Subsidizing Disaster

Posted: Jun 14, 2013 12:01 AM
The New York Times is pleased with Mayor Michael Bloomberg's 438-page, $20 billion plan to protect New York from the effects of future hurricanes. It notes benignly that the cost is probably an underestimate but agrees with the mayor, "Whether you believe climate change is real or not is beside the point; the bottom line is we can't run the risk."

Really? Imagine the argument: "Whether you believe zombies are real or not is beside the point. ... We can't run the risk." Clearly one's willingness to undertake these sorts of preparations depends completely on whether the perceived danger is real.

Is it? I don't know. I've pored over some of the research but can't hazard a guess as to whether the alarmists or the skeptics are right. Weather is incredibly complicated and multifactorial, and as a non-scientist, I find it difficult to understand. Both sides of this heated debate (couldn't resist) believe their opponents are acting in bad faith. The warmists cast everyone on the other side as paid shills for energy companies, and the skeptics charge that warmists are chasing grant money. A little charity in both directions would go a long way.

Like other undecideds, I am often repelled by the hysteria of climate change zealots -- and by their evident hypocrisy. Surely, if you believe that Earth might be going the way of Venus, you'd support the widespread use of nuclear power? Still, I'm willing to grant that there might be something to worry about -- maybe a lot. A majority of climatologists believe this. They may be wrong, but surely it would be prudent to take steps that make sense on other grounds and might also address climate change.

In this spirit, it's refreshing to see proposals, like Bloomberg's, that focus on adjusting to rising temperatures rather than vain attempts to halt the world's use of fossil fuels. Rapidly industrializing countries like China (the world's chief emitter of greenhouse gases) and India (the fourth largest contributor) are not going to sacrifice development on the altar of environmentalism.

We ought to celebrate new technologies like fracking. An environmentalist was asked why he supported fracking. His answer was one word: coal. Fracking provides abundant, inexpensive, domestic energy to Americans while also reducing carbon emissions. America's greenhouse gas emissions have dropped more than any other nation's in the past five years as we've reduced our reliance on coal in favor of natural gas. And our technological leaps won't be kept from the rest of the world, they'll be shared.

If we're reforming, we might start with government's contribution to the problem. You're heard those worrying reports about the increasing economic damage hurricanes do? Well, the costs are not due to any spike in the number or intensity of storms, explains the NOAA, but rather the result of "greater population, infrastructure, and wealth on the U.S. coastlines."

How did that "infrastructure" -- including huge, opulent houses right on the beach -- come to be located in areas prone to hurricanes? You've paid for it. Private companies declined to offer flood insurance for such properties, for obvious reasons. But since 1968, the federal government has provided subsidized flood insurance. The result has been a huge liability for taxpayers (the program was $18 billion in the red before Hurricane Sandy), and increasing vulnerability to future storms. Even if the planet stops warming forever, there will be bad weather -- and the properties for whose loss American taxpayers will pay are multiplying.

It's expensive for taxpayers and also environmentally unsound to build so heavily along the coastline. Natural dunes and wetlands protect against storm surges. In fact, some of Bloomberg's proposals for New York include expanding such natural defenses.

It gets worse. As James DeLong noted in a piece for Reason magazine, "People are now becoming so used to the idea that the federal government will pay for disasters that they are not bothering to buy even the subsidized flood insurance. In most places, less than 30 percent of the properties located in designated flood plains are covered." True to form, the federal government shelled out $60 billion for relief after Sandy. Those who objected that the bill contained $10 million for FBI salaries and $2 billion for road construction in areas untouched by the hurricane, among other goodies, were accused of heartlessness.

Whoever turns out to be right about climate change, certain reforms are worth doing. One is to stop subsidizing disaster.