WASHINGTON – Federal officials showing how fast the Biden administration is revising climate policy after years of denial under former President Donald J. Trump, aim to free up to $ 10 billion to Federal Management Agency emergencies to protect against climate disasters before they strike.
The agency, best known for responding to hurricanes, floods and wildfires, wants to spend the money to preemptively protect itself from damage by building dikes, raising or relocating flood-prone homes, and taking further action as climate change intensifies storms and other natural disasters. .
“It would eclipse all previous grant programs like this,” said Daniel Kaniewski, former FEMA deputy administrator and now managing director of Marsh & McLennan Companies, a consultancy firm.
FEMA’s plan would use a budgeting maneuver to re-use a portion of the agency’s overall disaster spending towards projects designed to protect against damage from climate disasters, according to people familiar with the discussions within the organization. the agency.
Over the past year, FEMA has played a leading role in the fight against Covid-19 – and the agency’s plan is to count Covid spending towards the formula used to redirect money to climate projects. This would allow the Biden administration to rapidly and significantly increase funding for climate resilience without congressional action, generating a windfall that could increase funding six-fold.
Michael M. Grimm, FEMA Acting Deputy Assistant Administrator for Disaster Mitigation, said the agency’s initial estimates suggested up to $ 3.7 billion could be available for the program, called Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities, or BRIC. By comparison, this program has so far only $ 500 million to provide in grants.
More than $ 3.7 billion “may be available,” Grimm said in a statement.
But the amount of new money could potentially reach $ 10 billion, by some estimates, if FEMA also decides to count Covid dollars in a similar fund, the Risk Mitigation Grants Program, designed to help communities rebuild after a disaster. Mr Grimm said the decision to provide this funding has yet to be made.
The proposal would not necessarily reduce the money available to fight Covid, according to people familiar with the plan. Rather, it would give FEMA the ability to leverage additional resilience funds from the government’s dedicated disaster fund, which Congress regularly replenishes once the fund is used up.
FEMA’s plan is expected to be approved by the White House budget office. After Mr Biden’s victory, members of his transition team said they saw the new funding as a way for the new administration to deliver on its pledge to tackle climate change.
White House spokesman Vedant Patel did not respond to requests for comment.
The proposal marks an effort by the Biden administration to address what experts call climate adaptation – an area of climate policy that differs from reducing greenhouse gas emissions and focuses on better protecting people. people, homes and communities from the consequences of global warming. These include more frequent and severe storms, flooding and forest fires, as well as rising waters.
The United States has a mixed record in this regard.
In many coastal states, homebuilding is increasing fastest in areas most prone to flooding, including places that may soon be underwater. And despite strong public support for stricter building codes in high-risk areas, only a third of local jurisdictions have disaster-resistant provisions in their building codes.
In the face of rapidly escalating disaster costs, the Trump administration has taken some steps to make communities more resilient to the effects of climate change, although it has refrained from using the term. FEMA and other agencies have focused more on getting people to move away from vulnerable areas, rather than always paying them to rebuild there. And the agency urged Congress to create the BRIC program to help cities and states improve their preparedness before a disaster, rather than after.
But federal officials were also stymied by Mr. Trump’s insistence that climate change was overkill.
In 2018, when FEMA released its four-year strategic plan to deal with disasters, the words “climate change” were nowhere to be found. Faced year after year with record-breaking California wildfires, Mr Trump said the problem was too many leaves on the forest floor. Saying that rising temperatures are exacerbating the problem, Mr Trump replied, “It’s going to start to get cooler. You just – you just watch.
As a candidate, Mr Biden has pledged to focus on climate adaptation. And on his first day as president, he signed an order imposing higher construction standards for buildings or infrastructure in flood-prone areas that are built with federal money. The order, first imposed by President Barack Obama, was rescinded by Mr. Trump.
Mr Biden’s decision has been hailed by disaster groups. “This action restores forward-looking policy that will help ensure that taxpayer dollars are not washed away by the next flood,” said Forbes Tompkins, who works on federal flood policy with the Pew Charitable Trusts , an advocacy group, in a statement. .
But sending billions of dollars in new money into FEMA disaster programs would go further than simply restoring the coping policies of the Obama era. The BRIC program was created in the aftermath of the brutal disaster season of 2017, when the United States was hit in succession by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as wildfires in California then the worst ever. recorded. Federal disaster spending has skyrocketed.
Months later, federal researchers reported that for every dollar the government spent to protect a community before a disaster, it saved $ 6 later. In 2018, Congress created the program to take advantage of these savings by providing more money up front. The first grants were to be awarded this year.
If the White House Biden approves the plan, it can find allies in Congress, even among Republicans.
Using Covid funds to increase that money has received bipartisan support in Congress in the past. In October, Representative Peter A. DeFazio, Democratic chairman of the House Transport and Infrastructure Committee, which has jurisdiction over FEMA, sent a letter to the agency urging it to use Covid money .
This letter was co-signed by Representative Sam Graves, the committee’s senior Republican. But FEMA was unable to get clearance from the Trump administration’s budget office, according to former officials.
The new money would present challenges, according to people familiar with the program. State and local governments must provide 25% of the cost of all projects, a particularly significant hurdle as the economic downturn from Covid has devastated government budgets. And these officials would have to design projects on a scale large enough to use the new funds.
Still, the additional funding is worth pursuing, said Mr. Kaniewski, the former FEMA official. “The more dollars for mitigation, the better,” he says. “It’s about as good a taxpayer investment as you can find.”