Casaubon's Book

Disaster Recovery and Big Government

Christian Parenti has a really good article in TomDispatch about the reasons why Climate Change may change people’st thinking about the role of government:

Global warming and the freaky, increasingly extreme weather that will accompany it is going to change all that. After all, there is only one institution that actually has the capacity to deal with multibillion-dollar natural disasters on an increasingly routine basis. Private security firms won’t help your flooded or tornado-struck town. Private insurance companies are systematically withdrawing coverage from vulnerable coastal areas. Voluntary community groups, churches, anarchist affinity groups — each may prove helpful in limited ways, but for better or worse, only government has the capital and capacity to deal with the catastrophic implications of climate change.

Consider Hurricane Irene: as it passed through the Northeast, states mobilized more than 100,000 National Guard troops. New York City opened 78 public emergency shelters prepared to house up to 70,000 people. In my home state, Vermont, where the storm devastated the landscape, destroying or damaging 200 bridges, more than 500 miles of road, and 100 miles of railroad, the National Guard airlifted in free food, water, diapers, baby formula, medicine, and tarps to thousands of desperate Vermonters trapped in 13 stranded towns — all free of charge to the victims of the storm.

The damage to Vermont was estimated at up to $1 billion. Yet the state only has 621,000 residents, so it could never have raised all the money needed to rebuild alone. Vermont businesses, individuals, and foundations have donated at least $4 million, possibly up to $6 million in assistance, an impressive figure, but not a fraction of what was needed. The state government immediately released $24 million in funds, crucial to getting its system of roads rebuilt and functioning, but again that was a drop in the bucket, given the level of damage. A little known state-owned bank, the Vermont Municipal Bond Bank, also offered low-interest, low-collateral loans to towns to aid reconstruction efforts. But without federal money, which covered 80% to 100% of the costs of rebuilding many Vermont roads, the state would still be an economic basket case. Without aid from Washington, the transportation network might have taken years to recover.

As for flood insurance, the federal government is pretty much the only place to get it. The National Flood Insurance Program has written 5.5 million policies in more than 21,000 communities covering $1.2 trillion worth of property. As for the vaunted private market, for-profit insurance companies write between 180,000 and 200,000 policies in a given year. In other words, that is less than 5% of all flood insurance in the United States. This federally subsidized program underwrites the other 95%. Without such insurance, it’s not complicated: many waterlogged victims of 2011, whether from record Midwestern floods or Hurricane Irene, would simply have no money to rebuild.

Or consider sweltering Texas. In 2011, firefighters responded to 23,519 fires. In all, 2,742 homes were destroyed by out-of-control wildfires. But government action saved 34,756 other homes. So you decide: Was this another case of wasteful government intervention in the marketplace, or an extremely efficient use of resources?

The increasing number of natural disasters attributable to climate change will make us more dependent on institutional response structures, and we are likely to have no choice but to prioritize those. At the same time, I’m less optimistic than Parenti that this will change rhetoric – after all, disaster recovery is big government, but so is the world’s largest military force, and many of those who oppose big government favor highly interventionist militarism. Imagining a sudden outbreak of consistency seems optimistic to me.

One point not mentioned is the biggest impact of climate change is most likely to be one that is hard to respond to with emergency inputs – drought. A reader who like me has been following Stuart Staniford’s reading of the climate model papers on drought mentioned it, and I thought the rest of you, if you haven’t been reading, should also follow along. There are more here and here, just in case your morning isn’t cheery enough.

Needless to say the conclusions here are terrible – if there is that much drought on a regular basis, lots of US forests will be turning into savannah (and savannahs into grasslands or deserts) and there will be huge releases of carbon dioxide from the biosphere – really nasty positive feedbacks that the climate models I’m quite sure are not capturing properly – and we are really going to turn our beautiful planet into a hell fit only for robots to live on.

Actually, I’m pretty sure the robots won’t like the grit in their gears from the massive dust storms either. Unfortunately, if you’ve been tracking this data, it isn’t really new, either. The data has suggested for years that the biggest impacts of climate change will be the drying of presently fertile lands. For example of the 17% of global grainlands that are presently irrigated, more than half are likely to lose their water supplies (that 17% of irrigated grainland produces almost a third of the world’s grains).

