Hurricane Harvey Interview on CBC

For those who have been reading the posts I have recently done since Hurricane Harvey made landfall, I thought it might be of interest to see this video clip of an interview I did with Canadian Broadcasting Corp. two days ago: https://youtu.be/UFslrKPd04s 

Jim Schwab

Texas and U.S. Need Public Policy Champions

Photo by Jeff Clevenger

Justifiably, people and the news media have celebrated the heroes of emergency response in Texas during the week-long nightmare of Hurricane Harvey. Disasters often bring out the best in many people, a selfless commitment that inspires those capable to rescue neighbors and even perfect strangers, binding a community together in a time of crisis. It is extremely important that we honor such people. Other people’s lives often depend on them. And not infrequently, they put their own lives at stake in the process.

But I have a concern, especially with the current administration and especially with the political leadership in Texas. My concern is that honoring these heroes will become a way of deflecting attention from the tough questions about how Houston and other communities exacerbated their own natural vulnerabilities and what long-term recovery planning will do about the situation. Is it enough just to rescue people, or do we need also to ask why so many were in harm’s way in the first place?

In the process of planning and implementing long-term recovery from Harvey, both Texas and the nation will need an entirely new brand of heroes. These will be the people who, despite the brickbats thrown at them from those who want to avoid the tough issues and continue business as usual, will have the courage to ask the tough questions and float ideas and solutions that others may not wish to entertain. As Larry Larson and David Conrad, two colleagues in floodplain management whose work I have admired for years, stated in the Washington Post in a September 1 op-ed column, we have known for nearly a quarter-century how to ameliorate flooding, dating back to the recommendations of a federal task force report that followed the Great Flood of 1993. We just have not done it. And Houston, in particular, despite ranking near the top nationally in flood damages, paid little heed. The lack of zoning and other land-use controls allowed development to pave over wetlands and other areas that could have served as natural drainage systems.

But the tough slog for sensible solutions will not be unique to Texas. It happened in New Jersey after Sandy, in Louisiana and Mississippi after Katrina, in Iowa after the 2008 floods, and so on, and so on. It goes with the territory. It helps explain why we keep suffering one major disaster after another. Sometimes, advocating for change can be a thankless job. It can also make a crucial difference in advancing solutions to address natural hazards and climate change.

What we will need are public policy champions. These people will turn over rocks, examine alternatives, and ask why we cannot do a better job of protecting the natural systems that can mitigate flooding, wind damage, and other hazards. These are the people, armed with science and common sense and determination, who fought for building codes and levee management reform after Katrina, for dune restoration after Sandy, for rebuilding a green community in Greensburg, Kansas, after an EF-5 tornado, and for a charter amendment to ensure a more effective master plan in New Orleans.

Already, these people have a critical mission ahead. Just days before Harvey made landfall in Texas, President Donald Trump revoked an Obama executive order that had facilitated the adoption of the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which outlined means for incorporating the science of climate change into estimations of flood risk used to determine what sorts of federal investments in infrastructure may occur in floodplains, and what standards they must comply with. This is undoubtedly part of the Trump war on the very idea of climate change, but the foolhardiness of this rush to undo the Obama legacy became clear as we watched the impact of Harvey on the Texas coast. The Trump administration had earlier proposed cutbacks in funding for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, whose help in Texas is now sorely needed, and gutting the funding for the floodplain mapping program, which, if anything, needs substantial new investment of at least $7 billion to modernize and update maps that are often sorely out of date. (Note that we are now talking about recovery funding for Harvey of as much as $180 billion.) There are other hazard mitigation issues on the front burner for federal consideration, but these are central.

And amid all this drama, recovery from Harvey will unfold in Texas. The biggest disservice to the heroism of all those who rescued neighbors and strangers will be to force others to repeat such sacrifices in future storms in situations where damages and flooding could have been mitigated through better land-use solutions, better building codes, and other measures to address the current inadequacies.

I stated in my first blog post about Harvey that no city in North America could handle the amount of rain that befell cities like Houston, and that remains true. But it does not mean the problem needed to be as bad as it was. The sheer extent of the problem was in many ways the result of runaway development patterns that trampled natural defenses against flooding. We can honor the rescue heroes with more heroes who ask the big questions and insist on effective solutions. We need public policy champions who will rise to the recovery challenge.

Jim Schwab

The People Affected by Harvey

A few days ago, in my last post, I wrote that Hurricane Harvey would last a few days, but the recovery would last years. However agonizingly long Harvey appears to be taking to inflict its misery on the Texas Gulf Coast, and now parts of southern Louisiana, it will go away. And then the real marathon will begin. People will have to face the necessity of reconstruction, both as individuals and as whole communities.

In writing about this now, I am crediting readers with a longer attention span than seems to be assumed of most Americans on social media today. I truly hope, however, that the news media does not forget about Harvey or the Gulf Coast as the recovery process grinds on over coming months and years. Certainly, most residents of the Texas coast will have little choice but to bear with the process, and ideally, they will participate. Recovery needs to be as participatory as possible to succeed fully.

