Last August, torrential downpours and flooding damaged some 55,000 homes in Louisiana. Thirteen people died, while the governor estimated the material damage to be $9 billion dollars. It was one of 15 natural disasters in the United States in 2016 that cost more than a $1 billion. Climate scientists expect floods like the one in Louisiana to occur 40 percent more frequently now than in pre-industrial times, because of climate change.
But an executive order that President Trump signed Tuesday afternoon may make it harder for communities on the front lines of climate change to prepare for and respond to the heightened risk of extreme weather events. Trump’s order (dubbed “Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth”) directs various agencies to begin the work of dismantling a slew of Obama-era policies related to energy and climate change—including the Clean Power Plan, designed to curb greenhouse gas emissions from power plants; limits on methane emitted by oil and gas operations; and a moratorium on the troubled federal coal leasing program. Speaking at a press conference, Trump described the directive broadly as an effort to “cancel job killing regulations” and unleash energy production.
The order also rescinds two Obama administration directives that serve as the backbone of the government’s climate adaptation work. Those orders did not impose new regulations on industry; instead, they were based on the idea that it makes good fiscal sense and is morally imperative to prepare for the effects of global warming, even while trying to limit it. One of the orders rolled back by Trump was issued in 2013 after Hurricane Sandy tore up the east coast, leaving in its wake $60 billion in damages. That order requires federal agencies to identify how climate change will affect their mission and programs, and to work with states and local communities to help them prepare.
It “was designed to address what we’re seeing now—extended droughts, extreme flooding, rapid sea level rise, deadly heat waves,” said Alice Hill, who served as the senior director for resilience policy on the National Security Council under President Obama. It was intended to protect federal assets—for instance, to make sure that buildings built with taxpayer money weren’t sited in areas facing heightened flood risk—and to protect local communities, by boosting their capacity and sharing information. “The president recognized that state, local, and tribal leaders bear the brunt of dealing with these impacts. These impacts are accelerating, and the Obama administration wanted to organize our federal efforts so that we were in a position to more effectively support people on the ground,” Hill explained.