WASHINGTON — When it comes to climate change, local officials have a message for Washington: Lead or get out of the way.
Local governments have long acted as first responders in emergencies and now are working to plan for sea level rise, floods, hurricanes and other extreme events associated with climate change.
As a presidential task force prepares for its first meeting Tuesday, local officials say they want and need federal support, but they worry that congressional gridlock and balky bureaucratic rules too often get in the way. Some say Washington needs to reconsider national policies that encourage people to build in beautiful but vulnerable areas.
"The first thing the feds should do is stop making things worse," said Boulder, Colo., Mayor Matthew Appelbaum. Specifically, by subsidizing flood insurance in low-lying areas and paying billions to fight wildfires that destroy property near national forests, the federal government is encouraging development "in all the wrong places," Appelbaum said at a recent forum on the impacts of climate change.
Federal assistance was crucial after a massive flood in Colorado in September destroyed nearly 2,000 homes, washed out hundreds of miles of roads and left many small mountain towns completely cut off. But even as cities and towns relied on the National Guard and other federal help in the storm's immediate aftermath, local leaders said the disaster illustrated problems with a one-size-fits-all approach.
In Fort Collins, Colo., for instance, nearly three dozen federal agencies were involved in fixing a road destroyed by a mudslide.
"Half said, 'No, it can't be fixed,'" said Fort Collins Mayor Karen Weitkunat. "The other half said 'go ahead.' That's a problem that needs to be resolved."
Weitkunat, who serves on the presidential task force, said her message to federal officials is simple: "Get out of the way and we can rebound."
The White House says it backs a local approach to climate change. That's a key reason President Barack Obama appointed the task force, which includes more than two dozen state, local and tribal officials who will advise the administration on how to respond to severe storms, wildfires, droughts and other events affected by climate change. All but four task force members are Democrats.
"Climate impacts are really local. They are about the place where you are, and everyone has to deal with this in a bit of a different way," said Susan Ruffo, deputy associate director of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
In states such as Florida, climate change is "about sea level rise," Ruffo said, while in some Western states the main effects are more frequent wildfires, as well as extreme flooding or drought.
While the task force is looking at federal money spent on roads, bridges, flood control and other projects, most key decisions are local, Ruffo said, citing zoning rules and building codes that could be adapted to account for climate change.
Even when Congress does act, it faces resistance. A law approved last year lowers federal subsidies for properties in flood zones. The measure, intended to keep the National Flood Insurance Program solvent after an onslaught of disaster-related claims in recent years, is under attack from lawmakers in coastal states worried about sharp insurance rate hikes for some property owners. Some of those pushing to delay or repeal the law voted for it last year.
Appelbaum, the Boulder mayor, said the pushback on the flood-insurance law shows the daunting task facing government at all levels.
"Maybe we'll never get up the political gumption to make everybody move" from flood- and fire-prone areas, he said at a forum last week hosted by the World Resources Institute and the Union of Concerned Scientists. "But we should sure as heck stop encouraging people to increase development in those locations. The feds keep doing it."
Appelbaum was among a host of local officials from around the country who spoke at the climate forum, which served as a sounding board of sorts for the presidential task force.
Stephen Marks, an assistant administrator in Hoboken, N.J., said Superstorm Sandy showed that emergency responders need better training and equipment.
Hoboken was caught without special cars and trucks equipped for high water during Sandy, which caused extensive flooding to businesses, residences and Hoboken's historic rail terminal. "We lost a lot of vehicles in the storm," Marks said.
Cindy Lerner, mayor of Pinecrest, Fla. said one step the federal government can take is to account for climate effects in relicensing nuclear power plants such as the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station in South Florida. The plant, 25 miles south of Miami, was shut down for months following Hurricane Andrew in 1992.
"I'm horrified and terrified" at what could happen in a storm similar to the 2011 tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant in Japan, Lerner said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, a member of the presidential task force, said climate change demands immediate action. "We can't wait for Congress to gets its act together," he said. "We can't wait and we won't wait."