“Making climate policy the answer to hurricanes can’t be anything but a fraud on the public.”
You Can’t Fix a Hurricane With Climate Policy
Politicians avoid the hard questions of where to build and what to protect.
Hurricane Sandy barely qualified as a Category 1 storm when it made landfall in the New York area. Irene, which landed a year earlier, had been downgraded to a tropical storm by the time it touched the city.
For comparison, the 1821 Norfolk and Long Island hurricane was a Category 3 by current metrics when it laid waste to Lower Manhattan. The 1938 New England hurricane was a Category 3 when it flooded parts of the city and battered Long Island. Hurricane Donna in 1960 was considered a strong Category 1 when it produced an 11-foot storm surge in New York harbor.
Getty ImagesWater rushes into a New York City parking garage on Monday night.
Those, like New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Mike Bloomberg and certain local news anchors, who insist on an apocalyptic explanation for the city’s recent weather-related mishaps might want to rein in their shamanizing. The apparent increase in the storms’ destructiveness is not due to climate change but to the simple fact of more people and stuff in the paths of not especially unprecedented bouts of severe weather.
“It’s not prudent to sit here and say it’s not going to happen again,” intoned Mr. Cuomo this week. “I believe it is going to happen again.”
Duh. Seventy-five hurricanes have hit or passed near New York since 1800. The governor hardly needs his Nostradamus hat to predict more.
When the high tide of political enthusiasm for climate action began to recede around the time of Al Gore’s Nobel, it receded for good reason, and not because of Republican intransigence, or any “climategate” email scandal, or even because of the inconvenient absence of warming from the temperature record after 1998.
The moment passed because even a political system as prodigal as ours could not bridge the chasm between costs and benefits. Even many Democrats were stopped in their tracks by the question: How much should we spend on climate change in order to have no effect on climate change? By the identical token, whatever the truth of man’s role in global warming, whatever the merits of regulating CO2, making climate policy the answer to hurricanes can’t be anything but a fraud on the public. Doing so, literally, is like proposing to spend trillions to reduce by an inch or two an 11-foot storm surge that might occur sometime in the next century.
James Hansen, the NASA alarmist, inadvertently illustrates the problem of scale confronting anybody who wants to change the Earth’s climate by regulating CO2. He recently claimed it would be “game over” for Earth’s climate if Canada were allowed to develop its oil sands.
Canada, never mind its energy industry, accounts for just 1.7% of global CO2 output. You could ban Canada and the effect would be outweighed by a single year’s Chinese growth. And that’s the real problem for climate warriors: Nothing as dinky as Canada’s oil sands, a target we could actually get our hands around, would make the slightest difference.
Meanwhile, wasn’t the subject hurricanes?
Way back in 1968—when, by the way, scientists were worried about global cooling—Congress was already at wit’s end over the recurrent bailouts demanded by flood-prone communities. As the Congressional Research Service explains, the solution was a national flood-insurance program that “would greatly reduce the reliance on federal disaster relief assistance. Property and business owners would in effect pre-fund their own flood-related property losses.”
It didn’t turn out that way. Flood insurance was sold at subsidized prices, and disaster aid continued to flow anyway, so the end result was even greater incentive to build and rebuild on exposed flood plains.
Congress has been trying to untangle its cross-purposes ever since. With its latest efforts, owners of “repetitive loss properties” are encouraged to invest in flood-proofing or move. Just this summer Washington began rolling back long-standing subsidies for grandfathered sites.
Never mind the silliness on display in New York this week, with Mayor Bloomberg, like a man bursting with newfound resolve, endorsing President Obama because his climate mojo will somehow save the city from future floods. The post-Sandy political action will not be focused on climate politics, and Mr. Bloomberg knows it. Not only is the flood insurance program broke; it has blown through $18 billion of its $21 billion in borrowing authority to pay post-Katrina claims, meaning the legislature will have to act in order to provide money for Sandy-related claims.
Will Congress throw its hard-won insurance reforms to the winds? Will it engage in another disaster-aid blowout of the type that in the past has always guaranteed that the next storm will be more destructive than the last? History is not encouraging. Bob Sheets, then-head of the National Hurricane Center, told the media after 1979’s Hurricane Frederic: “It was like an urban renewal program out there. And that kind of thing takes place almost any place you’ve had a big hurricane strike.”
Messrs. Bloomberg and Cuomo understandably want to shake off any blame for the disruption caused by the kind of storm that has regularly disrupted the city for two centuries. Not happy are the questions raised by Sandy, and by every hurricane: Where should we build? How should we protect what we build? Those are especially hard questions when the logical answer (as in many shore communities) is the politically toxic one of asking people not to rebuild what was just knocked down unless they’re prepared to forgo taxpayer assistance next time it gets knocked down.
No wonder politicians prefer to engage in magical talk about climate change as they wait for the federal checks to roll in.
A version of this article appeared November 3, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: You Can’t Fix a Hurricane With Climate Policy.