FEMA teams managing the distribution of water, and meals for hundreds of semi-trucks at an incident Support Base in Seguin, Texas. Photo by Dominick Del Vecchio – Aug 29, 2017 (from FEMA website) 

It will not always be a pretty picture. The news media in recent days have been full of photographic and video evidence of the best aspects of humanity—people in boats rescuing neighbors and strangers alike, public safety personnel risking personal safety as they save people from flooded homes and transport them to shelters, and other heroic acts away from cameras and too numerous to count. People from other states and nations will contribute to disaster-related charities to help people they have never known and may never meet. Politics and race and religion will all take a back seat to saving lives and reducing suffering. For just a brief moment in history, we can stop shouting at each other long enough to care for each other and be proud of one another.

Several years ago, Rebecca Solnit produced an intriguing book, A Paradise Built in Hell, that explored many of the positive community-building relationships that emerge when people are challenged by adverse circumstances such as major natural disasters. It is a journalistic journey through the informal alliances and communities created by people under what seemingly are the worst possible conditions, but which challenge our humanity and force us to consider how we value those around us. It is an optimistic book that forces readers to rethink what it means to live through a disaster. I have always hoped that it would spark similar efforts among academic researchers, particularly in the social sciences, to study this phenomenon more closely. I think that is happening to some extent, but perhaps not nearly enough.

The Texas Gulf Coast communities stricken by Harvey will need as much of that spirit as they can muster to produce successful long-term recovery. Recovery takes years because, while no one wants to delay rebuilding unnecessarily, hasty rebuilding that fails to consider the failure points that allowed destruction to occur is even more undesirable. Under considerable time pressures, which researchers Robert Olshansky and Laurie Johnson, both wonderful friends of mine, have notably referred to as the problem of “time compression” in disaster recovery, planners and local and state officials will need to meet with constituents, hear their concerns, explain both the obstacles and opportunities involved in reconstruction, and ideally, inform the public process to help lead to a better outcome. During this time, minor and modest repairs may go forward while the bigger decisions, like where to buy out damaged properties, how to rebuild infrastructure and to what new standards, and how to produce a stronger, more resilient community to handle future disasters may need to undergo vigorous debate.

I point this out because, inevitably, and despite Solnit’s rosy scenarios in the context of community building, tempers will rise and people will need to iron out significant differences and widely varying perceptions of the causes of, and solutions to, the damage that occurred. There will surely be some debate about Houston’s sprawling development patterns and relative lack of development controls. There may be debates about strengthening building or zoning codes or, in Houston, the absence of zoning. If there is any echo of Hurricane Sandy, there may be discussion of a greater role for green infrastructure in mitigating hazards, though that alone would have made only modest difference in the flooding from Harvey, but it might have helped.

More importantly, people will have undergone trauma that will make them deeply and justifiably emotional about the disruption of their lives. They will bring that trauma, and a need to vent and share their fears and anger, to public meetings. Public officials will need to exhibit patience because, as Christine Butterfield, another good friend who served as community development director in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, during and after the 2008 floods, has noted, those public gatherings will be therapeutic. People may cry, they may yell, they may accuse. Most of all, they need to know that someone else wants to hear and share their pain. They want to know that someone cares. Once most have achieved that comfort level, they may be ready to move forward and discuss options for recovery. But first, community leaders must build trust.

Some people may never trust, and the rest of the community may need to move on. Life is not perfect. Human beings are not perfect. Recovery cannot wait forever, but it must demonstrate compassion and a commitment to social equity.

In a few weeks, the entire process will begin, and people will decide what role they want to play. Leaders will arise in unexpected places. Just last week, my students at the University of Iowa School or Urban and Regional Planning, during a field trip with which I launch my course on “Planning for Disaster Mitigation and Recovery” every year, heard from United Methodist pastor Clint Twedt-Ball, a co-founder and executive director of Matthew 25, a community organization that arose from almost nothing after the 2008 floods in Cedar Rapids to help rebuild 25 blocks of downtrodden neighborhoods in the city, raising money but also making tough decisions about what would work and what would not. Nine years later, his organization is still working to make a difference. Before 2008, Clint would confess, he knew next to nothing about floods or community development. My guess is that now he could nearly write a book. Who knew?

Watch Houston, and Rockport, and Corpus Christi, and all the other cities on the Texas Gulf Coast for both surprises and struggles, and mostly for deep human engagement in solving massive redevelopment problems the likes of which most of us will never have to confront. And be ready to cheer them on when good things happen. They are likely to need the encouragement from time to time.

