One year ago today, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the northeast coast of the United States, doing billions in damage to homes and businesses and tragically taking 55 lives. Coastal communities in New York and New Jersey were devastated and some are still recovering. National Wildlife Refuges across the East Coast suffered damage from debris, flooding and erosion, including New Jersey’s Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge, Pea Island in North Carolina and Chincoteague, one of my favorite refuges in Virginia. This storm turned the lives and careers of thousands of people upside down and the environmental impact was extensive. Scientists warn that climate change could make extreme weather events more frequent, and it is almost certain that Sandy will not be the only superstorm we see in our lifetime.
Thankfully, the Obama administration and the federal government has begun to take action to address the impacts of climate change. In a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation, Congress quickly passed a $50.4 billion emergency bill to fund Hurricane Sandy relief efforts. The bill included a crucial amendment providing $360 million to Department of the Interior programs to “increase the resiliency and capacity of coastal habitat and infrastructure to withstand future storms and reduce the amount of damage caused by such storms.” It was an important major step in the right direction.
Just last week, the Department of the Interior announced $162 million in projects funded by the Sandy relief bill to better protect coastal communities from storms through restoration work. Secretary Jewell stated that “our public lands are often the best defense against Mother Nature.” This is a great outcome: Defenders worked hard to make sure the habitat resilience and restoration funding requested by the administration was included in the House and Senate Sandy supplemental bills.
Throughout the year, the Obama administration made significant efforts to act on climate change. President Obama pledged to face the challenge head-on in his State of the Union speech. Soon to follow was the March release of the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy, a set of guidelines for restoring wildlife habitat and improving its resilience in the face of climate change. In June, President Obama unveiled his new Climate Action Plan, and Defenders’ own climate expert Noah Matson is part of the new Department of the Interior Advisory Committee on Climate Change Science.
The Sandy anniversary is also a good time to assess what we want from our lawmakers and the administration on this issue going forward. I’m excited to see the Interior Department’s efforts to restore wetlands, marshes, beaches and other coastal areas through the funding from the relief bill. These projects will help buffer communities and benefit the wildlife these habitats support, making 2014 a year of further progress for storm-stricken areas. Sally Jewell’s announcement of the Interior Department’s new Hurricane Sandy Coastal Resiliency Competitive Grant Program today is an excellent addition to its climate adaptation work and support.
Reducing emissions is also part of a comprehensive climate change response. Recently the EPA proposed unprecedented new guidelines requiring new power plants to capture or store 40 percent of their greenhouse gas output to help combat climate change. The administration is standing up to the climate change deniers working to scuttle these important rules. It is vital that we reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we release into our atmosphere, while also working to adapt our natural resources to the effects of climate change we are already experiencing. So, while the Interior Department’s storm-buffering work is without precedent, we need to keep the momentum going on climate adaptation in the United States.
Creating the National Fish, Wildlife and Plants Climate Adaptation Strategy was an important and necessary first step; now it’s time to implement it for the long-term. That means that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Forest Service and National Park Service need full funding and access to the resources they need to do this important work. Fortifying wildlife habitat can help people, communities and wildlife weather the climate change impacts affecting us right now, and that means coastline restoration, land protection and fire management programs. Congress must fully fund our wildlife agencies when it votes on the federal budget in January.
As we look ahead to the new year, let’s remember the hard work so many people did to begin the repairs and to restore the places struck by Hurricane Sandy, from first responders to federal workers to citizen volunteers. Let’s recognize the coming year as an opportunity to begin a new, proactive approach to climate change and extreme weather so we can be better prepared for the next Sandy. And let’s look forward to this time next year, when hopefully we will look back at 2014 and see that we have made a difference.
Jamie Rappaport Clark is the President and CEO of Defenders of Wildlife
Originally published in The Huffington Post