The World is Orange
Updated: Sep 23, 2020
Vast numbers of Northern Californians woke up last Wednesday to skies that were darkened an eerie orange as though filtered through a sepia lens, and raining ash that fell the entire day. In the ensuing days that orange smokiness transitioned to a persistent and acrid gray haze that still persists and is still filtering out much sunlight and making it hazardous to be outside. The cause of this gloom is, of course, the record number of wildfires burning across California (3.3-million acres already burned this year), Oregon (1-million acres charred), Washington State (626,000 acres burned) and elsewhere stretching to Colorado. One might say that the US West is on fire. These wildfires are on the heels of freak lightning storms and record heatwaves, following years of drought that have left forests with bone-dry timber -- all contributing to the fire onslaught. Elsewhere, heavy rains in Florida and hurricanes in Louisiana and Texas are leaving different types of destruction in their wakes. Even as we struggle with our Covid-pandemic shell-shock, this has been a disconcerting reminder that the climate-altered world of the future that science has been predicting is upon us.
The theme of several of our recent Musings has been on this point exactly – that it is already too late to stop many of the impacts of climate change, and therefore a focus on infrastructure that can adapt to these changes and can mitigate the worst of the impacts is key to alleviating and reducing future damage and suffering across the globe.
An unsettling but important book was published earlier this year by British journalist Mark Lynas, titled “Our Final Warning: Six Degrees of Climate Emergency”. It updates his earlier book on climate change and in this new edition he says that the changes he foresaw looming ‘in the future’ in his 2007 publication have occurred at an alarmingly accelerated and unanticipated pace. He writes that “…we are already living in a world one degree warmer than that inhabited by our parents and grandparents. Two degrees Celsius, which will stress human societies and destroy many natural ecosystems such as rainforests and coral reefs, looms on the near horizon.”  The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) backs up that claim of 1°C of warming, and warns that the 1.5° C global warming maximum set by the Paris Climate Agreement might be exceeded by as early as 2024, at least on a temporary basis. Clearly the situation becomes increasingly dire as global temperature rise continues. But my point is that as author Lynas, the Governors of California, Oregon and Washington State, and an almost endless array of scientists have all commented, we are already living in a climate-altered world which is cascading out of control with one disaster following another.
So what should we do? Obviously try to ameliorate accelerated warming – it is already too late to completely stop it. And also immediately face the reality that these changes are already set in motion, the effects are being felt now and are going to keep getting worse. One of the very first steps in this necessary adaptation is to stop building infrastructure, including housing and associated support infrastructure, in areas doomed to become badly damaged or destroyed by these environmental sledgehammers. This includes damage and destruction from sea-rise caused flooding, river flooding, hurricanes and storm surge, and recurring wildfires. An opinion survey study just released by Stanford University, the Washington DC think-tank Resources for the Future (RFF), and research group ReconMR concluded that there is surprisingly widespread and bipartisan support within the American populace for much more aggressive government regulation to fight the effects of climate change. This includes, the study explained, outright bans on building in flood or fire-prone areas. As the study and NY Times commented, this represents “a level of restrictiveness almost unheard-of in the United States”. The study findings make clear that there is growing public support for government action to prepare for the effects of global warming. Over 75% of survey respondents said that they had personally observed the effects of climate change. 84% of the survey respondents, including 73% of Republicans, supported updated mandatory building codes in disaster/flood-prone areas, and fully 57% believe it should be illegal to build in those areas. A similar percentage supported paying people to move to less flood-prone areas. There are a host of other important results from this survey, but one that should be noted is that there was just as much support for government action to address the effects of climate change in the responses from lower income communities and across the different racial groups surveyed. Clearly much more thinking, planning, legislative and regulatory focus on adaptation needs to be undertaken immediately to confront the complex issues connected with all this.
The point of our “Retreat” Musing last week was that this sort of relocation and land-use rethink is no longer a fringe option. It may well be a policy necessity. As the NY Times reported, “If local governments continue to allow homes to go up in places most exposed to climate change, such as coastlines, floodplains or fire-prone wilderness, experts say, it will make generations of current and future residents more vulnerable to worsening hurricanes, floods, wildfires and other disasters…Yet those long-term concerns have typically been outweighed by the demand for new homes, and the jobs and tax revenue that come with them. In many coastal states, the most flood-prone areas have seen the highest rates of home construction since 2010, a study last year found. And in California and elsewhere, officials continue to approve development in areas hit by fires.”
So while significant majorities of the American public appear to favor much more restrictive building codes to combat the reality of these environmental changes, public policy continues to move in a different direction – or not move at all. The NY Times reported that just one third of local jurisdictions around the US have adopted disaster resistant provision into their building codes, and almost no jurisdiction prohibits development entirely in vulnerable areas, in large part because they know the federal government or government supported insurance will reimburse most of the cost to rebuild after a disaster -- while the local government collects property and other taxes from the development. The one source of strong push-back to this rebuilding cycle, however, has been from the insurance industry which last year began cancelling homeowners coverage for customers in high-risk areas. In California, the state imposed a one-year moratorium on those cancellations, covering some 800,000 homes, but that one-year moratorium will soon expire and the next steps in this unfolding drama are yet to play out.
Possibly the wildfire cataclysm that the West is experiencing now – on top of the devastating Australian wildfires; Hurricanes Laura, Maria, Harvey, Sandy, Katrina, Dorian and a host of others; European droughts and record heatwaves; persistent “sunny day flooding” in places like Boston, Atlantic City, Galveston and Miami; increased typhoon activity in the Pacific, and the like, will finally bring a change in policy. One thing the Stanford/RFF survey made clear was that Americans believe there is a need for Federal as well as State leadership on setting tougher building codes and building/rebuilding prohibitions. The survey found that American’s don’t think “everyone” should pay for people to continue building and rebuilding in dangerous areas (which is precisely what FEMA is starting to restrict), but that will take leadership and thinking through the kinds of policy issues we raised in our “Retreat” Musing.
These are critical questions. Who will be in charge and how do we get consistent guidelines that are fairly administered? What are the priorities, including national security? What do we save and what gets abandoned? If we are going to relocate whole communities, where will they go and how will they be compensated? Last week’s list of issues around “retreat” remains very important to think through, and policy leadership will be required. This is a huge challenge and it is finally getting some attention. But we can’t wait any longer to confront these tough and critical questions. We will soon see increasing waves of migration from many locations in our country to other parts of our country as well as across country borders, which will have profound infrastructure and other serious implications. More to come on this soon.