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Global Warming, Severe Weather and Floods

U.S. Flood Policy Must Change to Prepare Midwest for Even More Extreme Precipitation Due to Global Warming

Floods in Iowa

Flood waters in Iowa

Even if all global warming pollution ceased today, greenhouse gasses humans have already emitted would continue to warm the planet for decades.  Extreme weather events like the heavy rains that have led to the current Midwest flooding are going to become more common.  The U.S. government must prepare by restoring flood-prone areas in many places to their natural state and stop pushing the Army Corps of Engineers' structural "solutions," which have repeatedly failed to protect human populations.

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Call on Congress and the presidential candidates to ensure that Americans are no longer put in danger by rising flood waters.

U.S. must prepare and safeguard Midwest by changing flood control policy

The warming climate has made more extreme precipitation inevitable, and in response, the U.S. must dramatically refashion its failed flood control policies.  Over the past half century, the greatest hurdles to reducing flood damages and avoiding tragedies have been (a) unsustainable rebuilding in flood plains and storm surge zones, and (b) the pork barrel approach to approving federal water development projects like dams, levees, and canals.  We must find solutions to these obstacles and start exercising the proverbial ounce of prevention.

In 1966, a report to Congress by the Task Force on Federal Flood Control Policy gave the nation a lesson in flood control: don’t rebuild in high-hazard zones like coastlines and river deltas.  This lesson was reiterated in the 1973 Report of the National Water Commission.  Both distinguished panels found that despite the enormous flood control expenditures, flood damages were increasing. Both panels recommended that more attention be paid to relocation out of flood zones and called for greater emphasis on non-engineering solutions.  There is a growing body of evidence that healthy wetlands, in-tact dune systems and other natural ecosystems reduce storm and flood damage, but far too many tax dollars have been spent to destroy these natural systems to facilitate more development.

Unfortunately, instead of listening to experts, Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers have selected projects not on merit but as pork barrel spending opportunities doled out based on political clout.  The result is that totally unnecessary and often environmentally destructive projects are built while those of higher priority go unaddressed.  In fact, there has been a loss of up to 95% of the wetlands in Iowa and Illinois, which is in part responsible for the flooding.

What we’re facing now is akin to the Biblical story comparing the wise man who builds his house on rock and to the fool who builds his house on sand.  The power of this parable lies in its simplicity.  Why do we try time and again, like fools, to rebuild on the sand? We should take heed and build farther from the shoreline and river’s edge and allow nature’s buffer system of wetlands and bottom-land forests to protect human development.

Recommendations

In addition to attempting to reduce global warming pollution, the U.S. government should be preparing now to protect its citizens from the severe climate changes that are on the way.  This preparation must include a revamping of the failed U.S. flood control policy.

First, future building and rebuilding in the Midwest should be set back from waterways and other flood-prone areas.  Second, utmost attention should be given to the benefits of environmental restoration, which normally takes a back seat in reconstruction efforts.  Restored wetlands and other natural ecosystems can help absorb excess rainfall and limit damage to human communities during and after extreme precipitation events.

Political changes are needed to accomplish these goals.  Instead of continuing to provide pork barrel funding to the Army Corps of Engineers to continue the same failed projects of the past, Congress should listen to experts and direct money instead to ecosystem restoration and the relocation of development out of flood-prone areas.

The next president also has a role to play.  The president selects the leaders of the Army Corps of Engineers and must ensure that they have the scientific expertise necessary to make holistic waterway management decisions—decisions that do not rely primarily on structural approaches, and that do take decades-old advice into account in order to reduce flood damages.

Science demonstrates warming is linked to extreme weather events, including rainfall and floods

No single weather event can be attributed to global warming, and it is impossible to say that the recent heavy rains in the Midwest are caused by the climate crisis, but it is clear that in the aggregate, humans’ continued pumping of massive quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere is causing more extreme weather.  Here are just a few examples of the science linking extreme weather to global warming:

  • A 1995 analysis from the National Climatic Data Center showed extreme weather events in the United States were already increasing in "statistically significant" ways.
  • In 2002, scientists called increased precipitation "an expected outcome of climate change" that "may cause losses of U.S. corn production to double over the next 30 years."
  • In 2004 an article published in the Journal of Hydrometerology found that "Over the contiguous U.S. precipitation, temperature, streamflow, heavy and very heavy precipitation … have increased during the 20th century."
  • Also in 2004, scientific models predicted "greater increases in extreme precipitation" due to global warming.
  • In 2007, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that won the Nobel Peace Prize concluded global warming is very likely to increase the frequency of extreme weather, including "heavy precipitation."

Climate-focused and progressive blogs including ClimateProgress, OpenLeft, The Wonk Room, Solve Climate, Grist and Energy Smart have been the leading voices calling attention to this body of science in the wake of the recent Midwest flooding.

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