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Preparing for Future Disasters in the Wake of Sandy

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Hurricane Sandy is a tragic reminder of the threat of climate change, and it has forced the issue back on our national agenda in a way that no debate question could. As President Obama said in his reelection speech, "our children" should be able "to live in an America... that isn't threatened by the destructive power of a warming planet."

Fulfilling that promise will be a formidable challenge.

Fortunately, work done in President Obama's first term laid the groundwork for effective measures that can be taken now: many he can do without Congress.

First, to prepare and respond to changes in climate that are already occurring, the president can start by releasing federal agency reports, which have already been written, that identify vulnerabilities to climate change and explain how federal agencies can adapt. For example, fish and wildlife agencies must plan for the movement of species as streams and forests warm while the military must look at the exposure of their facilities and operations around the world.

President Obama should also use new authority in the recent transportation bill to push FEMA and other agencies to recognize that we don't live in our parents' climate. With Iowa being hit by four 500-year storms since 1991, Vermont drowning during Hurricane Irene, and rising seas pouring into Manhattan subway tunnels, FEMA must rewrite its historic floodplain maps to reflect the new reality and to discourage building in increasingly vulnerable areas. And when disaster does strike, the federal government should support rebuilding differently: such as installing larger culverts under roads washed out in floods, elevating bridges, or restoring natural floodplains.

Second, the president can step up efforts to attack the underlying causes of climate change. Obama's automobile emissions and efficiency standards are already reducing the carbon dioxide spewing from tailpipes. Now the president and his Environmental Protection Agency must move ahead with proposed Clean Air Act rules to curb emissions from power plants.

Actions must be taken given the size of the challenge and new science showing that climate changes are accelerating, however, the administration can't do it alone. Obama must reach across the political divide and convince Congress to move forward. Superstorm Sandy confirms that climate change is not just an environmental and moral issue, but also an economic one. It's far cheaper to prepare for the effects of climate change and to cut emissions to reduce future effects than to mop up and rebuild after disasters. And that doesn't even count the opportunity to reduce the immense human toll of lives lost and disrupted.

Here's what the president and Congress can do together:

1. Pass new legislation that allows FEMA and the federal government to support efforts to prepare for and adapt to the effects of climate change -- instead of just responding after the fact to disasters like heat waves, droughts and floods. A key element should be continuing to reform the National Flood Insurance program by requiring FEMA to consider projected impacts and sea-level rise. It makes no sense to prepare for yesterday's weather in today's era of climate change.

2. Amend the Stafford Act, the underlying disaster statute, to explicitly direct FEMA to support communities' efforts to rebuild differently or relocate vulnerable homes after a storm. FEMA is balking at reimbursing towns in Vermont for common-sense steps such as rebuilding more resilient communities, restoring natural floodplains, and getting people and infrastructure out of harm's way in the wake of Hurricane Irene last year: The justification is that the Stafford Act doesn't allow federal money to be used for such improvements.

3. Put a price on carbon emissions. This is the most contentious and currently divisive step. But it's not only vital for reducing the long-term threat of climate change, it also would represent a victory for market principles. The indisputable fact is that the price of fossil fuels does not include many of the costs of burning them, from disasters exacerbated by climate change to the human and economic costs of fighting wars to protect oil supplies. A fee on carbon corrects these market failures, and could actually boost the economy if the revenues are returned to Americans in constructive ways, such as by lowering payroll taxes, decreasing the federal debt, and investing in the efficiency and resiliency of our communities. Everyone is better off if we raise the costs of engaging in something bad -- polluting -- and lower the costs of doing something good -- work. Existing efforts in the United States, such the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the Northeast, show that a cap-and-invest approach can spur investments in efficiency and create jobs. We can indeed protect ourselves from the worst effects of climate change while investing in our infrastructure and workforce.

We cannot hold back the ocean and intense storms by ignoring reality. Now is the time for the president and Congress to act.

Vicki Arroyo serves as the executive director of the non-partisan Georgetown Climate Center, which works with states and local communities around the country to help them prepare for climate change.