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

“For God’s Sake, Don’t Repeal It”

Overflow crowd attends health rally at SEIU-HCII hall.

Overflow crowd attends health rally at SEIU hall.

“Six weeks ago,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who is assistant minority leader in the U.S. Senate, “I got a call from Burlington, Vermont.” It was Sen. Bernie Sanders, who told him “we need to rally in cities across the U.S.” to preserve health care for Americans. Sanders, though falling short of the Democratic nomination last year against Hillary Clinton, showed a noteworthy capacity as a prescient organizer. He clearly anticipated the assault that the new administration and congressional Republicans have now launched against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA), popularly known as Obamacare. And so today, five days before Donald Trump will be inaugurated the 45th President of the United States, rallies to preserve the ACA took place. Durbin spoke in Chicago at the overflowing hall of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Health Care Indiana-Illinois (HCII) unit.

Line forms at the back of the building. It got much longer.

Line forms at the back of the building. It got much longer.

My wife and I arrived about 15 minutes before noon, parked our car in the lot behind the building, and joined a long and rapidly growing line of people seeking to attend the 1:00 p.m. rally. Limited by fire code, the SEIU staff had to cut off the number of people entering, directing the rest of the crowd to a Jumbotron behind the building. We were lucky, among the last 25 people allowed inside, and the line behind us stretched around the corner. Clearly, the Republican attack on health care had stirred a hornet’s nest, at least here in Chicago.
Durbin was the leadoff speaker following an opening by Greg Kelley, executive vice-president of SEIU-HCII. With

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky posing with followers.

U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky posing with followers.

him were several Chicago area Congressmen—Reps. Mike Quigley, Jan Schakowsky, Brad Schneider, and Raja Krishnamoorthi, all Democrats, along with Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle. Durbin cited the statistics that reveal the origin of the angst driving the overflow crowd. He noted that some 1.2 million people in Illinois stood to lose their health insurance coverage if the ACA is repealed, roughly 10 percent of the population. The ACA saves seniors in Illinois an average of $1,000 per year on prescription drugs. People stood to lose the ACA’s protection against lifetime limits on coverage, which in the past often led to bankruptcy for people with catastrophic illnesses like cancer.

“The Affordable Care Act was the most important vote I have ever cast as a member of Congress,” Durbin concluded. “If the Republicans can’t replace it with something as good or better, for God’s sake, don’t repeal it.”

A true citizen uprising needs more than politicians at the podium, and union leaders, such as SEIU president Mary Kay Henry, health care consumers, representatives of Planned Parenthood and a small business alliance, and others, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, kept the standing-room-only crowd revved up. Tracy Savado, introduced as a health care consumer with a story to tell about lifetime coverage caps, shared that her husband had been diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia. Fearful of lacking enough insurance, she inquired of her insurance company representative about this point, and, she said, was told that President Obama’s health care law had done away with such limits. Prior to the ACA, she noted, about half of all insurance policies had lifetime caps on coverage. She added that she had recently attended a farewell for outgoing Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell. Asked what might happen in the new administration, Savado said, Burwell paused and noted that the biggest obstacle to the GOP plan for repeal is “people sharing their stories” about the benefits they have enjoyed from the new law. “When people understand what’s at stake, they aren’t going to want repeal,” she concluded.

Many of the other speakers essentially made many of the same points in different ways for almost an hour and a half, until William McNary, co-director of Citizen Action Illinois, ended the rally on a boisterous note with a rousing speech in which he declared that “the only pre-existing condition the Republicans want you to have is amnesia.”

His comment is a powerful point that is worth remembering in considering how matters came to this pass. More than a few Americans who voted for Trump in the recent election are also benefiting from Obamacare. While people clearly can and do vote on issues other than health care, it remains undeniable that this constitutes some form of contradiction that requires explanation. Even amid the 2010 debate that ended with the passage of the ACA, Tea Party rallies often featured protesters with signs that read, “Keep your government hands off my Medicare.” What sort of stunning ignorance is required to fail to understand that Medicare was and is a creation of the federal government by a vote of Congress in the 1960s and that, absent the “government hands,” it would never have come to be in the first place?

