How is Baltimore City preparing to address the effects of climate change?

By ALEX WALINSKAS | October 25, 2018

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In addition to providing relief, FEMA helps cities prepare for climate-related disasters.

The latest publication from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the world’s leading body on climate science, made an urgent point: Climate change is rapidly occurring, and its consequences are dire. As a coastal, flood-prone city, Baltimore will most definitely feel the ramifications of rising sea levels and more intense weather events. Has City policy prepared us for the impacts of climate change?

Thanks to rules created by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), all U.S. cities are required to at least plan for the worst. In order to receive FEMA funding for non-emergency projects, a local government must submit an All Hazards Mitigation Plan (AHMP). These plans serve as strategies to minimize the loss of life and property when storms hit.

In Baltimore our version of an all-hazards plan is the Disaster Preparedness and Planning Project (DP3). It’s housed under the Baltimore Office of Sustainability (BOS), but many other city agencies were involved in its creation and will be involved in its implementation. The DP3 advises Baltimore’s governmental limbs on how to deal with natural hazards and their increasing severity.

What does urban disaster preparedness look like? Some strategies of the DP3 include making buildings more weather-secure; protecting water, energy and transportation infrastructure; and having a prepared plan for disaster response when storms hit. These strategies are specific to the natural hazards that threaten Baltimore the most: flooding, coastal events, extreme wind, and heat and air quality issues.

A government response is certainly crucial to disaster preparedness. But if communities are not aware of, not a part of and not beneficiaries of these plans, there’s no point. Fortunately, the city appears to be increasingly aware of the importance of people and equity in climate and resiliency work. This year, BOS has taken to specifically addressing the role of the community. Cities are required to update their all-hazards plan every few years, and BOS is using the 2018 revision as an important opportunity to expand how the DP3 addresses community engagement and resiliency, equity, food resiliency and Baltimore’s historic ally unequal distribution of resources.

Nonprofits and community-based organizations have an equally important role in on-the-ground connection between policy and impact. The Black Church Food Security Network partners black, urban farmers with land owned by black congregations, supporting a stable and secure supply of food in communities that have historically been neglected by the city. Center for a Healthy Maryland (CFHM) provides educational resources to physicians for how to help communities in the face of increasing natural disasters.

Even with their high benefit-to-cost ratio, disaster prevention efforts are expensive. Disaster preparedness, particularly that which affects Baltimore, involves a lot of investment into infrastructure and buildings. Baltimore City, which often struggles to meet the costs of City maintenance, pitched a new tactic this summer: Make the polluters pay. 

Under the direction of the Mayor’s Office, Baltimore sued more than 20 big energy companies this summer for contributing to climate change. While the case probably won’t lead to big outcomes anytime soon, it adds traction to an important discussion on climate ethics and sources of funding.

In the meantime, my Amateur Policy Wonk take is that the city should work to integrate the goals of the DP3 into existing initiatives that receive state funding. 

DP3 action items could be incorporated into the parameters of funded projects like the Baltimore Regional Neighborhood Initiative, which grants state money to community development projects, or the City’s Capital Improvement Program (CIP). Furthering public education on climate change is another smart strategy. Much of the public still views climate change as an abstract threat. If communities develop a more personal understanding of the very real consequences of climate change, they’ll be more likely to mobilize around disaster preparedness and pressure politicians to allocate funds and resources accordingly.

I’ll end on what I think is the most important note in all of this. City government has acknowledged the role of an equity lens as the City further develops the DP3 — this is an important step. But it’s absolutely crucial that this becomes concrete and isn’t just a talking point.

Baltimore’s communities of color, which have suffered from disinvestment and the imprint of racism on urban planning, live in spaces that are most vulnerable to the severe weather that climate change brings.The City’s wealthier, white communities suffer from climate change too, but they’re more likely to recover regardless of City policy.

We must learn from history and keep working to invest heavily in the preparedness of Baltimore’s historically underserved communities. Otherwise, when asking whether Baltimore is prepared for climate change, the answer will be unequally so.

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