Jim Schwab

Climate of Hope

For some time, it has been my intent to address the question of how we communicate about and discuss climate change, with a focus on books that have tackled the issue of how to explain the issue. Several of these have crossed my desk in the last few years, and I have found some time to read most. These include: Climate Myths: The Campaign Against Climate Science, by John J. Berger (Northbrae Books, 2013), and America’s Climate Century, by Rob Hogg (2013). The latter, independently published, is the work of a State Senator from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, inspired by the ordeal his city underwent as a result of the 2008 floods. I met Hogg while serving on a plenary panel for the Iowa APA conference in October 2013 with Dr. Gerald Galloway, now a professor at the University of Maryland, but formerly with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers when he led a major federal study of the causes and consequences of the 1993 Midwest floods.

Another book that made it into my collection but still awaits reading is Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, by George Marshall (Bloomsbury, 2014), an English environmentalist. To him and the others, I apologize. Many good ideas for blog posts went by the boards in past years when my occupational responsibilities at the American Planning Association sometimes kept me too busy to implement them. Whether it is still worthwhile to go back and review these works of past years is debatable, but at least I offer them up here as contributions to the literature. It is critical that we keep revisiting the issue of climate communication because, clearly, much previous communication has failed in the face of determined efforts by skeptics to sow doubt and uncertainty, to the point where the U.S. now has a president who has withdrawn the nation from the Paris climate accords, a subject I addressed here a month ago. It is imperative that we find better ways to share with people what matters most.

From https://www.climateofhope.com/

As a result, I was overjoyed to see two heavyweight voices, Michael Bloomberg and Carl Pope, offer what I consider a serious, well-focused discussion in their own brand new book, Climate of Hope: How Cities, Businesses, and Citizens Can Save the Planet (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). Bloomberg, of course, is the billionaire entrepreneur of his own media and financial services firm, Bloomberg L.P. I confess I read Bloomberg Business Week consistently because it is one business magazine that I find offers a balanced, thoughtful analysis of business events. Carl Pope, former executive director of the Sierra Club, is an environmental veteran with a keen eye to the more realistic political opportunities and strategies available to that movement and to those anxious to address the problems created by climate change. Theirs is an ideal pairing of talents and perspectives to offer a credible way forward.

This book will not seek to overwhelm you, even inadvertently, with the kind of daunting picture of our global future that leaves many people despondent. At the risk of offending some, I would venture that the most extreme and poorly considered pitches about climate change have nearly pirated for the Earth itself Dante’s line from The Inferno: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” I know one person who literally suggests something close to that. I fail to see where that sort of message leads us. The harsh political and social reality is that most people need to understand how something they can do will make some concrete difference that may make their lives better now as well as perhaps a half-century from now. There are temporal factors in human consciousness that greatly affect how we receive messages, and most of us are not well programmed to respond to issues too distant in time or in space. Framing the message effectively matters.

The bond that brings these two authors together is that combination of hope and realism. They may understand that polar bears are losing their habitats, but their message focuses closer to home: Business opportunities await those willing to embrace solutions to climate change. Cities can make themselves more livable even as they reduce their negative impacts on the atmosphere. Despondency is not only counterproductive; it is downright pointless in the face of such golden eggs waiting to hatch. This is more than rhetoric. Climate of Hope provides a steady diet of details for investing in solutions, whether through public policy and programs such as Bloomberg highlights in New York and other cities, or in the business sector, which both authors do very well.

Of course, there are some very tough questions that must be addressed. The biggest involves the future of energy both in the United States and around the world. In a chapter titled “Coal’s Toll,” Bloomberg is unflinching after crediting Pope and the Sierra Club for bringing to his attention the public health costs of continued reliance on coal. He notes that pollution from coal emissions “was prematurely killing 13,200 Americans a year,” or 36 per day because of various lung and respiratory diseases, with a resultant financial toll exceeding $100 billion annually. In many other parts of the world, the figures are even higher. All this is in addition to the environmental damage of lost and polluted creeks and rivers wherever coal is mined or burned. To counter this toll, the Sierra Club, with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, undertook a campaign to close outdated coal-fired power plants. It is also important to recognize the degree to which fossil fuel companies have benefited from public subsidies and relaxed regulation that has failed to account for the magnitude of negative externalities associated with coal and petroleum.

Inevitably, someone will ask, what about the jobs? The strength of Bloomberg in this debate is his understanding of markets, and he rightly notes that, for the most part, coal is losing ground because of the steady advance of less polluting, and increasingly less expensive, alternatives including not only natural gas but a variety of new energy technologies like wind turbines, energy-efficient LED lights, and electronic innovations that make coal essentially obsolete. The issue, as I have noted before in this blog, is not saving coal jobs but investing in alternative job development for those areas most affected. Once upon a time, the federal government created a Tennessee Valley Authority to provide economic hope and vision for a desperately poor region. Although the TVA or something like it could certainly be reconfigured to serve that mission today, the federal vision seems to be lacking. Instead, we get backward-looking rhetoric that merely prolongs the problem and makes our day of reckoning more problematic.

