Trump's climate order threatens U.S. disaster prevention: experts

by Sophie Hares | @SophieHares | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 31 March 2017 08:01 GMT

An American flag is seen from the front porch of a flood damaged house in Denham Springs, Louisiana, U.S., Aug. 23, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Bachman

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"The president is playing politics with people's lives"

By Sophie Hares

TEPIC, Mexico, March 31 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order to sweep away Obama-era climate change regulations jeopardises efforts across his country to build resilience to intensifying natural disasters, experts have warned.

The executive order, signed on Tuesday, could make it harder to keep global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the lower limit governments have pledged to strive for in a U.N. accord, they said.

"These reversals are coming at a moment when the impacts of climate change are intensifying," said Heather Coleman, climate change policy manager at Oxfam America.

"The president is playing politics with people's lives," she told journalists in a telephone briefing.

Trump's order has drawn swift condemnation from a coalition of states and local governments, as well as green groups who say it threatens public health and have vowed to fight it in court.

The main target of the executive order is the Clean Power Plan introduced by former U.S. President Barack Obama, requiring states to slash carbon emissions from power plants.

It is a key factor in the U.S.'s ability to meet its commitments under the U.N. climate change agreement reached by nearly 200 countries in Paris in 2015.

Trump, a Republican, and several key members of his administration have doubts about climate change, but it remains unclear whether the president will pull the United States out of the Paris deal, in line with a campaign promise.

"If you don't want to call it climate change, that's fine - you can call it whatever you want, but the point is, we're dealing with this new reality and we have to address it head on," said Belinda Constant, mayor of Gretna, Louisiana, and co-chair of the Mississippi River Cities and Towns Initiative.

The frequency and severity of disasters is on the rise and costs are unprecedented, she said.

Persistent disasters along the Mississippi River alone have cost over $50 billion since 2011, draining the local economy, she added.

The executive order would have a direct impact on resilience to disasters, she said, with both jobs and infrastructure at risk if requirements by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for states and local government to build climate risks into planning are eliminated, she said.

"What's the point of spending a bunch of money on infrastructure if we're just going to watch it get washed away because we didn't make it resilient?" asked Constant, who calculated the Mississippi waterway generates $500 billion in annual revenue.

The bottom line is that "resilience works", she said. "(It) protects jobs, secures our economy and enhances both the built and natural infrastructure," she added.

BANGLADESH TO THE RESCUE?

Experts said that while Trump's executive order undermined efforts to prepare for extreme events, and threatened funding and regulatory reforms, state and local governments would continue their work to protect communities.

"The problem is that the job of these state and local leaders just got a lot harder as a result of this executive order," said Jessica Grannis, adaptation program manager at the Georgetown Climate Center.

"What this executive order does is to defy common sense and sound science - it will make it harder for cities and states to protect the lives, health and well-being of their residents," she said.

Jobs would be put at risk as many small businesses often fail in the aftermath of extreme events, and investments would no longer take durability into account, she added.

On an international level, meeting the Paris Agreement's most ambitious global warming limit of 1.5 degrees Celsius will prove harder if the United States fails to cooperate and cut its emissions as planned, said Saleemul Huq, senior fellow at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

While a refusal by the United States to pay the bulk of the $3 billion it has committed to the Green Climate Fund would constrain actions by developing countries to tackle climate change, it is a fraction of the $100 billion a year in climate finance promised to them by rich countries from 2020.

Huq, who is also director of the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development, said the most significant impact of the executive order would be Trump's refusal to support U.S. citizens in their efforts to ward off the effects of climate change, such as rising seas and fiercer storms and floods.

"They're going to have to fend for themselves," he said.

Poor countries like Bangladesh, which have been hit earlier and harder by climate change, are ahead of many developed countries in learning about and building resilience, he said, offering to pass on his nation's knowledge to the United States.

(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)

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