Recent polls have shown overwhelmingly that voters favor virtually all the key features of the Affordable Care Act even as many nonetheless oppose whatever they perceive as “Obamacare.” A post-election Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found public support at 80 percent oDSCF3283r above for ACA provisions allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ insurance plans, eliminating most out-of-pocket costs for preventive services, subsidies for low-income insurance purchasers, and state  options for expanding Medicaid, as well as 69 percent for prohibition of denial of insurance because of pre-existing conditions. Only 26 percent want the law repealed. What we have faced since 2010, and must confront now, is not a real plan to replace Obamacare with something better, but an incredibly slick campaign of propaganda to associate the word Obamacare with something evil.

People who come to terms with the origins of such contradictions may find themselves in a better position to understand the remarkable political gall required for the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives to pass repeal in recent days without offering a clue as to what will replace Obamacare. “Repeal and replace” was Trump’s campaign mantra, yet even he has offered no details of consequence about what that will mean even as he insists Congress will somehow do both within the next few weeks. Anyone who believes that can be done by a party that has failed to define an alternative for the last six years is truly prepared to believe in political miracles.

It would be more realistic to look closely at Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price of Georgia, a man who advocates replacing much of current Medicare coverage with a voucher system and is devoted to dismantling Obamacare. Read his intentions closely, get angry, and organize.

Jim Schwab

Connecting Hazard Science and Planning Down Under

Much of New Zealand is a land of striking natural beauty riddled with natural hazards.

Much of New Zealand is a land of striking natural beauty riddled with natural hazards.

Nearly nine years ago, when I was invited to accept a three-week visiting fellowship in New Zealand with the Centre for Advanced Engineering in New Zealand (CAENZ) at the University of Canterbury, people began to ask me why the New Zealanders were so interested in me or the work of our Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association. My response was to ask another question: “Have you seen Lord of the Rings?”

The overwhelming majority of inquirers would say yes, and I would follow up by asking whether they were aware that the entire trilogy was filmed in New Zealand. Most were, though not all. “Look at the landscape in those films,” I would say, adding that “it ought to come to you” after doing so. Later, I wrote an article for Planning, APA’s monthly magazine, about the experience, titling it “A Landscape of Hazards.” New Zealand almost literally has it all: earthquake faults, active volcanoes, coastal storms, landslides, flash floods, and even occasional wildfires. One day, back in the states, I even learned that a small tornado had struck in Auckland. There were very good reasons CAENZ spent enough money to bring me there to consult on national hazards policy and land use.

Damage following a coastal storm on the North Island in August 2008.

Damage following a coastal storm on the North Island in August 2008.

One serious consequence of the visit, which included my doing seven lectures and seminars around the country during that time, was that I established a number of valuable and lasting professional relationships, some of which are occasionally rekindled by meeting Kiwi researchers at conferences in the U.S. since then. One was a young researcher, Wendy Saunders, at GNS Science, who recently sent me a copy of a new report she co-authored for this crown research center, released in November. “The Role of Science in Land Use Planning: Exploring the Challenges and Opportunities to Improve Practice” made me realize that a common problem in U.S. planning, the introduction of scientific information related to natural hazards, is not much different halfway around the world, even under a rather different planning framework than ours.

Indeed, one other benefit of the trip was that, not only did they learn from me about the complexities and idiosyncrasies of land-use planning in the United States, but I learned a great deal about their system as well, and it broadened my perspective on how planning is practiced around the world. Things are somewhat simpler in this small nation of 4.2 million people on two islands that together are somewhat smaller than California. That led to an interesting comment from one gentleman to another in the front row of a modest crowd at the Christchurch regional council following one of my presentations. “We’re about the size of a small state over there,” he mused. Yes, I thought, we are two sovereign nations, but vastly different in size, with systems calibrated to very different needs as a result.

In the New Zealand context, the result is a system, based on 1989 reforms, in which there is no “state” layer of government between the national government in Wellington and local government at the municipal level. Under the nation’s Resource Management Act, however, a series of regional councils does provide oversight of environmental policy and reviews local decisions for compliance. Those regions are basically based on watershed boundaries, which may seem like nirvana to some bioregionalists in the U.S., but they entail their own political challenges. No system is perfect.

