How many times does a federal agency have to say something before it is taken seriously? Apparently, three times over multiple decades may not be enough. Recently, a New York Times article titled “Flood-Prone Land Likely to Increase by 45% — a Major Challenge to Federal Insurance Program” detailed the pending release of a Federal Emergency Management Agency study prompting policymakers to consider the need to “incorporate the effects of climate change more directly into various aspects of the National Flood Insurance Program”.
The study warns that storm surges riding on top of higher sea levels (+ 0.75 to 1.9 meters by 2100), as well as intensified and more frequent rains on inland areas, could cause 45% more area to be included in the nation’s flood plains and necessitate an approximate doubling in the number of flood insurance policies. Accounting for future changes due to rising global temperatures is characterized as a “major policy change” for a program that has traditionally relied on historical flood levels. Expanding flood plains could have significant economic impacts, either through increasing storm damage costs, the construction costs associated with elevating homes, or the opportunity cost of limiting new development in these areas.
This isn’t the first time FEMA has asserted that climate change has major implications for flood insurance. Twenty years ago, FEMA reviewed the impacts of 1- to 3-feet of sea level rise and reported that while the impacts of the 1-foot scenario were manageable, the impacts of the 3-foot scenario were significant (coastal floodplain households would increase from 2.7 million to 6.6 million, and potential losses would double in the V-zone and triple in the A-zone). Based on the timescale of the 3-foot relative sea level rise, uncertain data, and the various assumptions of the study, it was concluded that there was ample time to adapt policies and that more careful studies were needed. About 15 years ago, FEMA studied the impacts of future coastal erosion but was told by Congress that more research was needed. FEMA then commissioned a study by the Heinz Center, which was released about 10 years ago. This study reported that coastal erosion could claim 25% of houses within 500 feet of the shoreline by 2060, and recommended that Congress authorize FEMA to map potential erosion areas and account for the costs associated with erosion when setting flood insurance rates. The National Flood Insurance Program still does not consider long-term erosion in its rate-making.
So will the reception be different this time? Perhaps not. The New York Times article suggests that FEMA’s work could meet resistance from some in Congress because the predictions rely on research from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has its fair share of P.R. challenges of late. However, it should be noted that none of the errors found in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report (notably the melting of the Himalayan Glaciers) actually carried through to sea level rise projections. Also, IPCC AR4 sea level rise predictions are on the order of 0.18-0.59 meters by 2100 and many say the models under-predict actual conditions. The sea level rise used in this FEMA report range from 0.75-1.9 meters by 2100, a range more in line with current thinking that takes better account of ice sheet melting.
Regardless of the political fate of the report, it will be interesting to see the work, since its conclusions apparently contradict what the insurance industry is saying:
In insurance circles, the expansion of new development is the dominant notion behind rapidly rising financial losses from increasingly violent weather. The industry acknowledges the spike in tornadoes, flooding, hurricanes and other events, but many officials see population shifts and new construction as the causes for losses: There are more assets to be damaged.
The FEMA report argues against that. Its results claim that climate change is responsible for 70 percent of the flood plain increase. The remaining 30 percent stems from increased development.
But [FEMA geologist Mark] Crowell, perhaps sensing a cool welcome for the report, described a challenging future for the insurance program even if the report’s findings prove overblown.
“Even if future climate change is minimal, even if any of you out there don’t believe in climate change, future flooding will increase anyways because population growth will lead to increase in development, which will lead to an increase in impermeability, which will in turn lead to an increase in flooding,” he told the crowd.
“The NFIP will continue to grow.”