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How Climate Change is Changing Hurricane Season

June is here. Cookouts, plans for summer vacations, high school and college graduations are all on our mind. But June also marks the beginning of the hurricane season—when meteorologists and weather-watchers start tallying up the year’s tropical storms and hurricanes, the most dramatic examples of how climate change is making our lives more risky.

Rising air and sea surface temperatures now make it more likely that tropical storms will be more intense and bring heavier amounts of rainfall than they might have in the past. Rising sea levels mean that flooding damage related to storm surges will also be more severe.

This year scientists are forecasting around 15-18 named tropical storms, just shy of the 19 named storms in 2012, the third highest number on record. Check out this compilation of various tropical storm predictions and a list of 2013’s storm names (my favorites are Humberto and Chantal).

Given that climate change makes stronger tropical storms more likely—not to mention other weather related risks that accompany our rapidly warming climate—how prepared are we?

Not very.

In the United States, the vast majority of states are not adequately factoring climate change into their plans for managing water resources and water infrastructure. The science is clear that climate change is going to have (and is already having) an impact on the frequency and severity of storms, floods, droughts, and other weather-related disasters.

Stronger and more damaging tropical storms and hurricanes are among the most obvious threats that states should be preparing for.

Given the increased risks of stronger tropical storms thanks to climate change, one might expect that states on the Gulf and Atlantic coasts are at the forefront of climate preparedness efforts. Some, like New York and Massachusetts, are looking ahead and planning accordingly. Others, like Texas, Alabama, South Carolina, and Florida (none of which are strangers to hurricanes), not so much. Far too many states’ disaster preparedness plans fail to account for the fact that climate change will bring many more disasters to prepare for.

This lack of preparedness and planning not only affects those immediately impacted by hurricanes and other climate related disasters, but has real tangible costs for our nation as a whole.

The non-partisan Government Accountability Office, a sober and thoughtful bunch of fiscal policy experts that serve as the research arm of Congress, for the first time added climate change to its annual list of high-risk factors for the federal budget. When the GAO says there are major financial downsides to inaction, everybody should listen.

And an NRDC study released just two weeks ago calculated the costs borne by the U.S. taxpayer due to climate change and climate related disasters like droughts, floods, and storms—nearly $100 billion in 2012 alone. That means that the federal government spent more on dealing with 2012’s extreme weather than it did on transportation or education.

So with the official beginning of the 2013 hurricane season, June not only marks the month when we can start tallying the number of tropical storms and hurricanes will track across the Atlantic Ocean, but also the time when we can start tallying how much our nation’s lack of preparedness for hurricanes and tropical storms will cost us.

Here are a few things the President should put on his administration’s priority list for the coming weeks.

Direct FEMA to factor climate change into state plans for dealing with disasters. The Federal Emergency Management Agency approves state disaster preparedness plans, and makes grants to support their implemention. Too often states’ plans rely on historical data to determine the size, frequency and severity of the natural disasters they need to prepare for. But in a rapidly warming climate, these historical data are not necessarily accurate predictors for the scope of future droughts, floods, and storms. NRDC filed a petition with FEMA in 2012 asking them to do just this, but have yet to get a response.

Require states to incorporate climate preparedness into existing plans for managing our rivers, lakes and coastlines. This is a smart course of action and a “how to” guide on climate preparedness planning already exists to guide state and local governments through the process called Getting Climate Smart.

And lastly, how about regulating carbon emissions from the biggest single source of carbon pollution—existing power plants? EPA has the authority to do this, and NRDC has an innovative plan for reducing carbon dioxide in a way that is cost-effective and fair.

U.S. citizens, reach out to your governor to ask them to prioritize your state for climate change impacts.

Hurricane image via Shutterstock.

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