The challenge the GNS Science report addresses, in fact, is that of properly introducing natural hazards science into land-use policy at the local level, which is not an easy task even in New Zealand, where such hazards seem abundant and omnipresent. The report includes a case study of GNS’s own experience in intervening in a plan change in Hutt City, near Wellington on the North Island, where a major earthquake fault straddles and affects much urban development. The problem of how to introduce issues like climate and hazard mitigation into the planning process is one we have pondered repeatedly at the Hazards Planning Center at APA, precisely because that is our mission. As the GNS report notes, while local planners may complain that science is often presented In ways that lack translation into a local context, with no straightforward means of resolving conflicts between experts, scientists nonetheless “are often frustrated by the lack of uptake of their science in land use planning decisions.” Maybe Kiwis and Yankees, at least in this respect, have far more in common than we realize.

Inevitably, because there are no simple solutions that fit all cases, the report concludes that incorporating natural hazards science in land-use decision making is a “complex process influenced by numerous social levers and networks.” In the Hutt City case, economic development was paramount, but natural hazards took their place on the stage in part as a result of GNS Science’s intervention, a lesson to scientific researchers that it is important for them to find their voice even if local elected officials and policy makers may not absorb all the subtleties of scientific conclusions. It is not always a matter of scientists being poor communicators. Sometimes public officials must be better listeners. Scientists must be willing to learn more about the planning process, but planners must learn more about the nuances of scientific assessments. Public safety with regard to natural hazards risks is not a matter of stopping all development, but of using scientific knowledge wisely to make development better. We must all become better at reaching across disciplinary boundaries to reduce misunderstanding and misinformation and to receive information vital to making better decisions. The importance of this became very clear to me less than three years after my visit, when Christchurch, the home of CAENZ, was shaken by significant earthquakes from which the city is still recovering.

 

Jim Schwab

What Is at Stake

Before I delve into the essence of this article, let me clarify one point for any potential Trump supporters reading this: No, I do not think Hillary Clinton is the perfect presidential candidate. But I also do not think she is “crooked Hillary,” whatever Donald Trump means by that, nor do I think she is so terrible as to be unacceptable. She has a number of admirable qualities balanced by some noticeable drawbacks, and she is and has been a very serious student of public policy. She is qualified and experienced. That is offset to some degree by some noticeable shortcomings, although the office of President of the United States has almost never been a denizen of saints. She is certainly not a threat to democracy or the democratic process, nor is President Barack Obama, despite right-wing attempts to demonize him. I can think of many presidents of both parties with whom I disagreed on specific policies without worrying about whether they jeopardized the future of the republic.

All that said, I do think Donald Trump has crossed numerous red lines that others before him have, out of principle and concern for the nation, chosen not to cross, which is why previous Republican nominees and presidents—the Bushes, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—have either rebuked his candidacy or repeatedly clashed with him. Two are of special concern.

First, the threat to jail his opponent, following up the litany at the Republican National Convention of “Lock her up!” regarding Hillary Clinton, shows a shocking disregard of the constitutional limits of the presidency. There is a reason no presidential candidate has made such a threat before, and it is not that no one was as crooked as Hillary. It is that it is not the job of the President to decide who is arrested, who is indicted, and who goes to prison. It is the job of the courts and law enforcement agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, to make that call. With regard to Clinton’s e-mails, James Comey, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a Republican, has made the determination there was carelessness but not a crime, but it appears that Trump and his supporters will be satisfied only when they get the outcome they want. This weekend’s revelation that the FBI will examine the Clinton-related e-mails (which apparently were not to or from Clinton herself) found on a computer belonging to former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner and his estranged wife, Huma Abedin, a Clinton aide, has added no real substance to any accusations, Donald Trump’s hyperbolic implications notwithstanding. Trump himself is not entirely immune to prosecution on certain fronts, but it will not be Clinton who forces the issue. It will be the justice system at some level that will decide whether any charges have sufficient merit to justify such steps. Clinton knows far better than to wade into such a swamp even for political purposes.

