Homeland Security: Guarding Against Threats of Climate Change

Photograph by Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Cross country skis on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 13, 2014.

A top U.S. homeland security official testified this week that the nation must be better prepared to handle extreme weather events sparked by a warming planet.

David Heyman, assistant secretary for the department’s Office of Policy, and other officials told senators that it is critical for the US. to strengthen buildings, roadways, bridges and even computer networks in light of storms such as 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, which inflicted an estimated $65 billion in damage.

Such extreme events and other aspects of climate change will cost the nation $1.2 trillion over the next four decades, he said.

Heyman testified before a Senate committee examining the costs of extreme weather events associated with a warming world.

“The increase in frequency and intensity of those extreme weather events are costing our country a boatload of money,” said Sen. Thomas Carper, a Delaware Democrat, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee.

The hearing was held the same day a snow storm barreled through the South and was headed for Northeastern cities. The storm has left thousands without electricity and snarled air and ground traffic.

The federal government closed today as Washington dug out from its worst snow storm since 2010.

Though scientists continue to debate whether climate change can be blamed for the intensity of any specific storm, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has found that the earth’s temperature has risen 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the start of the industrial revolution. It is “extremely likely” that human activity, including the burning of fossil fuels and the associated release of heat-trapping gases, is largely responsible for that increase, the panel found.

Last year, the Government Accountability Office said for the first time that climate change posed a “high risk” to the federal government. “According to the United States Global Change Research Program, the impacts and costliness of weather disasters — resulting from floods, drought, and other events such as tropical cyclones — are expected to increase in significance as previously ‘rare’ events become more common and intense due to anticipated changes in the global climate system,” according to the written testimony of Mark Gaffigan, a managing director at the GAO.

Heyman and Caitlin Durkovich, assistant secretary of homeland security’s Office of Infrastructure Protection, said in prepared testimony that natural disasters “may overwhelm the capacities of critical infrastructure, causing widespread disruption of essential services across the country.”

Preparing to weather those events will save money in the future, the two officials said. They cited a 2004 study that showed that for every dollar spent on mitigating the effects of a disaster, the United States saves four dollars responding to it.

One way the government is trying to help the private sector prepare for such disasters, Heyman said, is a pilot project called Resilience STAR, based on the Energy Star program for appliances. The program will set voluntary standards that ensure houses better handle storms, Heyman said, adding that his department aims to expand that program to cover office buildings, power plants and bridges.

Heyman said in a statement that investing in more resilient infrastructure “will give America an incredible competitive advantage in the long run.”

Brian K.  Sullivan contributed

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