Photo: Nature gets a seat at the decision-making table

(Credit: elzoh via Flickr)

By Michelle Molnar, Environmental Economist

As climate scientists release new information through the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, environmental scientists are hailing a policy from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency as ground-breaking and long overdue.

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This summer, FEMA announced it would be the first federal agency to incorporate environmental benefits into decision-making. The policy (PDF) will "identify and quantify the types of environmental benefits that FEMA will consider in the BCA (benefit-cost analysis) for acquisition projects." As an environmental economist, I'm thrilled to see this policy, but when I share my enthusiasm with others, I'm met with blank stares. What does it mean?

FEMA coordinates disaster response. When a state governor declares a state of emergency, FEMA gets sent in, bringing with it funds for rebuilding and methods for reducing or eliminating damage from natural hazards. Every time the U.S. government declares a disaster, money is set aside for projects that will reduce the impact of future disasters in the state. The new policy means the economic value of healthy, functioning natural systems will now be included in the mix when deciding how to allocate funds.

Funding can now go toward removing rather than rebuilding structures in areas prone to flooding or hurricane damage. Allowing natural areas to do what they do best has become a viable prevention strategy. Communities downstream of restored areas can be protected and can alleviate the tendency for even greater investment in traditional, grey infrastructure.

Ecosystems prevent flood damage in different ways depending on the capacity of the landscape to absorb water. This is determined by the type of land (forest versus pavement), soil quality and other hydrological and geological dynamics within the watershed. By keeping forest cover and restoring floodplains and wetlands, we can provide this valuable ecosystem service. Most notably for floods, restoring our ecosystems reduces property damage, lost work time, injury and loss of life. It saves us money.

New Orleans has always grappled with flooding, which is predicted to intensify with a changing climate, sea level rise and human-caused sinking of land. The region's new flood plan — the Greater New Orleans Urban Water Plan — aims to work with its hydrological reality by funnelling water into canals and wetlands that support wildlife, improve soil quality and reduce flood damage. Supporters of the plan estimate it could provide $11.3 billion in economic benefits to the region by raising property values and decreasing flooding. The plan concludes:

"Fittingly, for a city founded because of its relation to water, the survival of New Orleans depends upon a return to understanding and embracing water, a return to a water city a century after efforts to pump the city dry."

Recognizing the benefits of natural systems clearly makes economic sense for agencies on the front lines of climate change. FEMA is leading the way in preparing for increasing extreme weather events predicted by climate scientists. Isn't it time that sister agencies in Canada follow suit in giving our citizens and communities the protection they deserve?

October 1, 2013

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Oct 02, 2013
7:09 AM

It’s very good news to hear of such a policy by a federal agency. A politically astute starting point for change too. Maybe we’ll be even more surprised by future policies were we don’t have to wait for disaster to occur before requiring thoughtfulness in development.

Oct 01, 2013
10:00 PM

Good to see common sense prevail, hopefully. Too bad it takes $$ to wake us up.

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