Opinion | After Fire and Floods, Glimmers of Hope

During the increasingly common ecological disasters that visit this country, there inevitably arises the hope that Americans and their elected politicians will learn from the experience, adopt new policies and provide for a less destructive future. We are now in such a period, with two unfolding climate-fueled disasters occurring at once: Savage wildfires in the West that have consumed more than five million acres of forests and scrublands and taken multiple lives in four states, and a Category 2 hurricane that has brought dangerous flooding and widespread damage to the Florida Panhandle.

Once again, disaster has yielded glimmers of hope, or at least evidence of common sense. A recent Times article by Christopher Flavelle, a Washington-based climate reporter, notes that Americans by substantial margins support much stronger building codes and even outright bans on new construction in flood- and fire-prone zones. Eighty-four percent of people surveyed supported mandatory building codes in risky areas, and well over half supported outright bans. One interesting aspect of these findings — drawn from a joint survey by Stanford University, the environmental research group Resources for the Future and the survey company ReconMR — is that a majority of Republicans favored tougher rules. That’s surprising because Republicans tend to be much more skeptical about global warming than Democrats and, more to the point, much more hostile to government regulation.

The survey, however, also highlights a depressing underside: While the public’s appreciation of the dangers of building in risky areas may be shifting, attitudes in state and local governments and the real estate industry have hardly budged. These are the entities that hold the cards when it comes to residential construction. For all sorts of reasons, not least the need for property tax revenues for schools and other purposes, local communities want to build, even when the environmental risks seem self-evident. According to the Federal Alliance for Safe Homes, an advocacy group that works to strengthen homes from natural and man-made disasters, just one-third of local jurisdictions in the United States have adopted disaster-resistant building codes. Not surprisingly, the idea of flatly banning new homes outright in at-risk areas is anathema, even among climate-sensitive politicians. In an interview with The Associated Press last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California, who has adopted several useful fire-prevention measures, seemed nearly offended when asked whether he would ban home building in at-risk areas.

“There is something that is truly Californian about the wilderness and the wild and the pioneering spirit,” Mr. Newsom said. “I am not advocating for no.”

But what of those ordinary folks who say they’ve been newly sensitized to the dangers of global warming? The truth is that many of them are a bit like Mr. Newsom, unwilling to accept boundaries when their own desires are at stake. New rules and new fire codes are OK, even a ban in some places. Just don’t ban us!

In the West, for instance, one study found that from 1990 to 2015, 32 million homes were built in fire-prone areas near forests, powerful evidence that for many people the lure of living near the wild is greater than their best instincts about the risks of living in increasingly dry and fire-prone areas.

So, too, is the eternal lure of the seashore. A 2019 study undertaken by Climate Central, a New Jersey environmental science group, showed that even after Hurricane Sandy, home construction in flood-prone areas in many coastal states continued at a brisk pace. This could change: The present confluence of fires and floods is truly scary. But so far there is not much evidence that the growing evidence of trouble now and trouble ahead is actually changing behavior.

Where was the president as the West burned and the Gulf Coast drowned? As usual, in his own special cocoon of denial surrounded by “alternative facts.” In one of the more risible moments of his presidency, Mr. Trump went to Florida earlier this month and, with an eye to the state’s electoral votes, declared his support for two worthy causes — Everglades restoration and a ban on oil drilling off Florida’s coasts. Whereupon he also anointed himself “the No. 1 environmental president since Teddy Roosevelt” — an appraisal that would come as a huge surprise to, among others, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, whose various environmental legacies, in particular Mr. Obama’s, Mr. Trump has spent the better part of four years trying to subvert.

His true colors resurfaced when, a few days later, after of weeks of silence on California’s agony, Mr. Trump added a side trip to Sacramento for a briefing on the fires. He showed almost no empathy for ordinary Californians and insisted, as he had before, that the crisis arose largely from the state’s mismanagement of its forests, the majority of which are in fact a federal responsibility. As for the long-accepted view that global warming is turbocharging floods and fires, he said the science of climate change was suspect and the scientists were confused.

To give Mr. Trump his due, it is quite true that the debris and dead trees that have accumulated over the years in forests in California and elsewhere provide massive amounts of fuel for especially destructive blazes. Unlike the president, who just points fingers, several prominent members of the Senate, including Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, have proposed legislation that would increase the Forest Service’s underfunded controlled burning program — that is, prescribed and carefully monitored fires — to clear out vegetation.

Though tardy, a systematic sweep of the forests could be a useful byproduct of the fire. But it would be of even greater benefit for the issue of climate change to remain near the center of the national political conversation, where the floods and fires have pushed it. Joe Biden was so enraged by Mr. Trump’s cavalier attitude that he called the president a “climate arsonist.” An open letter from Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington State, the most learned of all senior Democrats on climate change, said it best: “There is no fire suppression plan on this planet that does anyone any good if it doesn’t even acknowledge the role of climate change.”

For years, experts warned of the dangers of a pandemic. The pandemic never materialized, until it did. For years, scientists have warned of a climate catastrophe that will forever change life on planet Earth. The odds of that not happening will be greatly improved if, this time, Americans and their leaders pay attention to the science and act on the lessons they’ve learned.

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