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Chicken Littles Vindicated; Budget Hawks Don't Care: Part 1

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There will come a time when nature metes out such sustained and brutal punishment that even the most cynical deniers will have to acknowledge climate disruption is upon us. There's no question that time will arrive. The only question is when.

I've written this before. I'm writing it again because the universal ah-ha moment seems to be approaching as fast as a Texas tornado. There are two reasons to think so. First, natural disasters that once were freak events are quickly becoming the norm, with steep economic, security and humanitarian costs. Second, the United States Congress is doing nothing to slow the tornado down.

In what might be called the Continuing Human Suffering and Intergenerational Insecurity Resolution of 2011, House Republicans introduced a budget plan that would gut federal programs across the spectrum of climate disruption: understanding it, mitigating it, adapting to it and helping its victims.

House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers promised the Republican plan would put America on a "sustainable financial path". On the contrary: This plan would make America less secure, lead to greater federal spending, destabilize the economy, strain our military resources and undermine the nation's energy independence.

More specifically, the GOP budget plan would inhibit EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, cut the Department of Energy's efforts to develop and commercialize clean energy technologies, and slash the budgets of the federal agencies most responsible for improving our understanding of climate change, among them NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NASA's satellites are vital to tracking the health of the planetary environment, including climate change and its impacts. But according to the New York Times, House Republicans want to return to the policies of the last Bush Administration, which deleted the words "understand and protect our home planet" from NASA's mission statement. The new budget resolution instructs NASA to focus less on Earth and more on human space exploration - a prioritization that makes no sense unless our principal goal is to make sure Members of Congress can lift off to another planet after they've ruined this one.

Sarcasm aside, the House resolution is a cynical proposal in light of nature's fury in recent years. According to the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA), there were 81 major disaster declarations in the United States and its territories last year alone, along with 9 emergency declarations and 18 wildfires where federal help was required.

Nevertheless, the House resolution would cut the Corps of Engineers' program to control floods and respond to coastal emergencies, along with FEMA's programs to help prevent and prepare for natural disasters and the Small Business Administration's ability to manage loans to disaster victims.

The irony behind the House budget plan is that it comes two months after one of the world's worst years for the type of weather-related disasters increasingly attributed to climate change. The Paul Reveres of the climate action movement, who have been ridiculed as its Chicken Littles, are being vindicated by the weather. Scientists are establishing the link between climate change and a variety of natural disasters (see Joe Romm's excellent post). We might debate which of the recent extreme weather events around the globe are natural natural disasters or anthropogenic natural disasters, but you don't need to be Jim Hansen to conclude that something big is underway. The observed changes seem clear.

Globally, 2010 ended as the warmest decade on record, as well as one of the worst years for natural disasters. We are seeing persistent drought, wildfires, floods and record-breaking precipitation worldwide. Blizzards hit the Northeast like a convoy of semis. The mudslides in California were only one degree of separation from climate change; they were caused by record snow and rain. Russia, Greece, Israel and Australia caught fire after prolonged drought, another indicator of climate disruption. Weather records have been falling like hail. Heat records were set in 19 countries, the highest number on record for a single year.

The phrase "disaster of biblical proportions" is becoming as common in the media as "war-torn country". A total of 950 natural disasters killed more than 296,800 people worldwide last year, affected nearly 208 million others and cost nearly $130 billion, according to the United Nations. Natural disasters have become sufficiently serious for the UN General Assembly to convene its first-ever "thematic debate" earlier this month on what governments should do to reduce disaster risks. In the words of Margareta Wahlstrom, the Secretary General's special representative on the issue:

Investing in disaster risk reduction is no longer an option, but a necessity that should be addressed by all countries. These figures (losses in 2010) are bad, but could be seen as benign in years to come...Weather-related disasters are sure to rise in the future, due to factors that include climate change.

Swiss Re reports that economic losses from climate-related disasters are rising. "An estimated 3.4 billion people are threatened by storms, floods, drought and other natural hazards, most of them in the developing world," the company says. "Climate change could put at risk many more."

As Munich Re counted the loss of life and property in 2010, it concluded: "The high number of weather-related natural catastrophes and record temperatures both globally and in different regions of the world provide further indications of advancing climate change."

(It's important to point out that earthquakes and volcanic eruptions - for example, the earthquake in Haiti -- helped make 2010 one of the world's worst disaster years, but they have not been linked with climate change. According to the UN, however, 90 percent of last year's natural disasters were weather-related. Over the last 100 years, "hydro-meteorological" events involving extreme weather have been the most common type of disaster by far.)

Here are some of the impacts whose risks would escalate as a result of the House budget resolution and the priorities it reveals:

Bad Economic Tradeoffs: Money better spent on a million other things is being poured into disaster response and recovery around the world. To give just one example in the United States, the National Flood Insurance Program, which helps insure U.S. property owners in flood-prone areas, is "drowning in debt". At last report, it was $19 billion in the red, enough money to hire 352,000 high school teachers. Most of the red ink was caused by just two disasters whose severity was indicative of climate change - Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Federal Spending: Climate impacts will almost certainly increase federal spending and debt, not only in the National Flood Insurance Program but also the National Crop Insurance Program, the demand for new federal projects to protect communities from flooding and sea level rise, and the federal share of disaster response and recovery. House Republicans are naïve if they think the growing number of disaster victims in the future will want government to stand down in the interest of saving money.

Military Security: In years to come, disasters will strain not only civilian budgets, but also the cost and capacity of the U.S. military to provide humanitarian relief around the world and to keep peace in regions where governments break down. The national security implications of extreme weather were never more evident than in Pakistan last year, where historic flooding caused more damage than all four of Pakistan's wars with India combined. For a time, the stability of the Pakistani government was threatened, raising concerns that the Taliban and associated extremist groups would take over large parts of the country, and perhaps its nuclear weapons.

Finally, to make their priorities crystal clear, House budget hawks have ignored President Obama's proposal to eliminate nearly $4 billion annually in unnecessary tax breaks for fossil energy companies - the companies earning enormous profits by producing the fuels that cause anthropogenic climate disruption. Rather than avoiding these cuts, budget hawks could easily double-down on Obama's proposal. Four billion dollars is a fraction of the taxpayer support going to these industries, not to mention how the federal government subsidizes all types of carbon pollution.

In a display of testosterone for the Tea Party, conservatives in Congress are threatening to extort President Obama's acquiescence to their perverse budget cuts by shutting down the federal government. Because they blinked in 1995 during a similar standoff with President Clinton, they won't be inclined to blink again.

But climate change is a bona fide national security issue of many dimensions. Dealing with it is therefore a fundamental responsibility of the federal government and an issue on which President Obama should not budge.

All sides agree we must confront with the reality of federal debt and deficits. But there's another hard reality Congress must respect: Since we can't cut a deal with floods, wildfires and droughts, and since we appear unready to slow down climate change, we can not compromise on the government's obligation to protect the health and safety of the American people.

In Part 2, I'll touch upon the human costs of natural disasters.

Bill Becker, who led the Presidential Climate Action Project between 2007-2011, is now a Senior Associate with Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G) and an energy and climate policy expert at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Colorado. He has worked throughout his career with disaster-affected communities to help them rebuild more sustainably.`

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