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Sea level rise is set to decimate Florida's coastal settlements over the next century, but state officials seem unfazed by the potential risk.
Thousands of government documents and emails reveal a lack of any coordinated state plan to prepare for rising ocean levels due to climate change, even as some of Florida's coastal communities flood as many as ten times per year, according to an Associated Press investigation.
The state's governor, Rick Scott, has questioned the scientific consensus that human activities are driving climate change. And the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting says that, following Scott's election, employees at the state Department of Environmental Protection were prohibited from discussing climate change and sea level rise.
Florida's not the only obstacle to addressing climate change, though. Governors and state legislatures from Maine and Texas to North Carolina and Arizona deny the scientific consensus that human emissions are causing the atmosphere and oceans to warm.
Without state-level buy-in on climate change — and plans for addressing it — coastal communities, agricultural interests, municipalities, and vulnerable populations, like the poor or elderly, will remain exposed to rising seas, more frequent extreme weather events, changing disease vectors, and more precarious food supplies.
In response, the Obama administration, which says climate change adaptation is a top priority, is increasingly using its authority to coax — and coerce — governors and state legislatures into action. And that's emerging as a major battlefront over US climate policy.
"The single biggest constraint on President Obama is that a lot of adaptation is incredibly local and is intertwined with authorities that are traditionally local," Katrina Kuh, an environmental law professor at Hofstra University, told VICE News.
'The White House should not use it for political leverage to force acquiescence to their left-wing ideology.'
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is proving to be a central piece in the administration's efforts on climate change. The agency announced in March that, beginning in early 2016, it will require states to submit plans for how they will prepare for hotter temperatures and rising seas. If states fail to do so, FEMA may withhold funds for grants that help them with disaster preparation, such as early warning systems for storms and new power generators for fire and police stations.
Federal distribution of emergency aid will continue to be allocated even if a state fails to submit a plan.
FEMA will require governors to approve their state's plan, which forces them to take a position on the often unpopular topic of climate change, Becky Hammer, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told VICE News.
"It's going to put some states in an awkward position, I think, where if the governor of a state doesn't acknowledge climate change, or sees it as politically unpopular, the governor might not want to sign off on a plan that includes provisions for climate change," she said. "That would be a shame."
But, according to Hammer, it remains unclear just how detailed states will have to be the next time they submit their plans.
FEMA has required state plans to outline the likelihood of natural disasters occurring in any given year since 2002. The new policy adds a further requirement to include "long-term changes" in weather and climate when making these projections. What that means in practice will vary from state to state, a FEMA spokesperson said.
The agency received 325 requests for pre-disaster funding in fiscal year 2014 totaling $77 million, according to FEMA data. Many of the requests were for projects, like elevating homes on Delaware's Fenwick Island or building a tornado shelter in a high school in Kansas.
Linking climate change with federal funding has riled Republicans who see it as a tool for strong arming states into complying with White House views. Last week, seven Republican senators, including Inhofe, criticized the agency's approach in a letter to FEMA administrator Craig Fugate, saying the climate change "debate" is ongoing. "Limitations in the overall understanding of climate and the limits of scientific research have become increasingly evident," the letter states.
Governors, too, are voicing opposition. Louisiana's Bobby Jindal questioned withholding disaster funding, telling The Washington Times: "The White House should not use [FEMA grants] for political leverage to force acquiescence to their left-wing ideology."
But many state leaders are already working on strategies for facing climate change and are asking the federal government for resources, said Bob Perciasepe, president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES).
Fifteen states, including California and much of the northeast, have completed climate change adaptation plans, according to C2ES. Five more — Hawaii, Minnesota, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Delaware — have plans in progress.
"Businesses and local governments are telling states, 'We need to be prepared and we need to have some ability to adapt as the situation is starting to unfold,'" Perciasepe told VICE News. "And I think when you get a little bit of added incentive, like grants being dependent on it and more technical assistance from federal agencies, that can continue to move things along."
For states that don't want to comply, the administration can use the threat of increased federal intervention in states' processes, Perciasepe said. Under Obama's plan for reducing greenhouse gas pollution, called the Clean Power Plan, for example, states that don't adopt measures for reducing their emissions will be forced to abide by one developed by the US Environmental Protection Agency.
But money may remain the administration's most powerful tool, said Michael Gerrard, director of Columbia University's Sabin Center for Climate Change Law. In the future, the administration could withhold federal funding from states looking to build roads, bridges, or other major infrastructure in areas that might be underwater in a few decades.
"Any state that is refusing to consider climate change will resist, but it will deserve any sanctions it receives," Gerrard told VICE News. "Federal money should not be wasted on planning that engages in willful blindness."
Follow Laura Dattaro on Twitter: @ldattaro