Drought is ongoing and chronic – governments can set up refugee camps, bring in emergency food supplies and help with resettlement, but they can’t make it rain, restore glacial melt or refill depleted aquifers. And in a world that is going to have to produce more food than ever before, that’s bad news indeed – I suspect that Parenti is right that many of us will cease to object to these government services as they become more necessary – the only question being whether anyone will fully grasp the underlying philosophical issues that lead some to undermine the infrastructure that would enable a humane and just response.

Comments

  1. #1 Andy Brown
    January 30, 2012

    The rhetoric about bad government isn’t a natural or inevitable happenstance of US politics — it’s part of a long, disciplined, propaganda campaign to sour US citizens on government. And the Democratic Party has been persistently inept at countering that campaign. What we need is a sustained effort by leaders to tout for the public structures that we all rely on and which US prosperity has been built on. Certainly, climate change is going to offer plenty of teachable moments — if any of our leaders are willing or able to teach.

  2. #2 Brian Martin
    January 30, 2012

    It is unfortunate that some influential Members of Congress and the business media have such poor understanding of why the government has to provide flood insurance. Many of them assume that private insurers would offer flood coverage if they could charge high enough premiums, but that is not the problem. Private insurers will not cover high severity events such as floods, earthquakes, and major hurricanes because they would have to account for billions of dollars in capital to pay out all at once. The private insurance market works only for predictible losses (auto, fire, etc.) that do not aggregate into massive numbers of simultaneous claims. I have a blog about ways to improve flood insurance and hurricane insurance – http://www.efahip.com.

  3. #3 Brad K.
    January 30, 2012

    Sharon,

    One issue that comes to my mind is ‘sustainable’. If disasters like Hurricane Irene and droughts are identifiable, perhaps rebuilding is as futile, in the long run, as loaning money to Greece.

    One issue that the US Government has been involved in in the past is colonization and relocating populations. From the trans-continental railroad (and changing ownership of a *lot* of land, by fiat) to the Trail of Tears of the Cherokee peoples and Oklahoma (Cherokee Strip!) land rush, and the westward push west of the Mississippi, relocating might be a more tenable government reaction.

    In my memory there was a region that flooded regularly, but the folk there got the government to rebuild their homes every two-four years. It took a lot of years to get all those properties *bought* and demolished.

    What I am thinking is that yest, Vermont was rebuilt. But instead of carting in food, water, bridges, etc., should the right thing have been to cart the folk out to someplace likely to weather the coming storms? To start relocating that 17% of irrigated land to something that might be better situated through coming changes? Of course, this means depopulating one politician’s support base, and beefing up another.

    It doesn’t look pretty.

  4. #4 Nicole
    January 30, 2012

    Brad, I don’t think one disaster means a place should be abandoned. We’d have nowhere on the Earth to live if that were so. Which is not to say there aren’t places we probably should choose to give back to nature like the flood zone you mention, but Vermont doesn’t seem like one of them. At least no yet.

    The idea we should start relocating people to places that will be better would be sensible, except no one is really sure where those places will be. Just a few years ago, climate change models believed we’d become hotter and wetter here, but now they are thinking it might be come drier. There is simply not enough data over a long enough period of time to program computer models that can reliably predict specific climate in the coming decades the way we can predict rain next week.

  5. #5 Eric
    January 30, 2012

    We need to base our agriculture on plants that can survive floods and droughts – trees! There are trees that grow in every biome that are capable of producing more reliable crops than the current annuals.

  6. #6 Mark N.
    January 30, 2012

    ” And in a world that is going to have to produce more food than ever before, that’s bad news indeed.”

    The world does not have to produce more food than ever before. I’m not sure why you keep saying that. Populations boom and bust, species come and go. Are we exempt from the laws that govern other creatures?

  7. #7 Alan
    January 31, 2012

    @Brian: You just nailed the reason private insurers also don’t cover nuclear accidents either and why the pitiful amount of government insurance provided couldn’t even pay out pennies on the dollar in the event of a major power plant or fuel repository accident.

  8. #8 Neil Craig
    February 4, 2012

    You are correct that scares about catastrophic global warming tend to enhance the population’s faith in big government.

    Indeed that is the reason that government and various sorts of fascistic Luddites are pushing it. We know for a fact that most alarmist leaders, if not all, are perfectly well aware that it is a fraud (otherwise they would enthusiastically accept nuclear as the CO2 free answer).

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