It is also essential to balance the problems of coal against the opportunities to shape a more positive, environmentally friendly energy future. In many parts of the world, off-grid solar can replace more polluting but less capital-intensive fuels like kerosene or wood for cooking. Hundreds of millions of poor people in India and other developing countries could be afforded the opportunity to bypass the centralized electrical facilities of the West through low-cost loans to build solar networks. Again, what may be missing is the vision of world banking institutions, but under the encouragement of international climate agreements, and with the proper technical support, places like India can make major contributions to reducing their own greenhouse gas output. The U.S. expenditures in this regard about which Trump complained in his announcement of the U.S. withdrawal from the climate accord are in fact investments in our own climate health as well as future trade opportunities. In chapter after chapter, Bloomberg and Pope describe these opportunities for private investment and more creative public policy. The intelligent reader soon gets the idea. This is no time for despair; it is instead a golden day for rolling up our sleeves and investing in and crafting a better future.

It is possible, but probably not desirable, for this review to roll on with one example after another. We face tough questions, such as reshaping the human diet to reduce the environmental and climatic impacts of meat and rice production in the form of methane, but there are answers, and Pope explores them in a chapter about the influence of food on climate. Food waste is a source of heat-trapping methane. Both en route to our plates and after we scrape them off, food waste can be a major contributor to our problems because of decomposition, but again there are answers. The issue is not whether we can solve problems but whether we are willing to focus on doing so. There will be disruption in the markets in many instances, but disruption creates new opportunities. We need to reexamine how the transportation systems in our cities affect the climate, but we should do so in the knowledge that innovative transit solutions can make huge positive impacts. We can reframe our thinking to realize that urban density is an ally, not an enemy, of the environment, when planned wisely.  Urban dwellers, contrary to what many believe, generally have much lighter environmental footprints than their rural and suburban neighbors. They ride mass transit more, bicycle more, and mow less grass.  Lifestyles matter, where we live matters, planning matters.

Quality of life in our cities is a function, however, of forward-looking public policy. Bloomberg notes the huge changes being made in Beijing to reduce its horrific air pollution. He notes:

One of the biggest changes in urban governance in this century has been mayors’ recognition that promoting private investment requires protecting public health—and protecting public health requires fighting climate change.

I have personally found that, even in “red” states in the U.S., it is easy to find public officials in the larger cities who recognize this problem and are attuned to the exigencies of climate change. Mayors have far less latitude for climbing on a soap box with opinions rooted in ideology because they must daily account for the welfare of citizens in very practical matters, such as public health and what draws investors and entrepreneurs to their cities in the first place. Hot air, they quickly discover, won’t do the trick.

Staten Island neighborhood, post-Sandy, January 2013

Necessarily, the authors, toward the end of the book, come to terms with the potential consequences of failing to act. Bloomberg, in a chapter titled “New Normals,” describes the state of affairs in New York City after Hurricane Sandy, a storm that could easily have been far more destructive than it already was. For a dozen years, he was the mayor of a city with 520 miles of coastline. To its credit, New York City pursued numerous practical solutions and recognized that no one size fits all, that making the city more resilient would require implementing hundreds of individual steps that dealt with various aspects of the problem. Some of the solutions may seem insignificant, such as restoring oyster beds, but collectively they produce real change over time. Other changes can be more noticeable, such as redesigns of subway systems, changing building codes and flood maps, and rebuilding natural dune systems. The battle against climate change will be won in thousands of ways with thousands of innovations, involving all levels of government, but also businesses, investors, and civic and religious leaders.

All of that leads to the final chapter, “The Way Forward,” which seems to make precisely that point by identifying roles for nearly everyone. Bring your diverse talents to the challenge: the solutions are municipal, political, and financial, and require urban planning, public policy, and investment tools. In the end, although I recognize the potential for readers to quibble with specific details of the prescriptions that Bloomberg and Pope offer, I would still argue that they provide invaluable insights into the practical equations behind a wide range of decisions that our nation and the world face in coming years. The important thing is to choose your favorite practical solution and get busy.

Jim Schwab

 

 

The Ostrich Paradox

As an urban planner, my entry into the world of disasters has been through the twin portals of public policy and planning practice—how we frame the priorities of government and how we carry out the tasks of community planning. One thing I have learned from years of interaction with other types of professionals is that many other portals exist that provide insights into the nature and causes of disasters, how we define them, and how we prepare for and react to them. The behavioral sciences–including psychology, sociology, communications, and economics—have played a significant role in helping us understand some of these questions. They have helped me understand that what may seem like a straight line in public policy between a problem and a solution can be laden with land mines that are built into the evolution of the human brain. We are capable, as a species, of contemplating long-term consequences of our behaviors, but only when we have opportunities to gain some distance between our immediate needs and the problems we are considering. Very often, however, life forces us to react quickly and with inadequate forethought, and our brains reach for more instinctive reactions that our species learned over millennia, even those we inherited from other species from which we evolved.

