Despite deadlock in the federal government, local and state leaders are embracing creative policy options to mitigate the impact of a warmer earth. From state taxing policies that use the carrot-and-stick approach to promote better corporate and personal behavior to various local zoning laws that prohibit residential buildings in flood zones, this hodgepodge of efforts is coming from both sides of the aisle to prepare our society for Mother Nature’s growing wrath. And still, they will be inadequate.
It isn’t that these measures are useless; indeed, some are quite successful. It is that they rest on a homeland security and disaster management system that has barely changed with them. While resiliency efforts accept as a given that climate disasters are going to happen more frequently in the years to come, after they do, our system of remedies and relief is still based on the myth that they will never happen again.
Call it the “Thank you, Mother Nature, may I have another” school of disaster relief. After a disaster, governors and mayors rush to the federal till and insist, under the Stafford Act for funds distributed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, that they get their fair share of relief money. The laws practically require that an individual, city, or state rebuild exactly the same way, as if the damage was a fluke. That is insane.
Under these laws, there is no requirement that homeowners build farther back from the ocean (I’m looking at you, Plum Island residents), no requirement that a school eviscerated by a tornado build a shelter for the children, no requirement that a city prohibit residents from rebuilding too close to an often-flooding river. The disasters keep happening, and the money keeps being doled out to rebuild the vulnerability, again and again.
The problem is that the incentive structure is all off: The system favors negligent behavior because it provides no incentive to change and no penalties for making the same mistakes over and over. Not only is this a waste of taxpayer money, it is also fundamentally inconsistent with the goal of building a resilient society that must have the capacity to learn from the past.
In our everyday lives, we get this. Many of us, for example, have accidentally locked our child in a car; very few of us have done it twice. We understand that emergencies can’t always be avoided, but also that we can learn from them to avoid the same vulnerability in the future. Public safety agencies acknowledge the same. Active shooter protocols for schools — run first, then hide, and only engage with the enemy if necessary — are based on past cases, in particular the Columbine tragedy, when staying put ended up being the worst possible position for the kids hiding in the library.
Truly resilient societies learn from their vulnerabilities. Of course we want to get “back” to where we were, but we should also want to get better. And yet we essentially prohibit the very communities reeling from tragedy to build stronger.