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Peter Morici: How better planning can mitigate climate disasters

In this Feb. 13, 2019 photo, intern Virginia-Rose Seagal downloads a digital image from an underground camera that registers the growth of roots inside one of the warming plots at the El Yunque tropical rainforest, in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. In this corn
In this Feb. 13, 2019 photo, intern Virginia-Rose Seagal downloads a digital image from an underground camera that registers the growth of roots inside one of the warming plots at the El Yunque tropical rainforest, in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. In this corner of northeast Puerto Rico, U.S. scientists are trying to figure out how Earth might recover from extreme weather events amid increasingly warmer temperatures.
Carlos Giusti, AP

Humans are unique in our ability to change the environment and unlock the secrets of nature. Erecting shelters, building aqueducts and mining the Earth, we moved from the temperate plains of Africa and caves of Chauvet-Pont d’Arc to harness agriculture, establish great cities and create technological wonders. Fossil fuels accelerated the ascent of man but according to the architects of the 2016 Paris Agreement, we must curb our appetite or global warming will make uninhabitable vast settlements.

Diplomats, scientists and the merchants of socialism preach draconian steps to limit the increases in global temperatures to 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Too much debate focuses on the validity of doomsday scenarios and impractical solutions like the Green New Deal. The inadequacy of wind and solar would require handing control of nuclear reactors to dictators in places like Venezuela or Syria — hardly a recipe for human survival.

Mitigation may prove much less costly, because even under harsh climate change scenarios, cities can be protected with seawalls and homes and commercial structures raised to withstand flooding.

Rich countries are pushing back — not just the Trump administration. China, the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions, is building vast new coal-fired facilities and provincial governments in Canada and the Yellow Jackets in France are opposing various kinds of carbon taxes. After falling for three years, U.S. carbon emissions are rising again thanks to inexpensive gas and more SUVs.

Even if we could freeze carbon emissions levels now, significant threats to the American financial system and living arrangements already bedevil us. Witness the increased frequency of terribly destructive hurricanes pounding the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts, polar vortexes and deep freezes that shut down the Middle West, tornados that rip the plains and Southeast, and California wildfires.

Casualty companies are rapidly figuring that much of the country — not just the coasts — have homes and public buildings, bridges and tunnels, drainage and sewage systems, emergency services, and gas lines and power grids prone to risks that are simply not insurable at reasonable costs.

Somewhere between 50 percent and 80 percent of the country is likely underinsured, and the deep well of financial vulnerability is likely beyond the fiscal capacity of federal, state and city governments to ameliorate. Look at the financial heaving caused by Hurricane Sandy to New York’s subway system and tunnels under the Hudson that bring Amtrak trains into Manhattan.

In January, California’s PG&E became the first major climate change bankruptcy — thanks to its culpability in the 2018 Camp Fire and other recent wildfire disasters. It is easy to point to poor risk management and the failure to adequately insulate powerlines and build systems to shut those down and rely more on distributed generation during dry spells, but those deny the dysfunctions in public policy that placed substantial human settlements and high tension lines in the path of intolerable risk. Large cities and close-in suburbs in California as elsewhere increasingly impose zoning requirements to maintain neighborhood ambience that make building attractive, denser residential structures close to commercial centers too expensive for what working and middle class jobs pay.

Along with the potential to distribute work patterns and the natural attraction of its woodlands, California has enabled the gentrification of cities by encouraging home construction deeper into the wilderness just as risks imposed by wildfires are rising — thanks to rising temperatures and endemic human error.

Like everywhere else, California’s public utility regulators must balance delivering electricity to these communities at reasonable prices against offering investors a decent rate of return — the geography and penchant for me-too environmentalism in the Golden State make that no mean task. In some measure, PG&E risk management challenges in the woodlands got shortchanged as it built the grid to those communities.

California simply duped investors into believing they were putting their hard-earned savings into a company that guaranteed a decent rate of return, when in fact the state was gambling its money at a casino where no one could win. And homeowners live in places where sooner, rather than later, they may lose their investment, as well as the banks that hold their mortgages.

These problems replicate throughout the country and will erode the solvency of our financial system until we build much denser, more hospitable, weather resistant and taller cities and abandon our obsession with four bedrooms on a quarter acre.