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Linking American Ideology and the Climate Crisis with Accountability

EDITOR’S NOTE: We complete our publication of the ASPA Founders’ Forum Fellow (FFF) papers with this piece, number 12 of 12.

Winfield Wilson

In the 21st century, the greatest accountability challenge facing government is the global environmental crisis of climate change according to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Accountability in the coming decades will be defined by how much effort is made toward the substantive goals of mitigating the causes and adapting to the effects of climate change. As with any goal of public policy, the efforts require foresight, careful weighing of the factual material, and dedicated long-term planning and investment.

In addition, as climate change has provoked intense political debate, scrutiny of these efforts will be shaped by the American political ideology described by John Kingdon in America the Unusual. Through Kingdon’s lens, accountability might be  expressed in the expectation of government-articulated values.  In our democracy, these include pragmatism, both rational and economic, and equality. A challenge of meeting such (high) expectations is which goals the government seeks, not merely how or how well it seeks to meet them, so accountability measures which priorities the government pursues as much as how it goes about its business.  In other words, accountability demands an answer not merely to the question “does the end justify the means?” but also, “is this the right end and is it justifiable?”

This paper will examine how elements of American political ideology demand government accountability in the climate crisis through the lens of one particular federal initiative, the National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP, under the Federal Emergency Management Administration, or FEMA. The NFIP, authorized under the 1968 Act of the same name, is an encompassing example of how critical threat and promising opportunity might drive a solution that expresses the values of rational pragmatism, economic pragmatism, and equality.

The NFIP’s mission to manage and mitigate floodplain hazards already faces great challenges from rising sea levels, increased hurricane and extreme weather activity, all while managing a large and growing debt. The NFIP has two basic functional components, the flood insurance program and the floodplain risk mapping and management program. (NFIP website; C.J.S). The NFIP was created to provide a federal backstop, particularly for markets in coastal and river valley communities which were prone to seasonal and extreme event flooding, where actuarial rates would be prohibitively high. Its goals were to provide affordable flood insurance for structures and property in areas that would adopt and enforce basic floodplain management standards, and as a feedback mechanism, to identify risk areas and establish appropriate flood insurance rates within these areas.

FEMA has recognized that its emergency management goals will only become more difficult and critical as the effects of climate change become, which “include rising temperatures, increased storm intensity and frequency, rising sea levels, changing drought and fire risk, and shifting threats to human health and disease patterns.”

Using Pragmatic Decision-making in an Uncertain Future
While the United States has yet to sign on to binding international treaty (e.g., the Kyoto Protocol under the UNFCCC) or pass a national cap-and-trade law, the consensus of the scientific community has driven a precautionary response in most executive branch departments and agencies. The U.S. Geological Survey, NASA, the EPA and NOAA are among the key scientific agencies developing the science and predicting the effects of climate change, but other programs include land use and conservation under USDA and Interior, port and transit adaptation under Transportation, and others.

The use of science and technology to better understand the causes of climate change is an expression of Kingdon’s pragmatism, as is better understanding the effects. The NFIP’s ability to manage floodplain hazards on the national scale, as well as make key policy decisions about the long-term viability of insuring property that may be destroyed by storms or swallowed entirely by rising sea levels.

Pragmatism as Economic and Fiscal Responsibility
The NFIP preempts state control over flood insurance rates and market regulation, while implementing the program largely through private companies which supply and manage claims and adjustments. This feature allows the private market to create insurance policy plans and packages, built around the set rates. There is flexibility and economic incentive for this approach, as well as some transactional cost savings for the government (NFIA).

The NFIP also mandated that those individuals and families living in designated flood areas purchase a Federal insurance plan. This feature was to “capture” all properties within the areas the floodplain management program claimed control over, to maintain the “unified” national planning and to mitigate property loss and to protect previously uninsured or under-insured structures.

Though not written into the statute as a feature or intended purpose, a major result of the NFIP is continuous and burgeoning coastal development, due to the protection provided by the insurance.  Put succinctly, a disproportionately low number of disproportionately wealthy individuals have come to utilize the NFIP as an “investment” tool to build and rebuild vacation homes on the beach. Meanwhile, at the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, a vast number of claims following Hurricane Katrina were denied because the damage resulted from exemptions in the policy, most often storm surge waters or wind-driven rain, leading many to litigate, mostly with mixed results.

Passed in 1968, the Act has had several major amendments and currently Congress is struggling with re-authorization of the program. Today, the NFIP covers nearly 6 million residential structures and because its rates are determined by actuarial formula, the current balance of premium collection versus claim payout is negative: the NFIP is nearly $19 billion in debt.

Currently, the U.S. Senate and House are proposing reforms of the NFIP to cancel this debt, reform actuarial rates, and change coverage terms. While continuity of coverage is crucial, the canceling of nearly $19 billion debt from the Treasury raises questions about the long-term policy approach and fiscal balance of this program. The mechanics and below-market rates of the NFIP help explain partly why its budget is below water–but not contemplated in the original law, nor addressed directly in current reform efforts are the growing effects of extreme storm events, rising sea level, and increase weather variability, caused by climate change.

Equality and Property
Inter-generational equity and concerns of environmental justice also challenge the long-term viability of subsidizing development in climate-sensitive areas while not providing affordable means for those in flood-prone to rebuild, relocate, or otherwise face the challenge of climate change. Kingdon’s “equality of opportunity” discussion frames how accountability will drive these efforts.

In conclusion, addressing climate change, particularly in directly vulnerable government programs, like the NFIP, will be the 21st century’s greatest public administration accountability challenge. Pragmatism and equality are among the “unusual” American political ideologies that will spur this accountability in the future.

Winfield Wilson is a student in the School of Public Affairs at American University. Email: [email protected]

Constructive comments and responses to the papers are encouraged and can be submitted directly to the scholar at their email address listed below each article, or by clicking on Post A Comment below each article.

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