Interview of the Week: Author Jeffrey Peterson

Jeffrey Peterson has more than 40 years of experience in environmental policy both on the Hill and at EPA.  He recently wrote a book entitled “A New Coastabout the need for policies to respond to devastating storms and rising seas.

ODP:  What motivated you to write about coastal adaptation after your long career in government?  What more could you say once you left the government?

JP:  I left EPA in the summer of 2017 when it became clear that the new Administration would not support work I was doing to help communities prepare for the impacts of a changing climate, including more severe storms and rising seas. That Fall, I watched in sadness and disbelief as three major hurricanes – Harvey, Irma, and Maria – took a staggering toll in lives, lost homes, and damaged communities. A New Coast was my attempt to capture what I learned at EPA about the growing peril that storms and rising seas pose to coastal communities and use my experience in government to propose actions to address this threat.

ODP: Do you believe the federal government is up to the task of getting the public ready for sea-level rise and increasing flooding? 

JP:  The current administration has dramatically damaged long-standing federal programs to make coastal communities resilient to storms and rising seas. Although some state and local governments are making progress in assessing flood risks and implementing response actions, they need the scientific, technical, and financial resources that the federal government could provide. A new administration is likely to give much higher priority to coastal flooding and, with new leadership, the federal government is up to the task of getting the public ready to meet this challenge.  

ODP:  This week, the President announced that the government will no longer look at climate change when they do “NEPA” environmental reviews of new government projects and actions. What do you think, given your own experiences in government?

JP:  The draft revisions to the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations announced on January 9 by the President would narrow and limit the application of one of the country’s most important environmental laws. The Obama administration proposed guidance to clarify how to consider the difficult issues related to climate change when assessing federal actions under NEPA but this important guidance was revoked by the Trump administration in 2017. Taken together, the proposed new regulations and the revocation of the climate change guidance are a major setback to the country’s ability to make decisions about major federal investments that will stand the test of time.  

ODP: What do you make of the Green New Deal?  Are there other legislative or regulatory proposals that would be effective?

JP:  The Green New Deal makes a commitment to reducing greenhouse gases while keeping our values – including a strong economy and social justice – in mind. New legislation is needed to cope with the impacts of more severe storms and rising seas but it needs to do more than just protect lives and reduce financial losses. It also needs to define measures and resources to help protect cultural heritage and community identity, recognize the interests of low income and minority communities, and support the health of coastal ecosystems.

ODP: You spent many years on Capitol Hill before working at EPA.  Do you think bi-partisan legislation on sea-level rise and coastal adaptation is possible?

JP:  Yes. Millions of people and trillions of dollars in assets are at risk from more severe storms and rising seas. Congress has provided generous relief in the aftermath of past storms and, as damages mount, Congress is likely to respond with the resources needed to plan ahead and better prepare the coast for these risks. The key question is whether Congress will summon the political will to craft a long-term solution before it is too late to avoid the most serious impacts and reap the benefits of early action.

ODP: What, if anything, makes you optimistic about the future and coastal adaptation in the U.S.?

JP:  The American coastline that we have known for centuries will not exist one hundred years from now and there is nothing we can do to change that. But, I am optimistic that we can manage a transition to a new coast smartly – saving lives, reducing costs, migrating ecosystems, and redesigning critical infrastructure. We can also try to make the coast of the future better so that it is a safer place to live, more environmentally friendly, and more accessible to rich and poor alike.

Thanks, Jeff.  We know this book is more important now than ever, given the Trump Administration’s decision to eliminate climate impacts like these from NEPA environmental reviews.

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