And so there is the proverbial ostrich, putting its head in the sand, supposedly to avoid seeing any painful realities. The authors of a new book, The Ostrich Paradox: Why We Underprepare for Disasters, published by Wharton Digital Press, note near the outset that, despite the widely accepted stereotype of ostriches, they are “astute escape artists” who use speed to compensate for their inability to fly. They suggest humans become more like ostriches, not less, by recognizing our own limitations and consciously seeking to address them. But first, we need to know what those shortcomings are and why, because of them, humans routinely fail to anticipate and prepare for disasters.

They start by reviewing a concept of the human brain discussed at length by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow, several years ago—that of the two systems that allow us to do precisely what Kahneman’s title suggested. System 1 operates more rapidly with learned and instinctive responses to everyday situations, such as slowing down or swerving to avoid car crashes, or stepping away from snakes. The reactions are quick reflexes that are often entirely unconscious. System 2, which could never respond to the multitude of routine stimuli fast enough to allow us to cope or survive, instead helps us focus and reflect, sometimes allowing us to train our minds to react differently but also, importantly, to gain perspective on issues facing us. Planning, for instance, is largely an intellectual activity in which we process information, mull it over, and try to anticipate how future conditions may affect our community and its ability to achieve stated goals. It also takes time and does not allow us to react to immediate threats, for example, a bolting horse or the sound of gunfire. When we hear the gunfire, we don’t contemplate what it is; we duck or run for cover.

With the respective limitations of those two systems in mind, Robert Meyer, a professor of marketing, and Howard Kunreuther, professor of decision sciences and public policy, both at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, outline what they describe as the six biases of human beings in dealing with low-probability, high-consequence events “for which we have little stored knowledge.” In other words, we developed fast reactions to a car swerving into our path because we have acquired a good deal of “stored knowledge” from past driving experience. But how often do we experience a tornado? Even people in states like Kansas or Oklahoma, who may hear about such events often enough, may not have enough direct experience with them to know how best to prepare. For events like Hurricane Katrina, which Gulf Coast residents may directly experience once in a lifetime, the stored knowledge is limited indeed. The will to think about such events without having been prodded to do so by prior experience is even more limited. And so, disaster becomes not only a function of natural events, but of the human resistance to considering their possibility.

So, what are those six biases? First, myopia, the tendency to focus on the short term and more likely events at the expense of more significant, long-term dangers. Second, amnesia, the willingness to turn off or ignore more distant memories that may inform our awareness of potential hazards. Third, optimism, or the will to believe that everything will turn out all right. Fourth, the inertia bias, which could also be described as our innate reluctance to disrupt the status quo. Fifth, the simplification bias, the highly understandable difficulty we face in coming to terms with more complex situations. And finally, the herding bias, otherwise known to most people as the tendency to follow the crowd, even though our reflective minds may tell us that the crowd may be dead wrong.

Now, to be honest, I am already engaging in a simplification bias by summarizing the core thesis of an entire book in one paragraph, as I just did. But I am very much aware, as a writer, of what I have done, with the explicit aim of spurring readers to explore the more detailed explanations the book offers. Even if you do not, however, there may be net gains in awareness just by exposing you to the concept that such biases exist. Let me complicate matters just a little by repeating the authors’ assertion that these biases are not all bad, just as they are not all good. What matters is our awareness that these biases exist and that they are a shared legacy of our humanity. None of us can operate without them, but at the same time, our System 2 brains are designed to help us overcome the limitations they embody.

And thus, Meyer and Kunreuther urge us all to be more like ostriches, “not less.” The ostrich compensates for its physical limitations—the inability to fly—with speedy retreats from danger. Humans, with advanced intellectual skills, can do far more. In thinking about risk, the authors suggest, we can “develop policies that take into consideration our inherent cognitive limitations.”

That is, I must say, an intriguing thought—one that deserves more than a reflexive reaction. Think about it.

 

Jim Schwab

Shoot the Messenger (Even When the News Is Positive)

The people of Iowa are about to get a new governor. Lt. Gov. Kim Reynolds will be sworn in as soon as Terry Branstad wins confirmation to his new post of U.S. ambassador to China and he resigns his position as governor. President Trump nominated him because of the business ties he has cultivated between Iowa and China, a state that makes ample use of Iowa agricultural products. Branstad faces little controversy in his nomination hearings in the U.S. Senate, so his confirmation is only a matter of time. Meanwhile, the people of Iowa who retain some common sense are hoping that he completes his long legacy as governor by vetoing a particularly asinine piece of legislation that recently passed both houses of the General Assembly. Senate File 510 defunds the Aldo Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University and mandates its closure by July 1.

Branstad, a Republican, was first governor from 1983 to 1999, when he stepped down and Tom Vilsack, later to become President Obama’s Secretary of Agriculture, won the office. Branstad returned when he defeated one-term Governor Chet Culver. But he was governor in 1987 when the Iowa legislature passed the Iowa Groundwater Protection Act, which used fees on nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides to fund the creation of the Leopold Center. That act was passed because of widespread concerns about pollution from agriculture and industry that diminished the quality of the state’s groundwater. Branstad signed that act into law. A subsequent campaign by the chemical industry against the bill’s supporters backfired in the 1988 elections, a result I wrote about the following year in The Nation (“Farmers and Environmentalists: The Attraction Is Chemical, October 16, 1989).

