaval and general confusion. Long term recovery should be systematic in design, with enhanced outcomes resulting from real collaboration from all stakeholders. These collaborations are not easy to create or sustain after a disaster has occurred, but they are also difficult to engage before disasters without focus and funding.

Non-profits often take leadership roles in long term recovery by assisting families in repairing homes and rebuilding lives. Human needs greatly increase after disasters and, and this is when non profits focus on meeting existing and new, storm-related needs. The focus on meeting immediate human needs means planning often falls by the wayside. In all recovery work, there are additional, supportive components of research, communications, financial management and advocacy. Using a common framework to identify necessary capabilities and key organizational responsibilities could greatly support community resiliency post disaster.

These experiences call for a way to assist local communities in planning for what happens after a disaster. The planning must be at a local level and involve multiple stakeholders. In particular, the important role and experience of non-profits must be merged with government and private sector groups. One (federal) size will not fit all, but neither will most cities and towns have access to the resources necessary to undertake the planning that answers:

  • How and whether a locality should rebuild
  • Who needs help
  • What legal waivers must be granted to start the recovery
  • How services will be provided in the interim
  • How money gets transferred in an orderly and yet speedy way, etc.

CLEAR believes that federal laws could be created to direct funding to those states and localities engaged in best practices that assist with long term recovery. These best practices entail engaging different communities, historic responders, human service providers, and government agencies in community-wide planning to create a vision of what the locality should look like after a disaster. Such planning would also address:

  • Where a community should focus resources
  • Where funding will come from in an altered tax base
  • Who will need immediate assistance
  • Who will need long term assistance
  • How services will be provided
  • What construction and land-use policies may be put in place, and
  • A general path for the recovery process

It could also include requirements to minimize harm going forward, and would facilitate recoveries that are environmentally friendly, efficient, and don’t have a disproportionate impact on any one community or economic strata.