Tag Archives: Hurricane Sandy

Fires and Floods

Moving from the urban environment of Baltimore to the wilds of North Idaho meant learning a lot of new environmental issues. And moving from the inland northwest to the SoCal coast brings yet another set of learning curves. A lot of things are the same — the need for non-profit fundraising, for example, is universal — but there are issue similarities that I hadn’t expected. The intersection of climate change impacts and local land use regulation is remarkably similar in communities that couldn’t be more different.

In North Idaho, and throughout the forested Rockies, climate-induced wildfire is an increasing threat to rural residents. Fires are larger, more frequent and more intense, and costs to  governments, property owners and their insurers are mounting. Meanwhile, along the coasts, extreme-weather storms, with damaging wind and rain and storm surge, are also larger, more frequent and more intense. And costs to governments, property owners and their insurers are also mounting.

And interestingly, both locations could stand to learn from one another.  For example. as coastal communities consider “managed retreat” from the increasingly problematic proximity to rising sea levels, so too should rural communities reconsider isolated development in the fire-dangerous wildland urban interface.

The excellent Bozeman-based Headwaters Economics research organization came up with some good advice to western communities worried about fire that could be just as useful to coastal communities worried about storms. According to Headwaters Economics, “Addressing the issue of ever-escalating fire suppression expenses could achieve a number of related public policy goals: increasing fiscal responsibility, introducing a fairer and more equitable distribution of those costs among those benefiting from wildfire protection, and improving the safety of future homeowners and wildland firefighters.” Change “fire suppression” to “storm surge mitigation,” change “wildfire protection” to “flood protection” and “wildland firefighters” to a more general “first responders” and the similarities are clear.

A Headwaters report (pdf) offers ten ideas for controlling the rising cost of protecting homes from wildland fires. Most are entirely applicable to coastal communities dealing with storm-related flooding:

  1. Mapping: Publish Maps Identifying Areas with High Probability of Wildland Fires.

  2. Education: Increase Awareness of the Financial Consequences of Home Building in Fire-Prone Areas.

  3. Redirecting Federal Aid towards Land Use Planning: Provide Technical Assistance and Financial Incentives to Help Local Governments Direct Future Development Away from the Wildland-Urban Interface.

  4. Cost Share Agreements: Add Incentives for Counties to Sign Agreements that Share the Costs of Wildland Firefighting between Local and Federal Entities.

  5. Land Acquisition: Purchase Lands or Easements on Lands that are Fire-Prone and at Risk of Conversion to Development.

  6. A National Fire Insurance and Mortgage Program: Apply Lessons from Efforts to Prevent Development in Floodplains.

  7. Insurance: Allow Insurance Companies to Charge Higher Premiums in Fire-Prone Areas.

  8. Zoning: Limit Development in the Wildland-Urban Interface with Local Planning and Zoning Ordinances.

  9. Eliminate Mortgage Interest Deductions:Eliminate Home Interest Mortgage Deductions for New Homes in the Wildland-Urban Interface.

  10. Reduce Federal Firefighting Budgets: Induce Federal Land Managers to Shift More of the Cost of Wildland Firefighting to Local Governments.

Again, by just swapping out a few words and phrases, this could be an impressively robust agenda for coasts. As we develop a work plan for coastal development issues at Coastal Conservation Network, this list might be an interesting starting point.


Newest Best Argument for Taking Action on Climate Change Is Now Climate Change

An interesting article in the New York Times makes the claim that compared to the frequent and vague “green jobs” argument, “the stronger argument for a major government response to climate change is the more obvious argument: climate change.” The piece concludes that, “In the end, the strongest economic argument for an aggressive response to climate change is not the much trumpeted windfall of green jobs. It’s the fact that the economy won’t function very well in a world full of droughts, hurricanes and heat waves.”

As a comprehensive cap-and-trade approach seems less likely, and more direct carbon pollution regulation by EPA seems more likely, the change in argument seems not only natural but necessary.  For one thing, the cost-benefit calculations are becoming increasingly clear even without a jobs and economic development hook.


Big Green Environmentalism’s Big Climate Failure

Maybe it’s because I spent about four years dueling with stupid in North Idaho, but I have to admit some amusement with the recent what-went-wrong analysis of the climate battles in Obama’s first term. A recent study (140-page pdf) by a Harvard researcher puts a lot of the blame on the Big Green groups based in Washington, DC and their blindness to the swift radicalization of the Republican Party and their inability to counter it.  Indeed, the concentration of policy wonk generals calling the shots in DC without sufficient resources being put into the necessary grassroots army across the country was a fatal flaw that was glaringly obvious from Coeur d’Alene.

It probably shouldn’t have required a Harvard political scientist to do so, but researcher Theda Skocpol provides a clear-eyed explanation of how things went wrong, culminating with the Tea Party summer of 2009. It was entirely too easy for Big Greens to dismiss the rantings of right-wingers in flyover states — what with all their misspelled signs and all the Jon Stewart ridicule — but the truism that all politics is local was lost on Big Greens whose strategy was based on coalitions with (selective) Big Businesses far from that summer’s town hall shouting matches.