Apparently, the current Republican-dominated legislature fears no such backlash because Senate File 510 directly targets the Leopold Center, whose total annual budget is only $1.3 million, yet somehow is unaffordable according to the legislature. What Iowa loses is much greater:

  • It loses the status of a national leader in practical research on sustainable agriculture. Bryce Oates, writing for the Daily Yonder, described the center as “sustainable agriculture loyalty,” and “a hub for information.”
  • Last summer I wrote here about Iowa State’s crucial research on the value of filter and buffer strips in reducing runoff in waterways and mitigating flooding in the process. That kind of research would likely not be happening without the Leopold Center. The filter strips also play a role in reducing nitrate pollution.
  • The center has supported research and cost-benefit analysis of hoop house and deep-bedding livestock production methods used by meat companies that supply natural food stores and restaurants like Chipotle, Whole Foods, and many independent outlets. The center also helped launch “Agriculture of the Middle,” connecting family farmers with value chains that provide better prices for farming operations.

 

The entire focus on more sustainable, less environmentally damaging agriculture must have been too much for the commodity groups and agricultural giants and their water carriers in the legislature. They apparently see this modestly funded program as too great a threat to agricultural business as usual, which says a great deal about their own their own sense of vulnerability. So there is but one effective solution: Even when the messenger is producing good news about alternative, less polluting forms of agricultural production, shoot the messenger. It is a message that is all too common in the current political climate.

Jim Schwab

Step Forward on Water Hazards Resilience

Satellite photo of Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway. Image from NOAA Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (CC BY-SA 2.0).

It is time to make America resilient. The trends have been moving us in the wrong direction for a long time, but we know how to reverse them.

Planners — and elected officials — have to embrace the science that will inform us best on how to achieve that goal, and we have to develop the political will to decide that public safety in the face of natural hazards is central both to fiscal prudence and the kind of nation we want to be. America will not become great by being short-sighted.

Damage from natural disasters is taking an increasing toll on our society and our economy. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), currently the target for serious budget cuts by the Trump administration, operates the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), a vital national resource center for data. It has long tracked the number and costs of the nation’s weather and climate-related disasters, and the conclusion is unavoidable: The number of billion-dollar disasters is growing and getting worse.

APA’s Hazards Planning Center has long studied and highlighted best planning practices for addressing the vulnerabilities that lead to such disaster losses. However, the uptake into community planning systems varies, and it is often a long process challenged by resource shortages.

In recognition of Water Week, I offer the following recommendations to Congress for ways in which federal partners and planners can work together to create stronger, more resilient communities:

Maintain funding levels

Maintaining the necessary funding support for agencies like NOAA is critical for providing us with the baseline information the nation needs to track data. It’s only through the ongoing coordination, maintence, and strengthening of national data resources that federal partners will truly be able to support local planning efforts. More data — not less — is the key to creating hazards policy that prepares communities for the future.

Translate science into good public policy

It is important to find new and better ways to translate science into good public policy. This is one of the objectives for NOAA’s Regional Coastal Resilience program — just one of the many important grants in danger of being defunded in FY 2018.

Support America’s coastal communities by ensuring that they benefit from projects directing the nation’s scientific and technical ingenuity to solve problems related to coastal hazards. The price tag is a tiny fraction of what the nation spent on recovery from Hurricane Sandy. The program is clearly a wise investment in our coastal future.

Reauthorize the National Flood Insurance Program

The National Flood Insurance Program expires this year. Reauthorization must include continued support for the flood mapping program so communities have essential baseline information on the parameters of their flooding challenges.

Municipalities and counties need accurate and current flood mapping and data in order to make more informed judgments on both how and where to build. Only then will the nation begin to dial back the volume of annual flood damages.

Pass the Digital Coast Act

Passing the Digital Coast Act means authorizing and enabling NOAA to provide the suite of tools, data, and resources under the Digital Coast program that have proved useful to local planners, coastal resource managers, public works departments, and water agencies in better managing coastal zones and the natural systems that keep them healthy.

Through the Digital Coast Partnership, APA has been a strong advocate for formalizing NOAA’s Digital Coast project through legislation and providing adequate federal appropriations for robust funding.

This legislation already has bipartisan support because the program shows government at its best in providing cost-effective support to scientifically informed public policy and decision making.

As APA Past President Carol Rhea, FAICP, has noted, “This legislation will directly improve local disaster response and hazard mitigation planning. This bill will help local communities minimize potential loss of life and damage to infrastructure, private property, and conservation areas. The Digital Coast Act is an important step for effective coastal management.”

Continue funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created partly in response to the sorry condition of the Great Lakes and major tributaries like the Cuyahoga and Maumee Rivers. We have come a long way since then. The lakes and rivers are healthier, and the communities around them are, too. Yet the administration’s budget would zero out such programs despite their megaregional and even international impacts.

