Climate Policy Rollbacks Create Disasters, Not Jobs

President Trump claimed that last week’s Executive Order rolling back climate progress will create jobs for coal miners, but what it really creates is more flooding for coastal communities and river towns, more drought for farmers, forest pest infestations, and bigger wildfires out West — all of which will have dramatically rising disaster costs and wildlife impacts.

The order risks irreversible damage to communities and sensitive wildlife habitats by rolling back the President’s Climate Action Plan of 2013, the 2013 Executive Order Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change, as well as numerous measures to block progress on carbon pollution reductions, like cancelling the Clean Power Plan.

We need to give serious thought to the broader societal, environmental, and economic impacts of retreating to the dark ages of coal dependency. We can no longer afford to ignore the costs of burning coal to a broad swath of society, human health and safety, and the ecosystems we depend on. Unchecked greenhouse gas emissions are already driving us towards greater climate extremes.

We especially can’t afford to toss out important, science-based disaster prevention measures that give thoughtful consideration to the role that nature plays in protecting us and nature-based economies from the growing hazards of climate change.

The (now revoked) 2013 Executive Order “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change” called for risk-informed decision-making and preparedness planning, and underscored the importance of making watersheds, natural resources, and the communities and economies that depend on them more resilient to a changing climate. It also recognized the important role that ecosystems play as “natural infrastructure” that meets both the goals of greater climate resilience and carbon sequestration.

Hurricane Joaquin dumped 2 feet of rain on South Carolina in 24 hours. Photo by NOAA
Hurricane Joaquin dumped 2 feet of rain on South Carolina in 24 hours. Photo by NOAA

The (now rescinded) Climate Action Plan rightly recognized that “ecosystems are critical to our nation’s economy and the lives and health of our citizens. These natural resources can also help ameliorate the impacts of climate change, if they are properly protected.” It also sought to “improve our natural defenses against extreme weather, protect biodiversity, and conserve natural resources in the face of a changing climate, and manage our public lands and natural systems to store more carbon.” Sounds like a triple win for communities, businesses, and wildlife.

It is therefore unfathomable that our country’s new leadership would intentionally put our communities, economies, and natural resources onto a collision course with costly, even deadly, disaster.

Climate Change Threatens the Bottom Line

A report entitled Risky Business crunched the numbers around near-term consequences of climate change for our country’s bottom line over the next 15 years. Among other things, analysts found that sea level rise, combined with storm surge, is likely to increase the average annual cost of coastal storms by $2 billion to $3.5 billion, and they projected significant crop yield losses in the Midwest and Southeast for corn, wheat, soy and cotton growers, without adaptation measures.

Across the country and globally, communities are already suffering from climate change impacts, most notably precipitation extremes ranging from devastating drought to epic flooding, driven by rising global temperatures. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported 15 weather and climate related disasters exceeding a billion dollars in damages in 2015 alone. This is just a sampling of what is to come this century as we continue down the disastrous path to a high emissions scenario.

Climate Risks Are Real

Over the past decade, California’s precipitation pendulum has swung from extreme drought to torrential rainfall, with flooding that recently brought Oroville Dam spillway to near failure, forcing emergency evacuation of 188,000 people. A failure of this one reservoir could be catastrophic for communities and habitats downstream and devastate the state’s water supply, forcing agriculture and southern California cities into an even deeper water crisis. Even short of complete failure, the flooding and subsequent fluctuating water levels have caused major erosion and damages for farmers and natural areas downstream from the reservoir.

Red Knots depend on Delaware Bay beaches that are vulnerable to coastal storms, sea level rise, and erosion. Photo by Dick Daniels.
Red Knots depend on Delaware Bay beaches that are vulnerable to coastal storms, sea level rise, and erosion. Photo by Dick Daniels.

In coastal New Jersey, increasingly heavy downpours combined with high tides and rising seas frequently make getting to work and school in coastal communities not only difficult, but downright hazardous. In early 2016, Winter Storm Jonas brought massive icy winter flooding to southern New Jersey, causing $3 billion in damages from a single storm.

The following summer, in June 2016, downpours devastated 1,200 West Virginia homes, costing 26 lives and washing out bridges and roads along the way. It is downright disingenuous to roll back climate progress in the name of coal mining jobs, when Appalachian communities will increasingly suffer the impacts of climate change, especially since most experts agree that due to market forces, coal mining jobs aren’t coming back in significant numbers.

In late 2016, Hurricane Matthew caused severe damages to Haiti and jeopardized coastal communities all along the Southeastern Atlantic seaboard, causing $64 million in damages to South Carolina. Matthew followed right on the heels of Hurricane Joaquin, which had dumped a historic 1,000 year deluge on South Carolina in 2015 – with over two feet of rain falling in 24 hours in some places, causing an estimated $12 billion in damages.

This has all happened since 2012’s Superstorm Sandy, which exceeded prior worst case scenarios of coastal storm damages to New York and New Jersey. In her wake, Sandy left casualties and economic damages in the hundreds of billions. Sandy also damaged sensitive coastal habitats for wildlife like the Red Knot, a shorebird that depends upon the beaches of Delaware Bay to fuel up along its astonishing long distance migration.

Gambling Away the Future of Coastal Economies

Beyond flooding and torrential downpours, climate change threatens the world’s coral reefs and fisheries, due to rising ocean temperatures and other climate-related dynamics. Coral reefs protect shorelines from storm damages and support an estimated 4,000 species of fish. Globally, they have been estimated to provide $375 billion in goods and services per year. The value of coral reefs to commercial fisheries in the U.S. alone is over $100 million.

This Executive Order points us squarely back onto the path of a high carbon emissions scenario, which means we’re looking at up to 4.5 feet of sea level rise in places like Atlantic City, New Jersey by the end of the century. Sea level rise of that magnitude would drown many of America’s favorite seaside destinations and coastal habitats, seriously impairing robust coastal tourism economies and wildlife habitats.

By setting back greenhouse gas reductions and revoking proactive disaster prevention and climate resilience measures, this order gambles away the future of coastal economies and many other sectors across the continent that depend upon thriving ecosystems — from fisheries to farming to forestry — while putting wildlife habitat and human lives at risk.

Obstructing Science Has Real Consequences

Beaches and vegetated dunes are natural defenses for coastal communities and provide wildlife habitat. Photo by Stacy Small-Lorenz
Beaches and vegetated dunes are natural defenses for coastal communities and provide wildlife habitat. Photo by Stacy Small-Lorenz

In addition to setting back progress on carbon pollution reductions, the order makes sweeping rollbacks to science-based policies advancing climate resilience and preparedness. These were important, guiding documents that acknowledged the role natural systems play in ameliorating climate change impacts, in ways that sustain human and wildlife communities.

By rescinding the President’s Climate Action Plan of 2013 and revoking the 2013 Executive Order Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change, this executive order recklessly jeopardizes crucial science-based priorities, including the US Global Change Research Program and the National Fish, Wildlife, and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy.

Obstructing science and revoking climate adaptation and resilience measures intended to protect vulnerable communities from mounting disaster risks jeopardizes fisheries and endangered species, eco-tourism and the outdoor economy, and the very health, safety, and economic security of communities across the country, in red and blue states alike.

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Dr. Stacy Small-Lorenz is a Senior Wildlife Ecologist of Appalachian origin in our National Advocacy Center, Washington, DC and lead author of the NWF report Natural Defenses In Action.