What Trump’s rhetoric does, however, is dramatically reduce any apparent distance between the constitutional procedures at work in the United States and the more capricious workings of justice in authoritarian nations like Russia or Venezuela. That is a step into the abyss that should alarm any thinking, conscientious American. I say “apparent” because, while I absolutely believe the substantive differences between our political system and those in such nations is very real, Trump is erasing some of the appearance, and perceptions matter.

Second, the claims of a rigged election are despicable and based on nothing. Trump has offered no proof because there is none. Not only are there numerous studies, all cited repeatedly by the news media, showing only infinitesimal vote fraud at a level that would not even affect most municipal elections, let alone the presidency, but our electoral system itself is geared to prevent it. There is no national election system in the U.S. Elections are under the control of state-level Secretaries of State, for the most part, most of whom right now are Republicans. Why would Republican election officials be assisting a conspiracy to keep Donald Trump out of office? In any event, even they lack that power because the administration of elections is generally handled at the county level. The system is thoroughly decentralized. Both parties have long had poll watchers who monitor activity at polling places and can blow the whistle when something is awry. The number of people who would need to be party to a conspiracy in order to rig a national election successfully is so vast as to be laughable. My wife has been an election judge for Cook County. There are strict incentives for accuracy for poll workers on Election Day. The county clerk, David Orr, is a thoroughly honorable man who enjoys great respect.

It is important to recognize, however, that Trump’s allegations of a rigged election are not about the election. They are the desperate efforts of a man who has derided others as losers to deflect attention from the fact that his own inept campaign, hobbled by his own deep character flaws, has turned him into a seeming loser in a campaign he thought he could not lose. Unable to handle or accept responsibility for possible defeat, Trump is driven to find some cause outside himself to blame for it. The problem can never be Trump himself. If he is going down, he will try to take the system down with him. The problem is that he has too many followers willing to follow him into that abyss.

There are other characteristics of Trump that raise serious questions. His thin skin for criticism, which causes him to lash out, has made many people very uneasy with his candidacy. His behavior too closely resembles that of a schoolyard bully who has never matured or moved beyond a brand of egotistical narcissism that is deeply troubling. More experienced politicians with a better perspective on what matters, for instance, would easily have decided that Gold Star parents, through the loss of their child in this nation’s service, have earned the right to express their opinions and that it would be best to simply respect their feelings. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has said as much. But most other candidates would also have had more restraint—and respect for the U.S. Constitution—than to have made the comments about Muslim citizens that provoked the Khans’ objections to Trump in the first place. In the view of a bully, however, such criticism is intolerable and must be squashed.

I also must say that Trump violates one of my own fundamental values—my appreciation for factual accuracy and scholarship. I understand that almost no politician is likely to be entirely truthful 100 percent of the time, in part because no one lasts very long that way. But on the spectrum of perfect honesty versus indifference to the truth, Trump veers so far toward indifference that he has scared the wits out of many Americans who care about honesty. When I hear anyone, politician or otherwise, use hyperbolic rhetoric with words like “huge,” “everyone says,” “so many people tell me,” etc., I begin to cringe with a sense that the speaker is almost immune to the influence of serious information. As a writer and communicator, I understand the need to digest and focus and condense information for popular consumption, but this type of rhetoric is not about that. It is about disguising the speaker’s lack of commitment to learning and to understanding the importance of knowing what you do not know. When absorbing technical information outside my area of expertise, I may well ask an engineer or scientist to concentrate on the essentials without burying me in minutiae, but I still care about the accuracy of what I am learning. And I have learned, sometimes the hard way over the years, that the catch phrases I have cited above are typically those of a bullshit artist. This same reaction is undoubtedly what led CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria earlier this summer to publish his daring op-ed in the Washington Post, “The Unbearable Stench of Donald Trump’s B.S.

Is there any precedent for such a candidate? I think there is, but not where people have been looking. I have heard some comparisons to Mussolini or Hitler, and at one point wondered whether the former was an apt comparison. I think not. For one thing, despite his troubling rhetoric, Trump lacks the discipline both in his campaign and among his followers to imitate these fascist leaders. Fortunately, we see no brownshirts, no jackboots, not even a clear ideology. There is merely a campaign based on numerous grievances, some more legitimate than others, among a portion of the electorate that is hungry for a strong leader who they believe can “make America great again.” He is certainly firing up their fears and paranoia, and that may have some lasting consequences for both the nation and the Republican party. But it simply is not the same thing. Let’s dispense with that sort of hyperbole from the left.

