President Obama headed to the dusty, drought-choked Central Valley of California Friday to make the case that the government should better prepare for the economic damage climate change will cause. It makes sense — and it won't happen.
As of last Tuesday, 98.57 percent of California was experiencing some drought. The darkest part of the map at right shows where the drought is the most severe, "exceptional drought" that's at the far end of the spectrum of damage. That dark brown blob overlaps heavily with the Central Valley; Obama's first landing point, Fresno, is near the blob's northeast corner.
This the worst drought California has seen in perhaps 500 years, and Obama will announce that he's committing tens of millions of dollars to come to the state's aid. But he'll go further, according to The Hill, proposing a $1 billion "climate resilience" fund that can be used to help offset damage from climate-change-related weather catastrophes. "The administration's fund would invest in research to gather data on the impacts of climate change, help communities prepare for them and support innovative technologies and infrastructure," the paper reports, "to ready the country 'in the face of a changing climate.'"
Billion-dollar weather events, by year (2013 dollars)
The Hill added the quotes on the "changing climate" part, but it didn't need to. This isn't something for which you have to quote a government official as a source; readily available evidence proves that we face a changing climate. America has seen an increasing number of expensive weather disasters since 1980, according to the National Climactic Data Center. (See chart.) Those aren't all linked to climate change, but many are, including 2012's $30 billion drought and the $65 billion worth of damage from Hurricane Sandy.
Obama will propose the fund in his 2015 budget, to be released next month. From an economic standpoint, investing a small amount now to alleviate climate change makes sense. Why spend billions in relief if you can spend a billion in advance and prevent the disaster in the first place? A strategic investment that could save money over the long-term seems like a no-brainer.
But Congress almost certainly won't pass it. For one thing, it's predicated on the understanding that climate change is real and is affecting the country through droughts and storms and wildfires. Congressional Republicans have consistently refused to enact policies that would ameliorate the effects of climate change, as well as consistently opposing any new spending. Nothing will happen on Capitol Hill because grassroots Republicans and big fossil-fuel donors aren't interested in climate change; the former thanks in part to the efforts of the latter. And few Republicans will sign on to another $1 billion allocation.
What's more, politicians are bad at planning for disaster in general. As The New Yorker's James Surowiecki wrote shortly after Sandy, "Politically speaking, it’s always easier to shell out money for a disaster that has already happened, with clearly identifiable victims, than to invest money in protecting against something that may or may not happen in the future." He points to studies showing that politicians are rewarded by voters for clean-up efforts and photo ops on rubble-strewn streets, but not for setting aside a pot of money for scientific research.
Even in the wake of Sandy, this type of economic foresight has proven to be elusive. One problem that was revealed in the wake of that storm was that the Federal Emergency Management Administration's flood maps were out-of-date, meaning that people who lived in flood-prone areas weren't paying or weren't paying enough in flood insurance. Rising sea levels from climate change — a key reason that lower Manhattan flooded — have forced FEMA to redraw their maps. But that means a politically unpopular task: telling homeowners in areas that are likely to flood that they need to pay higher premiums for their insurance. First the Senate and, this week, the House have delayed implementing the new flood maps and insurance costs, because no homeowner wants to pay the increase and few other people are calling for them to do so. Politics.
After Sandy hit, FEMA's outdated maps meant that the agency had to pay out far more in damages than it had taken in. Hovering on the brink of going broke, Congress had to rush an emergency payment to FEMA in order to let it keep reimbursing people whose homes had been damaged. The bill for that bailout? $9.7 billion.
Which is the final reason that Obama's announcement today is not particularly inspiring. One billion dollars to spend on research and response is more than nothing, but it's already dwarfed by how expensive these disasters have proven to be. In 2013, there were seven disasters that cost at least that much. It would take a lot more money and political will than currently exist to substantially curtail the number of future events that will be just as expensive.