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FEMA Changes Mean Kentucky Will Have To Address Climate Change Risks

Jake Ryan

Under changes that go into effect next month, Kentucky and every other state will have to assess the risks posed by climate change in its hazard mitigation plan.

Every state is required to submit such a plan to the Federal Emergency Management Agency every five years. And now, for the first time, FEMA has changed its guidelines to require that states don’t just examine and plan for the risks they have faced in the past, but analyze how climate change could affect the severity and frequency of events like flooding, droughts and heat waves.

The agency says preparing for these risks is necessary, as these weather events become more common. NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last month that 2015 was the hottest year on record globally, and extreme heat is affecting more Americans every year. The agency also says flooding is posing an increased risk to human health and the nation’s economy.

States that don’t follow the new requirement won’t be eligible to receive FEMA disaster mitigation funds, which is money the agency gives out to help reduce the risk of natural disasters. This can add up to a large chunk of money for states; in documents FEMA provided to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the agency estimates Kentucky received about $95 million between 1989 and 2012.

One reason FEMA is making the change is economics. States that accurately analyze risks and plan to mitigate them wind up costing less money when disasters hit. The agency estimates that every dollar spent on disaster preparedness saves society an average of $4.

But the new requirement will likely cause consternation is some states with governors who deny either that climate change is happening or that human activity contributes to it.

Depending on how explicitly FEMA will require states to address climate change risks and solutions, the new rule could set off a game of high-stakes chicken. Becky Hammer is a staff attorney with NRDC, which advocated for the rule change.

“It’s possible that a state could assess future probability without, for example, using the words ‘climate change,’ as long as they’re looking at projections of future conditions that could arguably satisfy the FEMA requirement,” she said. “I think it would be very difficult for a state to completely omit any analysis of climate models whatsoever and still comply with the new requirements.”

FEMA says plans will not have to use the term “climate change” but will have to include an analysis of future hazards and changing future conditions.

Exactly how the agency enforces the requirement will be clear later this year, when the first cycle of hazard mitigation updates is due. Kentucky’s plan was last updated in 2013, so the state won’t have to comply with the new requirement until 2018. By then, the state will have the benefit of seeing how others have addressed the issue.

State Hazard Mitigation Director Geni Jo Brawner said the agency is aware of the new requirement.

“We are still in the developmental phases of our next plan update, and we will meet all of the FEMA requirements,” she said. “Now, how are we going to address that right now? We are still discussing that.”

Kentucky's current hazard mitigation plan doesn't include an analysis of the state's climate change vulnerability. Brawner said Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin is not required to sign off on the state’s plan, though it will have to be approved by the Director of Emergency Management. Michael Dossett currently holds that position; he was appointed by former Gov. Steve Beshear in 2014.

A Bevin spokeswoman did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

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