Nor, despite Trump’s apparent admiration, is Russian President Vladimir Putin a valid comparison. Russians at the moment appear to prefer Putin’s strong, silent type of leadership over the brash, talkative role model that Trump embodies.

Instead, I would suggest that the real comparison lies south of the border, in the very nations that are supplying so many of the immigrants that Trump promises to wall out of the U.S. There has long been a style of Latin American politics known as “personalismo” in Spanish, for which there is not a direct translation in English, although “personalism” would be the apparent operative term. Personalismo is built around the messianic appeal of a charismatic leader who basically proclaims, as Trump famously did in the Republican convention this year, “I alone can fix it.” The appeal typically resonates with people who have grown deeply skeptical of the political system and its ability to solve deeply rooted problems. Examples could include Juan Peron in Argentina, and perhaps Eva Peron later as well, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Omar Torrijos in Panama, and Alberto Fujimori in Peru. One might even add the current example of President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines. These leaders are quite distinct from leaders of the once frequent military juntas in Latin America, who were often distinctly uncharismatic and relied on guns, not votes, for their rise to power. Personalismo produces leaders who rise as a result of a rapid surge in popularity built upon rhetoric often eerily similar to “make America great again,” such as Chavez’s “Bolivarian revolution” or promises to wipe out crime and rebellion through strong-arm tactics. Personalist leaders often acquire military support, but it is not at the root of their popularity.

The problem is that such exercises in messianic leadership almost never end well. In fact, they almost always end badly and do little to strengthen democracy. If there are rigged elections, they almost invariably happen not in the rise to power, but as el lider’s popularity eventually declines and a need emerges to find ways to prolong his reign. This is largely the route being followed now by the remnants of Chavismo under the far less charismatic successor, current Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro. Losing power is tough to tolerate for a politician who rode to power on a wave of populist enthusiasm. However, as I noted earlier, the U.S. electoral system is loaded with safeguards against such an outcome precisely because it is federal and widely decentralized. Political systems in most Latin American nations have traditionally been more centralized at a national level.

Where does that leave us? The rise of a candidate like Trump, for one thing, does serve a purpose. It exposes the fact that a substantial portion of the U.S. electorate feels disenfranchised and disempowered at some significant level. While many are grasping at straws in embracing Trump as a problem solver, this does not mean the problems should be ignored. The loss of blue-collar jobs creates serious issues of social equity, and the rise of the Bernie Sanders candidacy in the Democratic party should have alerted Clinton to the fact that her presidency may face serious obstacles to success if she does not address them. Clinton could blunt the power of Trump’s following by finding ways to effectively handle the displacement of jobs in mining and manufacturing, but it will take a more deliberate effort than we have seen so far. Communities in places like Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio that have flocked to the Trump candidacy will be hard sells for such programs, yet no president—not even Trump if he is elected—is likely to reverse the long-term decline of coal, or the widespread systemic changes in the steel industry. Some communities will have to be helped to embrace a more promising future. But many of these workers have been offered little hope for a long time, and they are understandably frustrated. There are opportunities to address that frustration, however, and failure to do so will only breed more of the same cynicism that brought us to our current choices. What remains to be seen, if she is elected on November 8, is whether a President Hillary Clinton (or, for that matter, Donald Trump) has the capacity to be bold enough, and courageous enough, to confront this gap between reality and aspiration in a bid to erode such cynicism. And whether Republicans in Congress will help lead, get out of the way, or obstruct progress.

 

Jim Schwab

Can You Sue the Government for Climate Change Impacts?

The American Planning Association has just posted today this article I wrote for its APA blog: https://www.planning.org/blog/blogpost/9111027/.

