How messaging smart flood planning as ‘climate’ policy led to its demise

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When a bunch of reporters called me to discuss President Donald Trump’s decision to turn back Obama-era flood protection standards, I was happy to criticize the administration, because I think the standards were one of the few unalloyed good things the Obama administration did. They’re a clear message from the federal government that federal taxpayers won’t pay to build in flood-prone areas and will build infrastructure designed to stand up to nature.

The Federal Flood Risk Management Standards, promulgated by a January 2015 executive order, drew on the principles of President Ronald Reagan’s great Coastal Barrier Resources Act which forbade development subsidies for barrier islands and barrier beaches while leaving the private sector free to do as it pleased. This is a great policy.

But as I wrote in the Weekly Standard not long after the standards came out, the Obama administration made a serious political (and, arguably, factual) error by choosing in their public statements to label the standards a climate-change-adaptation measure. Now, it’s absolutely true that greenhouse gas emissions have resulted in thermal expansion of seawater and some ice melt in polar regions. These factors (mostly the former) have resulted in sea-level rise. This results in more flooding. In fact, an increase in “sunny day” flooding is one of the very few easy-to-observe widespread phenomena that we can link to greenhouse gas emissions in a convincing fashion.

That said, the areas most at-risk now and in the near future are almost all places where climate change isn’t the dominant concern. Changes in the levels of continental plates, as well as land loss caused by hydrological projects and other human activity, can have local impacts hundreds of times larger than those caused by global warming. Purely natural processes like erosion and seasonal plant growth also can change which particular areas will flood, how badly and how often. In any given area, these factors can be far more likely to make the difference than sea-level rise, which generally proceeds at a scale noticeable only after decades have passed. The folks who wrote the Obama executive order—I talked with them a bunch—knew this well and wrote the order in a neutral fashion to deal with whatever was causing flooding.

In its press statements and publicity, however, the Obama administration insisted on positioning the EO as a response to climate change. While any number of factors—including a genuine desire to cut red-tape surrounding infrastructure projects, pressure from builders and his own career as a real-estate developer—each played a role in Trump’s decision to rescind the order, I can’t help but think that a simple distaste for anything the Obama administration labeled as “climate policy” may have been the driving motivation to repeal the standards.

In part because climate change policy has become such a political hot potato—and because so many on the left have turned it into a culture war issue—focusing on climate change was clearly the wrong move for the Obama administration. As a result, the wrong messaging may have contributed to a very unfortunate policy decision.


Image by MaryValery

 

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