It’s not just that we’re slow in achieving resilience. It’s that often we’re moving in the opposite direction.

Some economic models of climate change come out with low damages because they assume smooth and effective adaptation efforts. That never made much sense. There’s a lot of inertia in social systems, and planning major projects can take a long time. Some of what we’re seeing lately is worse than that, however. We’re seeing cases in which people are doubling down on strategies that don’t work or even moving away from resilience.  Here are three examples:

First, in 2012, Congress made a major move toward market-based flood insurance rates, rather than subsidized rates for existing property owners. This was a big step forward, because subsidized rates encourage people to stay in high risk areas. Property owners who had been getting a free ride protested bitterly at having to pay fair rates, and Congress promptly responded by reinstating most of the subsidies. So we’re once again paying people to stay in high risk areas and then paying again to help them rebuild there.

Second, the U.S. has been committed to fighting floods by building higher levees.  Levees may be a useful tool, but they’re not enough. But the Washington Post recently reported that jurisdictions along the Mississippi were competing to raise their levees higher — if your levee is higher than your neighbor’s or the folks across the river, their land will flood first and take the pressure off your levees. This is an intensely counterproductive way of approaching flooding.

Third, states like Florida have adopted stringent building codes to improve storm resilience — obviously important in places exposed to hurricanes and other major storms. But Bloomberg environmental service report that Florida is just decided to weaken its building codes. Why? Property owners complain about the expense. So Florida is less prepared than ever for the storms of the future.

Fourth, FEMA purged all references to climate change from its strategic plan. It’s pretty hard to engage in climate change adaptation if you’re afraid to even utter the phrase. Yet as climate change is accelerating, the government is backpedaling on address climate risks.

There seems to be a peculiar psychological mechanism at work here. As risks increase, dealing with them becomes more expensive. To avoid the unpleasantness of experiencing those costs, people become all the more motivated to deny the existence of the risk and increase counterproductive strategies. The same thinking makes conservative deny the realities of climate change in order to avoid the painful thought of the necessary governmental actions. Until we find away around this kind of destructive denial, we won’t begin to respond appropriately to the increasing risks of a changed climate.



Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Maladaptation”

  1. Dan said;
    “…..conservatives deny the realities of climate change in order to avoid the painful thought of the necessary governmental actions. Until we find away around this kind of destructive denial, we won’t begin to respond appropriately to the increasing risks of a changed climate……”

    Dear Dan,
    The reality of climate change is that the “change” is in fact a normal occurrence within a natural cycle and it is definitely not-catastrophic, nor does it pose a significant risk and it may be beneficial. There is no way to get around this most pleasant and truthful reality.

    Empty rhetoric from bygone days of the Obama administration is inoperative and not persuasive. Never again can we return to those past policies which caused more harm than good. America must move forward with constructive and innovative environmental policies, and not be led astray by junk science, hype, hysteria and malfeasance which drives “climate change” and makes it a divisive political wedge. The realities of climate change are that it is not a significant risk, not a serious threat, adaptation is relatively easy and inexpensive.

    We should relax about climate and try to make better use of the short time we have left in this temporal earthly life which is rapidly fleeting away.

    1. The reality is that some conservatives like BQRQ have been brainwashed by conservative politicians and media that tells them what they want to hear on social issues. This causes them to turn off their brains and blindly accept what they are told, to the benefit of Republican fossil fuel donors.

      Stepping out of conservative la-la land and into reality, we find that the opinion of the world’s climate scientists is thus:

      “It is extremely likely [95 percent confidence] that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations and other anthropogenic forcings together.”

    2. If Florida or Mississippi voters want to weaken building codes or otherwise encourage flood risk construction, I think that is just great, its a free country, but Congress should not encourage bad zoning practices with flood insurance subsidies. Congress should repeal these subsidies and also require states to reimburse FEMA and the National Guard 100% plus interest for all federal emergency assistance in certified, up to date federally designated flood risk areas. In other words, if a state zoning laws fail to bar businesses or residences in existing or new construction in known flood risk areas, then that is the states decision and assumption of risk, but don’t expect the feds [voters in other states] to bail you out.

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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