Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Left hand, meet right hand--a Carbon Based original

    The limbs need a brain to work together.

     A recent ProPublica story by Robert Lewis and Al Shaw followed the path of US government money flowing into New York's flood zones after Hurricane Sandy.  The tale illustrates one of the knottier problems in climate change adaptation -- how to design programs so that the government responds coherently, with all the parts functioning as a whole. 

    In this case, the recovery dollars come from the Small Business Administration, whose spokesperson told the ProPublica reporters that it's not their job to tell people whether to rebuild or not.  The SBA's goal is to help qualified businesses to return to business as usual quickly through disaster loans.  The longer it takes to bounce back from Hurricane Sandy, the worse they look. The SBA pays no attention to vulnerabilities to storm surges and sea level rise.

    The loan recipients are eager to make everything the way it was.  The story quotes one owner of a destroyed restaurant in Staten Island saying, "You don't walk away from one bad day."  No mention of what to do at the beginning of a bad era of mounting damage to the coastline.   The short-term perspective dominates the discussion.

    Unfortunately for the rest of us, climate change scenarios have never been part of the SBA's credit analysis for loans.  Homeowners will rarely consider long-range impacts unless regulations compel them. As a result, recovery funds are going to homes and businesses at high risk for flooding again, according to the new maps drawn up by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

    Many coastal towns are already pushing back hard against these controversial new maps. Homeowners can suddenly themselves in a flood zone even though the basement has always been bone dry.  The new designation can mean that a house loses value, and its insurance will increase, if any insurer will consider underwriting a policy.  If a storm damages a house, the homeowner may be held to a higher standard, such as putting the entire building on stilts.  Nobody wants the added hassle and expense. They shudder at the science that goes into the improved mapping if the result hurts them.

    The lack of coordination also undermines building codes. FEMA's requirements are much more strict than New York City's.  Once the FEMA maps are finalized in a few years, the tougher rules might go into effect, but meanwhile Sandy reconstruction is underway now. Most property owners will evade more stringent standards, which take longer and cost more.  Indeed, the owner of the Staten Island restaurant said as much in Lewis and Shaw's story.

    Environmental groups, insurers and some housing coalitions are urging a comprehensive approach to managing and insuring areas exposed to sea level rise.   They make a number of suggestions, no less valuable for being obvious. I discussed some of them in my piece, "Trouble at the beach."

    A wildly unpopular first step would involve condemning some properties and compensating the victims.  Some sites should never have been developed -- they're just too wet.  It's in the state's long-term interest to be generous to the owners of these sites, since the cost of paying top dollar for a destroyed house still costs less than doing the same after the waters rise yet again.

    Where rebuilding takes place, more building codes must take full account of sea level rise, storm surges and stream flooding. Some houses might not need to be raised as much as others; other measures might make more sense. Adaptive but tough codes could serve as a strong guide for builders and property owners.

    A better system needs a mechanism where owners could make a case for allowing them to stay on the site and achieve a fair resolution, even if it weren't the resolution that they want. Instead of chaotic litigation in the courts, some kind of fair arbitration would be much better,

    More generally, the well-designed authority would also have a priority to halt and even reverse development at the shore. Green belts, blue belts and wetlands can hold a lot of water, and they quickly recover from flooding with little cost to the rest of the human economy. 

    None of these measures are utopian, but they do demand determined leadership.  Someone in charge has to try to overcome the snarls and gridlocked agendas. A president or an alliance of coastal governors could spread the pain around evenly and fairly, making sure all the pieces work towards the same goals.

    But leaders can't lead if nobody follows them. The coastal transformation would have a greater chance of success if informed public opinion were pushing for it.  Informed citizens would view every storm as a chance to ask, where can we pull back? What can we abandon?  How can we reduce the size of the target?  Instead of a few environmental groups saying this, maybe joined by a few intrepid insurers, everyone could be asking these questions.

    The persistent, overwhelming, exasperating obstacle rears up here.  Ideally, citizens have enough knowledge to digest scientific information and make policy judgments based on it.  But we live in a world where science has been demonized and scientists attacked for laying out theories that fail to align with prejudices.  Without a responsible media carefully explaining matters, public opinion won't acquire any momentum.  And just writing the phrase "responsible media" makes me feel like I'm pursuing a particularly implausible thought experiment.

    As matters stand now, coasts will probably endure repair bills in the tens of billions several times a decade, until we tire of making sand castles.  After a few more expensive lessons, we might smarten up, and maybe the left hand and the right hand will work together.

Photo of thumb wrestling by Jeff, Wikimedia Commons via Flickr, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

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