Recognize the progress we have made and renew America’s commitment to further improve these major bodies of water. Support coastal resilience along the Great Lakes.

These are not dramatic requests. Mostly, they recognize the slow but steady progress — and the persistent creativity — that has resulted from past commitments. They are, however, critical to successful water policy and to our national future as a resilient nation.

Jim Schwab

This post is reprinted from the APA Blog with permission from the American Planning Association, for which it was produced.

Make Community Planning Great Again

The American Planning Association (APA), the organization that employs me as the manager of its Hazards Planning Center, made me proud last week. It took a rare step: It announced its opposition to President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal.

It is not that APA has never taken a position on a budgetary issue before, or never DSC00244spoken for or against new or existing programs or regulatory regimes. In representing nearly 37,000 members of the planning community in the United States, most of whom work as professional planners in local or regional government, APA has a responsibility to promote the best ways in which planning can help create healthy, prosperous, more resilient communities and has long done so. It’s just that seldom has a new administration in the White House produced a budget document that so obviously undercuts that mission. APA would be doing a serious disservice to its members by not speaking up on behalf of their core values, which aim at creating a high quality of life in communities of lasting value. That quest leads APA to embrace diversity, educational quality, environmental protection, and economic opportunity. Making all that happen, of course, is a very complex task and the reason that young planners are now largely emerging from graduate programs with complex skill sets that include the use of geographic information systems, demographic and statistical knowledge, public finance, and, increasingly, awareness of the environmental and hazard reduction needs of the communities they will serve. They understand what their communities need and what makes them prosper.

The Fiscal Year 2018 White House budget proposal, somewhat ironically titled America First: A Budget Blueprint to Make America Great Again, is in essential ways very short-sighted about just what will sustain America’s communities and make them great. Making America great seems in this document to center on a military buildup and resources to pursue illegal immigrants while eliminating resources for planning and community development. The proposal would eliminate funding for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Community Development Block Grant program, the HOME Investment Partnerships program, and the Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. It also eliminates the Low-Income Heating Energy Assistance Program, which was created under President Ronald Reagan, as well as the Department of Energy’s weatherization assistance program.

It also eliminates the Appalachian Regional Commission, which supports job training in the very areas where Trump irresponsibly promised to restore mining jobs. There is no doubt that hard-hit areas like West Virginia and eastern Kentucky are in serious need of economic development support. Trump’s promise, however, was hollow and reflected a lack of study of the real issues because environmental regulation, which the budget proposal also targets, is not the primary reason for the loss of mining jobs. The mines of a century ago were dangerous places supported by heavy manual labor, but automation reduced many of those jobs long before environmental protection became a factor. Competition from cheap natural gas, a byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing (or fracking) revolution in that industry, has further weakened the coal industry.

No rollback of clean air or climate programs will change all that. What is clearly needed is a shift in the focus of education and job training programs, and in the focus of economic development, to move the entire region in new directions. To come to terms with the complexity of the region’s socioeconomic challenges, I would suggest that the President read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, which deals compassionately but firmly with the deterioration of the social fabric in Appalachian communities. If anything, it will take a beefed up Appalachian Regional Commission and similar efforts to help turn things around for these folks who placed so much faith in Trump’s largely empty promises.

The March 9 issue of USA Today carried a poignant example of the realities that must be faced in producing economic opportunity in the region. The headline story, “West Virginia Won’t Forget,” highlights the problem of uncompleted highways in an area where a lack of modern transportation access impedes growth, focusing specifically on McDowell County, one of the nation’s most impoverished areas. It is hard for outsiders to grasp the realities. In the Midwest, if one route is closed, there are often parallel routes crossing largely flat or rolling land that maintain access between communities. In much of West Virginia, narrow mountain passes pose serious obstacles when roads no longer meet modern needs. It is the difference between the life and death of struggling communities, with those left behind often mired in desperate poverty. When I see a budget and programs from any White House that address these questions, I will know that someone wants to make Appalachia great again.

I say that in the context of a much larger question that also seems to drive much of the Trump budget. You must read the budget blueprint in its entirety, with an eye to questions of community and coastal resilience and climate change, to absorb fully the fact that the Trump administration is at war with any efforts to recognize the realities of climate change or facilitate climate change adaptation. The proposal zeroes out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s coastal mapping and resilience grant programs. I will grant in full disclosure that APA, in partnership with the Association of State Floodplain Managers, is the recipient of a Regional Coastal Resilience Grant. For good reason: Our three-year project works with pilot communities in Georgia and Ohio to test and implement means of incorporating the best climate science into planning for local capital improvements. Communities invest billions of dollars yearly in transportation and environmental infrastructure and related improvements, and in coastal areas, ensuring that those investments account for resilience in the face of future climate conditions will save far more money for this nation than the $705,00 investment (plus a 50% match from ASFPM and APA) that NOAA is making in the project. The problem is that you have to respect the voluminous climatological science that has demonstrated that the climate is changing and that a serious long-term problem exists. And it is not just the focus of our singular project that matters. Today’s Chicago Tribune contains an Associated Press article about the race by scientists to halt the death of coral reefs due to ocean warming. The article notes that the world has lost half of its coral reefs in the last 30 years and that those reefs produce some of the oxygen we breathe.

