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Dr. Daniel Sutter: Climate change and political responsibility

We continually hear that climate change is making extreme weather – from wildfires in Canada and Maui to Hurricane Hilary – worse. Unfortunately, this allows politicians to evade responsibility for their inaction and mistakes.

Researchers have long emphasized that nature’s action and human exposure together produce disasters. A hurricane striking an uninhabited island is not a societal disaster. Many natural hazards have high risk areas, and people create exposure when choosing to live or work in these places. This is not bad: the Florida Keys are beautiful, and many industries must be in vulnerable places. The extra costs of extreme weather are worth bearing if the value from living or working there is commensurately greater.

Our actions once we locate in vulnerable areas impacts vulnerability, particularly the quality of construction. We can build homes and businesses resistant to winds, floods, and even tornadoes. Not every engineering design will be cost effective, but we can build stronger.

Government typically takes actions offering community-wide protection. Levees and management of public forests are examples. The National Weather Service provides weather forecasts and warnings.

Many voices attribute all extreme weather to climate change. One Hawaii state senator stated of the Maui fires, “And I just think this is the new normal not just for the state of Hawaii but for the whole planet, for the whole country.” Apocalyptic talk disregards climate change’s expected impact on severe weather. A warmer future should make hurricanes modestly stronger with more precipitation; extreme weather will become somewhat more extreme.

A small increase in the strength of extreme weather, however, can sometimes have large societal impacts. Nobel Prize winner William Nordhaus estimates that hurricane damage is proportional to the eighth power of landfall windspeed. The projected 9% increase in windspeed would double annual damage.

This is significant, not apocalyptic, and in line with how our actions affect hurricane damage. Employing all wind resistant construction techniques may reduce hurricane damage by half. Strengthened construction might offset global warming’s impact on hurricanes.

Let’s consider now the Maui fires. Many voices blame the dry conditions on climate change. But most of Maui was in seasonal, not exceptional, drought. A wet spring produced lots of plant growth – fuel for the fire season. Combustible invasive grasses have overgrown former sugar plantations. Hurricane Dora passing near the Hawaiian Islands contributed to the strong winds at the time.

Power lines appear to have sparked some fires. Clearing brush (or trees) near power lines and replacing aging lines can avoid such fires but combatting climate change has impacted fire prevention. Electric utilities trying to meet Hawaii’s 100% renewable power mandate have reportedly reduced maintenance and brush clearing to offset expensive wind and solar.

Climate change offers politicians evade responsibility for such actions.

Mismanagement of forests in California and Canada has contributed to fires. Neglect of
levees left New Orleans vulnerable to Katrina. Poor decisions made the Maui fires more dangerous.

Political decisions producing unnecessary vulnerability to extreme weather should not surprise. Politicians want to deliver new things to voters. People already expect existing levees to protect them. The rarity of disasters means the next one may occur after today’s office holders have retired. And if disaster happens, call it an act of God. Today climate change replaces God.

Reducing fossil fuel use offers little protection against extreme weather. Projections attribute 7 and 23% of global emissions through 2100 to the U.S.

Let’s say the U.S. is responsible for 10% of emissions that might produce another 2 degrees Celsius warming by 2100. The U.S. will be responsible for 0.2 degrees of warming, with Hawaii responsible for a tiny fraction of this. Zeroing out Hawaii’s carbon emissions would have no measurable impact on extreme weather.

Opportunists use climate change to push restructuring our economy and society. We can protect ourselves from extreme weather; Alex Epstein shows that extreme weather deaths per capita worldwide have fallen 98 percent. We should prudently protect against fires, floods, and hurricanes because they will occur regardless of warming. And we should hold politicians failing in this task accountable at the ballot box.

Daniel Sutter is the Charles G. Koch Professor of Economics with the Manuel H.
Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University and host of Econversations on TrojanVision. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Troy University.

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