As Skocpol is quoted in a brief Washington Post interview:

Theda Skocpol: Climate-change denial had been an elite industry for a long time, but it finally penetrated down to conservative Republican identified voters around this time. That created new pressures on Republican officeholders and candidates. And I don’t think most people noticed that at the time. …

… I think a lot of environmental groups were under the impression that the Republican Party is a creature of business, and that if you can make business allies, you can get Republicans to do something. But I don’t think the Republican Party right now is mainly influenced by business. In the House in particular, ideological groups and grassroots pressure are much more influential. And in the research we’ve done, the two big issues that really revved up primary voters were immigration and the EPA.

The fact that much of the white-hot rhetoric was directed at health care reform served only to mask the equally hot anger at legendary evils of EPA  overreach. Indeed, the terms “cap and trade” and “scientific consensus” were no less threatening than Obama’s death panels. The DC leadership of the Big Green groups should maybe have gone to an Idaho town meeting or two rather than climate conferences in Copenhagen.

The folks at Grist have provided some superb analysis of the analysis, but I’m hoping that the lessons aren’t lost. For one thing, foundation funders and big enviro thinkers could start re-emphasizing grassroots capacity in locations other than big blue cities where the Big Green groups are headquartered.

Furthermore, enviros can’t be missing in action on important issues related to climate. This exchange closes out the interview and, with a week or two into my new role with a new group, it doesn’t bode well.

Washington Post: The Sandy relief bill is going through the House [on Tuesday], and almost no environmental groups weighed in on that. That’s shocking to me. Here we are, a large group of people in New York and New Jersey that environmentalists want to connect to climate change, and the groups aren’t there.  Why not?

Theda Skocpol: So you do have to build broader coalitions. That was one of the things that health reformers did this time around. They buried hatchets and forged ties with groups they needed to, like medical providers, and reached out to small businesses. Health care reformers spent years talking about what went wrong, what they could do differently. But that also took 15 years, from 1994 to when health care finally made it over the top. I’m not sure climate can wait 15 years.

All I know is if another opportunity comes along to get legislation through Congress, those that are prepared are going to be the ones that will be take advantage. And that’s what I don’t see yet. I haven’t been impressed by the inside-the-movement post mortems I’ve read. I don’t see any thought that there will have to be a lot of rethinking for that to happen.

Indeed, last night, as the House of Representatives was voting on amendments to the delayed Sandy relief legislation, the sacrificial cuts — given up at the altar of the Tea Party gods of debt ceilings, deficit reductions, fiscal cliffs, and deadbeat deadlines —  came from $150 million in oceans and coastal programs, and a particularly unlucky wildlife refuge in Connecticut.

Yeah. Like we’re ready to fight any climate battles any time soon.


Politicize the Storm

The “post-tropical storm” responsible for flooding the New York subways is another brief opportunity to reflect on the role of government before the polls close exactly one week from now.  As President Obama, Mayor Bloomberg, and Governors Christie, Cuomo, and O’Malley got about the detailed business of recovery, candidate Romney was asked 15 times about his opinions on the role of the federal government in disaster aid, and 15 times he said nothing.

As Grist notes:

“Because what’s he going to say? His campaign hedges on the issue, but he doesn’t want to deal with this, not now. He doesn’t want to have to explain his complicated feelings on government and climate change. His base wants him to destroy the former and deny the latter. So, what? Now, after 23 months of campaigning, he’s going to say: Yes, the government has a role here?”

In fact, as the New York Times says, a big storm requires big government help. This is precisely the role of the federal government. Romney’s tortured silence on the issue is troublesome.

“Does Mr. Romney really believe that financially strapped states would do a better job than a properly functioning federal agency? Who would make decisions about where to send federal aid? Or perhaps there would be no federal aid, and every state would bear the burden of billions of dollars in damages.”

Voters watching non-stop storm coverage punctuated only by breaks of non-stop political advertising are likely to connect the obvious dots. I suspect that they will want to hear what Mr. Romney has to say.

I don’t doubt Governor Romney’s sympathies, but even his gestures are misguided.  Romney, bless his heart, rallied his supporters to offer up a collection of  “flashlights, batteries, diapers, toothbrushes, mini-deodorants, fleece blankets, cereal, toilet paper and canned goods” for the huddled masses suffering on the east coast. And the boxes of the stuff will undoubtedly be delivered by somebody to somebody somewhere.

But such token generosity is way more trouble than it’s worth. Indeed, with millions of families affected by the storm and thousands in serious need of assistance, real responders urge a more responsible approach to donating and volunteering.  In very stark terms, a strong, well-organized and well-funded federal emergency response system is preferable to packing up a couple of random cases of mouthwash at a political rally. Though, to the campaign that washes already-clean pots and pans, it is perhaps better to have faux concern than no concern at all.