The damage on climate change, however, does not stop with the NOAA budget. The Trump budget also zeroes out U.S. contributions to international programs to address climate change and undermines existing U.S. commitments to international climate agreements.

There is also a failure to take seriously the role of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which would suffer a 31% budget reduction and the loss of 3,200 jobs. Among the programs to be axed is the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, ostensibly on grounds that, like the Chesapeake Bay programs, it is a regional and not a national priority and therefore undeserving of federal support. That ignores the fact that four of the five lakes are international waters shared with Canada. It also ignores the history of the agency and its 1970 creation under President Richard Nixon, largely as a result of the serious water pollution problems experienced at the time.

IMG_0256Younger readers may not even be aware of some of this. But I grew up before the EPA existed; I was a college student environmental activist when this came about. When I was in junior high school several years earlier, our class took a field trip aboard the Good Time cruise, which escorted people down the Cuyahoga River to the shores of Lake Erie in Cleveland. The river was such an unspeakable industrial cesspool that one classmate asked the tour guide what would happen if someone fell overboard into the river. Matter-of-factly, the guide responded, “They would probably get pneumonia and die.” We have come a long way, and for those of us who understand what a difference the EPA has made, there is no turning back. I am sure that White House staffers would say that is not the point, but to me it is.

I am sure that, as with other agencies, one can find duplicative programs to eliminate, and ways to tweak the budget for greater efficiencies. That should be a goal of any administration. But in the broad sweep of the damage this budget proposes, I find it impossible to discern that motive in the butcher cuts the White House embraces. It is time to contact your Senators and U.S. Representatives. Ultimately, the budget is up to Congress, which must decide whether the new priorities make sense. My personal opinion is that they are short-sighted and ill-informed.

 

Jim Schwab

Primary Physicians React to Affordable Care Act Repeal

Just two weeks ago, I posted a story on this blog about public rallies against repeal of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, including one I attended and observed here in Chicago that day. That article discussed patients’ reactions to the prospect of ACA repeal under the Trump administration, noting that just 26 percent of Americans currently favor wholesale repeal—far from a majority—while substantial majorities favored almost all the major provisions of the current law. But what about the primary care physicians who treat those patients and serve on the front lines of medical care? How do they feel?

Well, the New England Journal of Medicine apparently decided to find out. It turns out that an even smaller minority, just 15 percent favor wholesale repeal, including just 38 percent of those who voted for Donald Trump. The journal notes that the adjusted response rate to its survey was 45.1 percent, and that the views of primary physicians are not necessarily the same as other physicians. It also notes that about three-quarters favor making changes to the law, but that option is not at all inconsistent with favoring its continued operation. Many such laws are amended over time as a result of experience with their strengths and weaknesses. One potential change favored by those surveyed is that of providing a public option, such as Medicare, in competition with private coverage. Creating such an option for consumers runs counter to current Republican dogma on the issue.

That said, 95.1 percent favored the prohibition on denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions, and majority support for other key provisions of the current law, with the exception of the tax penalty for noncompliance, although even that support was higher than for the general public, at 49.5 percent, almost half. However, the prohibition on denying coverage depends on the mandate for individual coverage. One makes the other possible.

Jim Schwab

Petition the White House on Climate Change

I was made aware yesterday of a new petition on the White House website concerning climate change. The White House website has long contained a mechanism by which citizens can initiate an online petition on an issue of concern and then seek support from others to bring that issue to the concern of the President and his staff. To get a formal response from the White House, the petition must attract at least 100,000 signatures in 30 days. The clock is already ticking. Because petitions have a word limit, the statement is brief and to the point:

  1. Reinstate the President’s Climate Action Plan and double down on your commitment to ensuring the U.S. is the leader in combating climate change.
  2. Allow the EPA to do their job and protect the waters, air, and people of the United States. This includes allowing them to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.
  3. Use climate change as a lens when making decisions for our country. Don’t pit economic development against environmental protection – that is a false dichotomy.

I have discussed numerous times on this blog why climate change is a serious issue facing this nation’s future, how it affects our vulnerability and undermines our resilience to natural hazards, and the scientific basis for understanding that climate change is a real phenomenon significantly influenced by human activities. While President Trump seems to deny this reality, what he has not offered so far is any scientific evidence to support his assertions. I would go so far as to say he has offered little more than tweets and campaign slogans. It is time to get serious; far, far too much is at stake for the future of both the U.S. and the world to continue in this vein.

If you wish to sign on to the petition, just go to https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/petition/make-us-worlds-leader-combating-climate-change, and enter your name and a valid, current e-mail address. We may not get the response we desire, but we can at least make our voices heard.

Jim Schwab