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Trump's climate executive order leaves communities more vulnerable to disasters

The order implicitly denies the risks of future extreme weather events.

East Coast Begins To Clean Up And Assess Damage From Hurricane Sandy
A man walks by the remains of part of the historic Rockaway boardwalk after large parts of it were washed away during Hurricane Sandy on October 31, 2012 
Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

The executive order on climate change President Donald Trump announced Tuesday afternoon is an explicit attack on President Barack Obama’s efforts to fight climate change.

But it also implicitly denies we’re at risk from climate change in the first place.

As Bloomberg reports, the order — which you can read here — rolls back Obama’s executive orders and guidances that the government consider the costs of climate change–related disasters in planning and policymaking.

This is backward. If climate change is real — regardless of the cause — why not prepare for the costs and damage of it? We can already see the impacts. In January, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration told Vox that abnormally high tides in parts of the country have turned “from a rare event into a recurrent and disruptive problem." There’s a clear need, the agency wrote, “to support preparedness planning ... about future changes in sea level and associated coastal risks.”

The Obama administration made supporting preparedness a priority. And Trump is doing away with that priority.

What Obama ordered on preparing for extreme weather

In 2013, with the memory of Hurricane Sandy’s $60 billion path of destruction still fresh, President Obama called for increased planning and foresight to mitigate the costs of future disasters caused by extreme weather linked to climate change.

The order directed government agencies to consider the costs of potential climate-related disasters when leasing property, securing supply chains, constructing new facilities, and so on. It also established interagency groups to coordinate plans for climate change resilience across the federal government, and support the communities most at risk for future losses due to weather.

Today, Trump is expected to rescind that order, as well as a 2016 Obama memorandum directing the military to similarly account for the costs of climate change in planning and policymaking.

Which puts him a bit at odds with his own defense secretary, James Mattis, who has said climate change threatens US foreign policy and the Pentagon’s assets. “Climate change is impacting stability in areas of the world where our troops are operating today,” Mattis wrote in follow-up testimony to his confirmation hearing, as ProPublica reported. “It is appropriate for the Combatant Commands to incorporate drivers of instability that impact the security environment in their areas into their planning.”

Climate change is happening. And it will grow more costly.

The costs of natural disasters are on the rise.

Trump’s move to pull back the federal government’s consideration of climate change in planning may prove to be a shot in the foot. “Given the president’s focus on building infrastructure and his desire to cut federal spending, many analysts said it would make sense for him to maintain or even expand programs to reduce the cost of disasters,” Bloomberg’s Christopher Flavelle writes. Why spend money on developments that may get washed away in a future flood?

Extreme weather events are expected to become more frequent and unpredictable in the future, and increase in severity. And the cost of climate-related disasters — like hurricanes, floods, and tornadoes — is higher than ever. What’s more, as the country grows wealthier, disasters are going become even costlier.

Trump’s executive order is largely at odds with the text of the Paris climate agreement, and will make it harder for the US to reach agreed-upon emissions goals. But it also flies in the face of the Paris agreement on the preparedness issue, as the agreement “establishes the global goal on adaptation of enhancing adaptive capacity, strengthening resilience and reducing vulnerability to climate change.”

Trump’s order now may make us more vulnerable.

Further reading:

—Vox’s Brad Plumer outlines the eight key components of Trump’s climate change executive order.

—He also explains why it’s unlikely that Trump’s plan will bring back coal jobs.

—Stay on top of all our climate change executive order coverage right here.