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Early Biden Climate Test: Groups Demand Tougher Rules on Building

WASHINGTON — President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has promised to help communities prepare for the effects of climate change. A new demand for tougher building standards could test that commitment.

On Wednesday, two influential organizations that advocate for stronger measures to withstand natural disasters, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Association of State Floodplain Managers, filed a petition with the federal government urging more stringent building standards for homes and infrastructure along rivers and coasts.

Those changes would better protect millions of Americans as climate change worsens, and they reflect the sort of policy changes that experts say the United States must adopt to cope with the effects of global warming. But they would also make homes more expensive to build, risking the anger of local governments and home builders, which is why previous administrations have been reluctant to impose similar changes.

“The American dream of homeownership becomes a nightmare when homes are built in areas that flood,” said Joel Scata, an attorney for the water and climate team at N.R.D.C. who worked on the petition. “Affordable housing shouldn’t mean a cheaply built house in an unsafe place.”

The 58-page petition has both legal and political significance. The two groups argue that federal law requires the government to update its rules to reduce flood damages “to the maximum extent feasible.” Filing a petition is a first step toward potential legal challenges later.

N.R.D.C.’s involvement in particular could make the petition hard for the new administration to ignore. The group’s president is Gina McCarthy, whom Mr. Biden has selected to coordinate domestic climate policy across the federal government. Through a spokesman for the Biden transition team, Ms. McCarthy declined a request to comment.

The push is a preview of the challenge facing Mr. Biden, who made addressing climate change a central part of his campaign and must now decide what Americans are willing to accept to accomplish that goal.

That challenge is especially acute when it comes to preparing for the effects of rising seas, worsening storms, spreading wildfires and other consequences of a warming planet. That part of the climate agenda is particularly fraught, according to current and former officials, because it means telling Americans to change where and how they live.

“It’s really messy,” said Alice Hill, who oversaw resilience planning on the National Security Council during the Obama administration and is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “You can upset a lot of voters.”

Perhaps nothing illustrates that challenge better than flood-insurance rules. Created in 1968, the taxpayer-subsidized National Flood Insurance Program was designed to ensure that people could get flood coverage in areas that private insurers deemed too risky. But guaranteeing insurance had the unintended consequence of encouraging construction in those places.

Even as climate change increases the odds of flooding, construction in high-risk areas continues to increase, often without adequate safety standards. In many coastal states, the most flood-prone areas saw greater increases in home construction than the rest of the state, according to data released in 2019.

By 2045, more than 300,000 existing coastal homes will be at risk of flooding regularly, the Union of Concerned Scientists concluded in 2018. By 2050, more than 800,000 homes, worth almost half a trillion dollars, will be in danger, according to data from the real estate data firm Zillow. In Florida, sea-level rise already appears to be hurting home prices in vulnerable areas.

Yet earlier attempts to impose greater constraints on home construction in flood-prone areas have mostly failed as voters and industries pushed back.

In 2012, Congress passed a bill that would have increased flood-insurance premiums to better reflect the risk. But two years later, public backlash caused lawmakers to reverse themselves.

Then, President Barack Obama ordered federally funded construction in flood zones be built to tougher standards, such as being perched higher off the ground. President Trump reversed that order, under pressure from home builders worried about increased construction costs.

The National Association of Home Builders, a trade group based in Washington, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the proposals.

The petition filed Wednesday tells the federal government to be even more ambitious.

To have access to federal flood insurance, communities have to follow federal rules designed to limit their flood exposure. Those rules, revolve around a single core requirement: Local officials must ensure that the ground floor of any new or renovated structure is at least as high off the ground as the likely height of a major flood.

In their petition, the N.R.D.C. and the floodplain managers’ association argue that as climate change makes flooding worse, it’s necessary to update those standards. They have demanded that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which runs the flood-insurance program, impose new requirements on communities that want to use that program.

Those changes include requiring that new or renovated homes be raised higher off the ground — two feet higher in areas exposed to river flooding, and four feet higher in coastal areas. The two groups also want FEMA to prohibit the construction of hospitals, police stations, sewage treatment plants or other critical infrastructure in high-risk flood zones. And they want FEMA to update its flood maps to show future risks from sea-level rise, which would discourage building in those areas.

Mr. Scata called the standards in the National Flood Insurance Program “outdated,” and as a result they are “unintentionally placing people in harm’s way.”

FEMA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Meeting those new requirements could increase the construction cost for homes by as much as 4.5 percent in places exposed to river flooding, and between 2 percent and 7 percent in coastal areas, based on data published by FEMA in 2008.

But those extra construction costs tend to be outweighed by lower premiums for flood insurance, reflecting the reduced flood risk, according to Chad Berginnis, executive director of the Association of State Floodplain Managers. And the petition asks FEMA to make new funding available for homeowners to raise existing homes, which is more expensive than elevating a home when it’s first built.

Local officials are likely to object that the new standards would hurt home construction in their areas, Mr. Berginnis said. But he said some cities and counties around the country had begun increasing their standards voluntarily, and their economies haven’t suffered as a result.

“We have enough success stories to show that you can have healthy development in a community as well as high standards,” Mr. Berginnis said. He said the new standards would encourage cities and towns to push new development inland, further away from the water.

“It certainly is going to be a difficult discussion to have,” Mr. Berginnis said. But under the current rules, he added, “people aren’t safe.”