The Island of Doubt

Fill in the blank in this excerpt from a statement by 10 leading climate experts:

These ________ trends are setting us up for rapidly increasing human and economic losses from hurricane disasters, especially in this era of heightened activity. Scores of scientists and engineers had warned of the threat to New Orleans….

The missing word is not “warming” or other comparable references to climate change. The missing word is…

…demographic.

The statement, which is signed by scientists described by the New York Times as being “sharply divided over whether global warming is intensifying hurricanes,” have put aside their differences to draw attention to the real problem: people are just plain stupid. Although they probably wouldn’t be so undiplomatic, that’s what repeatedly building homes in coastal hurricane-prone areas amounts to.

Here’s the whole thing:

As the Atlantic hurricane season gets underway, the possible influence of climate change on hurricane activity is receiving renewed attention. While the debate on this issue is of considerable scientific and societal interest and concern, it should in no event detract from the main hurricane problem facing the United States: the ever-growing concentration of population and wealth in vulnerable coastal regions. These demographic trends are setting us up for rapidly increasing human and economic losses from hurricane disasters, especially in this era of heightened activity. Scores of scientists and engineers had warned of the threat to New Orleans long before climate change was seriously considered, and a Katrina-like storm or worse was (and is) inevitable even in a stable climate.

Rapidly escalating hurricane damage in recent decades owes much to government policies that serve to subsidize risk. State regulation of insurance is captive to political pressures that hold down premiums in risky coastal areas at the expense of higher premiums in less risky places. Federal flood insurance programs likewise undercharge property owners in vulnerable areas. Federal disaster policies, while providing obvious humanitarian benefits, also serve to promote risky behavior in the long run.

We are optimistic that continued research will eventually resolve much of the current controversy over the effect of climate change on hurricanes. But the more urgent problem of our lemming-like march to the sea requires immediate and sustained attention. We call upon leaders of government and industry to undertake a comprehensive evaluation of building practices, and insurance, land use, and disaster relief policies that currently serve to promote an ever-increasing vulnerability to hurricanes.

This is such a welcome development, the likes of which was needed decades ago. I mean, come on, people. How many Army Corps engineering failures do we need before we admit that we can’t afford to defend ourselves against the worst of nature’s wrath?

Biased insurance rates, counter-productive federal disaster policies — these are the real threats to life, limb and condo on the Gulf and Eastern seaboard. And it shouldn’t take a bunch of climatologists to tell us as much. Not that I expect anything to come of this latest attempt to call a spade a spade. For that, we’d need an end to self-serving, short-term political posturing and demagoguery. But we have to start somewhere.

And, I would hasten to add, none of this means climate change won’t make things worse. It will, lack of consensus among climatologists notwithstanding. We should still be scared about the implications of our do-nothing collective stance on the subject. If anything, this new statement about the relatively minor role global warming plays in hurricane-related damage should suggest an “if you think it’s bad now” approach to coastal zone management.

Comments

  1. #1 Eric
    July 25, 2006

    I was discussing the weather with a gas station attendant the other day and this very subject came up. He basically said the same thing, asking why does the government encourage building in places that are so obviously at risk. This was a guy pumping my gas mind you (not to disparage gas station attendants), why is it so hard for the people whose responsiblity it is to set the direction of our society to not get it ?

  2. #2 Karl
    July 25, 2006

    Not to minimize the seriousness of that situation, think about this:
    These demographic trends are setting us up for rapidly increasing human and economic losses from ____________ disasters.
    Fill in the missing word.
    How about “earthquake” or “tornado”.
    On the West Coast seismologists have been warning for years about “The Big One”, yet the population density continues to increase.
    In my part of the country, Oklahoma, the tornado belt, population continues to increase.
    Where in this country can we live that isn’t subject to some natural disaster threat?

  3. #3 doctorj
    July 26, 2006

    The US has deserted my hometown New Orleans. So keep having those conversations with your gas guys and people in the southeast US will just continue on with suffering. The US of the “can do” attitude died sometime during my lifetime.

  4. #4 Mark Bahner
    July 26, 2006

    You write, “…people are just plain stupid. Although they probably wouldn’t be so undiplomatic, that’s what repeatedly building homes in coastal hurricane-prone areas amounts to.”

