Every September before the start of the regular term, the Bill Lane Center for the American West offers a short course that includes a field trip to one of the states west of the hundredth meridian. For the past two years, those classes have dodged wildfires and inhaled thick smoke en route to various appointments in Oregon, Washington, and Utah, only to return to campus to find that California was dealing with its own fire catastrophes.
At the same time, Houston, Puerto Rico, and North Carolina were coping with major wind and flooding damage caused by unusually large hurricanes. While seemingly disparate events, the scientific consensus is that the increasing intensity and frequency of inland fires, large storms and coastal floods are linked to climate change. Moreover, they tell us that no matter how successful our feasible efforts in limiting future green house gas (GHG), we will still have to deal with the lagged effects of past GHG emissions for some lengthy period into the future.
A critical implication of this is that we will need to adapt to climate change (i.e. anticipate and be resilient to the consequences of global warming) even as we attempt to address its causes. The good news is that climate change adaptation is somewhat less politically and ideologically polarized than climate change mitigation efforts. The bad news is that the solution to the one is no less vexing than the other albeit in different ways.
The by now familiar mitigation controversy centers on whether human behavior causes climate change, and if so, what steps need to be taken in order to mitigate the adverse effects of carbon emissions. This issue is politically polarized even though the scientific evidence regarding the link between man-made GHG emissions and global warming is pretty overwhelming at this point.
In the deep red Western states like Utah and Wyoming, the mere mention of the term “climate change” is rarely uttered in polite company. Instead, officials and residents there use euphemisms like “aridification” and “extended drought.” The minerals in the soil are unaffected by global warming even if the economic demand for them is. But cattle ranchers, farmers, hunters, and avid fishers experience climate change directly. For them, the issue is not whether the climate is changing (they know it is); it is that they don’t trust Democrats like Al Gore and elite liberal scientists in universities like Stanford when it comes to the causal connection between fossil fuels and climate change. They cannot accept the message because they do not trust the messengers.
This brings us to the puzzle of climate change adaptation. If it is not polarized, then why is it so hard to achieve? If we properly anticipate and plan for extreme weather events like periods of extended drought in the West, we can take steps to be more resilient in the face of these changes. In some cases, we have done this by taking advantage of the windows of political opportunity that arose during past drought events to enhance water recycling, groundwater replenishment, and appliance efficiency.
But we fail in other ways and for reasons have little or nothing to do with political ideology and party affiliation. For instance, we have allowed people to build homes in the so-called Wildland Urban interface (WUI) areas that are especially prone to wildfire threat. As in the case of allowing people to live and rebuild in river and coastal flood zones in the rest of the country, we do the same in WUI areas. The interests of would-be homeowners looking for beautiful rural settings, developers who want to build and sell homes for profit, and local governments desperate to receive new property tax revenue combine to overwhelm good sense and prudent caution.
It is also problematic that we provide federal relief and private insurance to those who choose to live in WUI areas. The firefighters who put their lives on the line to fight these increasingly large and uncontrollable fires estimate that in some cases up to 85 percent of their effort is expended protecting the lives and property on those few acres where residents have chosen to live dangerously.
In the lingo of social science, there is a moral hazard problem at the base of this. If people believe they will be saved and compensated for risky behavior, they will be incentivized to undertake riskier behavior than they would have otherwise. To make a bad situation worse, the political will to do something about this problem is weak, because voters reward politicians for fixing problems, not for imposing obstacles and financial costs in the name of prevention.
Another problem regarding wildfires is governmental fracture. Western lands have a heavy Federal presence dominated by the Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and the National Forest Service. Many residents, especially in the interior west, deeply resent the entrenched Federal presence. At the same time, however, some officials concede off the record that their state cannot really afford to pay for the services of managing the federal parks, lands and forests. Moreover, the Federal government generally does a better job than the states and the private sector in performing prescribed burns and vegetation pruning that reduce the destructiveness of uncontrolled wildfire burns.
The Federal agencies also have an agreement that allows them to coordinate effectively with other Federal agencies to combat large-scale wildfires. But uncontrolled burns often range across non-Federal jurisdiction lines, which means that if local governments and states are not equally willing or able to take preventive steps, it complicates and weakens any truly cooperative prevention and hazard minimization measures.
To be fair, states and local governments cannot run deficits like the Federal government can so they are often strapped for money. So even if we can get past the ideological and partisan polarization, taking the steps needed to adapt to climate change will be difficult even as the urgency of doing so has become more apparent in recent years.
Leaving aside the costs of fighting these fires and compensating for the losses they bring, there is an important externality that broadens the reach of the public harm associated with wildfires—namely, smoke. Wildfire smoke can drift across the country, carrying with it particulate matter than can cause irritation and permanent damage to human respiratory systems. Smoke from wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington affects the air of residents in interior Western states like Colorado and Utah.
The chemistry of global warming is invisible to the average person and hence fertile ground for politically motivated skepticism. With wildfire smoke, however, what happens in coastal blue states does not stay in blue states and vice versa with respect to the red states. It is in the interests of all in the West to put red-blue affiliations aside and work collaboratively on adaptation. And, maybe, just maybe, working together on adapting to global warming will partially erode the partisan resistance to working together on mitigating climate change in some post-Trump world.