President Joe Biden’s Federal Emergency Management Agency is putting climate front and center in its new four-year strategic planning document, after the Trump administration erased all mention of climate from its previous plan.
Addressing climate resilience is one of three main goals outlined in FEMA’s plan for 2022-2026, which directs how it will respond to disasters and spend federal funds. The document was shared first with CNN.
The new plan is not only a reversal from that of the Trump administration, but puts even more emphasis on the climate crisis than the plans produced by the Obama administration.
“We must recognize that we are facing a climate crisis and educate ourselves and the nation about the impacts our changing climate pose to the field of emergency management,” Biden’s FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell said in the plan.
The plan emphasizes understanding how climate is changing and exacerbating natural disasters – more frequent flooding, wetter hurricanes and increasingly destructive wildfires – and it also underscores how the agency will try to more equitably distribute funding to historically underserved communities.
“The intersection of the severe impacts of climate change and the reality of inequalities that exist in communities before disasters strikes is what we’re aggressively addressing at FEMA,” Criswell told CNN in a statement.
The new document focuses on three key areas: a focus on equity in emergency management response and diversifying the agency’s workforce, bolstering climate resilience around the country and strengthening its emergency management workforce.
“Climate change is the greatest challenge facing emergency managers today—and it will continue to shape the next several decades,” the plan reads. According to the document, the agency will fuse climate science into its policy, programs, partnerships, field operations and training, according to the report.
The report also stressed FEMA plans to help communities adapt to a changing climate. FEMA will use most of the $6.8 billion it received from the bipartisan infrastructure bill to help communities deal with natural disasters, including flooding.
Flood mitigation can mean a number of things, including elevating homes and buildings that have been struck repeatedly by flooding. FEMA can also use funding to offer buyouts to residents whose homes are being swallowed by rising sea levels.
“FEMA is no longer looking at itself as just a response agency but a true resilience agency,” White House National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy says in the report.
Biden’s administration is talking about climate change a lot more than even previous Democratic administrations. Former Obama FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate told CNN that climate hadn’t been a big part of the agency’s disaster planning until Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
“Up to that point, we weren’t dealing strictly with climate,” said Fugate, now the chief resilience officer at resilience software company One Concern. He added that when Sandy happened, “it was becoming more apparent the climate was already changed and we weren’t adapted to it.”
Equity is another big focus in the plan. FEMA’s plan says the agency will require that “FEMA resources can be accessed and leveraged by underserved communities in ways that meet their needs,” and remove barriers to federal funding and programs for smaller and underserved communities that lack emergency managers and staff.
Fugate said FEMA’s concerted emphasis on equity is notable and can go towards what he called the “resiliency divide” – where the most vulnerable communities are left behind by federal funding formulas that can prioritize wealthier tax bases, and that richer communities with planners can take full advantage of.
In the past, FEMA “focused so much on risk avoidance measured in dollars,” Fugate told CNN. “The most vulnerable communities have been left behind; we have historically been measuring mitigation in dollars sake.”
Fugate said any changes the agency can make that “measures impacts to people as the primary driver as opposed to dollars” would be a positive development.
“It was never the intention of the program to do that, but by solely focusing on dollars … it created that scenario,” he said.