    But people are *not* (generally) “stupid.” See this opinion piece by John Stossel.

    “Confessions of a Welfare Queen: How rich bastards like me rip off taxpayers for millions”

    http://www.reason.com/0403/fe.js.confessions.shtml

    Stossel notes:

    “In 1980 I built a wonderful beach house. Four bedrooms — every room with a view of the Atlantic Ocean.

    It was an absurd place to build, right on the edge of the ocean. All that stood between my house and ruin was a hundred feet of sand. My father told me: ‘Donít do it; itís too risky. No one should build so close to an ocean.’

    But I built anyway.

    Why? As my eager-for-the-business architect said, ‘Why not? If the ocean destroys your house, the government will pay for a new one.’”

    And his architect was right. The ocean DID destroy John Stossel’s home, and the government DID pay for a new one.

    So is John Stossel “stupid?” I don’t think so!

  5. #5 Mark Bahner
    July 26, 2006

    “…why is it so hard for the people whose responsiblity it is to set the direction of our society to not get it?”

    It’s quite simple. The money they spend is NOT theirs…and we taxpayers let them.

    This is what James Madison said in Congress (before he became president) when a bill to pay money ($15,000) to refugees from France was proposed:

    “I cannot undertake to lay my finger on that article of the Constitution which granted a right to Congress of expending, on objects of benevolence, the money of their constituents.”

    http://www.gmu.edu/departments/economics/wew/articles/05/permissible.html

    Can anyone imagine President Bush or any member of Congress saying the same thing about victims of hurricane Katrina, or any other natural disaster?

    As Walter Williams notes:

    “There’s such a broad ignorance or contempt for constitutional principles among the American people that any politician who bore truth faith and allegiance to the Constitution would commit political suicide.”

  6. #6 AC
    July 27, 2006

    Response to doctorj:
    Did you read the article? What are you talking about? “Deserted”?
    Get a grip. The Gulf has been prone to severe hurricanes since the dawn of time. Consequently resources should not be squandered on re-inhabiting the area. Nature is more powerful than anything humans can build (yet) – we simply can’t afford to set a precedent nor can we afford the human cost of a large disaster.

    You are not automatically entitled to a handout.

    BTW If my hometown was wiped out by a tsunami I would take the hint and live somewhere else. (New York City is my adopted hometown and it’s under threat from a mega-tsunami http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2000/mega_tsunami_transcript.shtml)

  7. #7 Mike Domanski
    July 29, 2006

    I’ve lived on the Gulf Coast for years. The rapid increase (1998) in construction and the gazillions of dollars spent by the (so called intelligent), doctors, lawyers, leaders of biz etc. has led to a huge growth spurt along the Gulf Coast. When I first arrived, a drive along the coast at night was dark; all you could hear were the crickets, now its traffic and tall shiny new edifices galore. Hurricanes will always be a part of reality, now the $$ populous has moved to the proverbial forest, and they really do hear the tree fall now.

    I still marvel how they get insurance! Well, its a forced mandate bailout. Just google “citizens insurance” thousands of us normal people that suffered no damage from Ivan / Katrina now have an additional charge on our insurance bill – Citizens Bail-out.

    Stupid is as Stupid does…

  8. #8 doug l
    August 21, 2009

    Regardless of the specifics of global climate change’s impacts, or even its causes, everyone agrees it exists because our modern timeframe of history is much longer that it was when we originally planned things like cities and farms, if we planned them at all. Whether ice caps or earthquakes or hurricanes or bollide impact in the north atlantic causes a 40′ wall of water to rush up into what is now NewYork Harbor and/or other coastal cities, it will be terrible in terms of human and economic costs. Is the new concern over planetary conditions something of a wake-up-call? I wonder if a city so vulnerable that it would be ruined by relatively slow sealevel rise should be considering doing something now to address that even if a new ice age begins tomorrow. We’re a world of 6 billion going on 12 and we’re here to stay for the duration at least, however long it is. We should plan our cities as if it mattered, because it does. We are aware of vulnerabilities we didn’t know existed. No doubt someone is going to scam it for some nefarious advantage as happens whenever vast wealth is being spread around, no matter how noble the purpose, even to save our skins.

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