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 5 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 homebuilding in at-risk areas.
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 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!
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE NEW YORK TIMES