Jim Schwab

Protect What We’ve Gained in Flood Loss Reduction

Flood damage on Staten Island from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Flood damage on Staten Island from Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

One of the ongoing, perhaps permanent, struggles in public policy in a democracy like ours involves finding a balance between enabling private sector opportunities and protecting both the public interest and the public purse. Depending on their philosophies and perspectives, people will naturally draw those lines in different places on different issues. But sometimes it is perfectly clear when the public interest is about to suffer a hit. Currently, one of those possibilities involves the fate of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP).

On April 28, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HR 2901, a bill that seeks to make it easier for private companies to write private flood insurance policies that can take the place of those provided by the NFIP. The NFIP was created under the National Flood Insurance Act of 1968 to provide insurance that was then largely unavailable on the private market, but it also set in motion the creation of a federal regulatory program that has established standards for floodplain management in more than 22,000 communities nationwide. Many of those communities, particularly smaller ones, have no other meaningful land-use regulations, unlike bigger cities and suburbs and communities in states that mandate planning, which typically have comprehensive plans, zoning ordinances, and subdivision regulations. The reason is that federal flood insurance is made available only in communities that have adopted the minimum standards of the NFIP, which seek to achieve flood loss reduction, thus reducing the damages from flooding and the resultant payouts under flood policies.

It makes perfect sense. There is no good reason for the federal government to insure properties against flood losses without making some attempt to minimize those losses through sensible land-use measures. Private casualty insurers certainly make attempts within their means to reduce losses from other types of accidents and disasters. Why not the federal government?

There is nothing inherently wrong with expanding opportunities for private flood insurance coverage. But there are serious issues with HR 2901, and the Association of State Floodplain Managers (ASFPM), an organization with which I work closely as manager of the Hazards Planning Center at the American Planning Association (APA), has mounted an alert among its members to urge U.S. Senators to take time to examine the bill closely before taking any action this fall. It has also addressed the issue earlier in testimony before the Senate Committee on Small Business and Entrepreneurship. The Senate is in recess until September 6. ASFPM would ideally prefer that Congress defer action until next year, when the NFIP is due for reauthorization in any case, in order to consider the unintended consequences of the House bill in line with the larger objectives of the NFIP. APA is in support of the ASFPM effort in this regard.

The NFIP has evolved for nearly half a century with numerous revisions and reforms over time. Like any such program, it has needed to evolve in response to new lessons and changing circumstances. Some of the most significant lessons of the past came from the 1993 Midwest floods, which spawned reforms a year later. Among numerous changes that year was modification of policies to include Increased Cost of Compliance, which allows policies to pay for building improvements in response to higher local building standards, for example, by requiring elevation of buildings above the Base Flood Elevation, which is basically the height of the 100-year, or one percent chance annual flood, as mapped on the NFIP’s Flood Insurance Rate Maps. It is in the public interest to facilitate the capacity of communities to upgrade such codes over time as new lessons are learned, and to make it financially feasible for policy owners to comply with those new standards when rebuilding after a flood.

To be sure, these maps have never been perfect indicators of flood risk, though they are getting better with current digitization initiatives. Still, only about 1.2 million miles of shoreline and riverfront have been mapped, while more than 2/3 of the miles of the nation’s waterways are not. Most of the latter are small creeks and streams outside developed areas, which clearly have always been the priority. But it also means that development can occur in less developed areas without requirements to meet standards that only apply to mapped floodplains—unless a local jurisdiction is proactive enough to require developers to map such areas before new subdivisions or other development can be considered. Mostly, that is not the case.

So what is at issue with HR 2901? For one thing, NFIP policies include a policy fee that helps underwrite the cost of all this mapping, including updates and corrections over time. It is an ongoing process in part because floodplains are not static geographic entities. They expand or contract with the impact of our development practices, which affect the amount of impervious surface in urbanized areas, which affect how stormwater and other runoff is absorbed into the ground or directed downstream. Further, according the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), about 40 percent of flood-related losses occur outside mapped floodplains. Why? Because not all floodplains are adequately mapped or as yet mapped at all, and because flooding can occur outside and beyond the 100-year floodplain, and often does.  We have Certified Floodplain Managers these days because this is, in fact, a complex and technical subject.

The problem with not including policy fees in the private policies is that the burden of financing this public good of mapping floodplains and maintaining a mountain of data about flood hazards falls to those NFIP policyholders who are paying for it, or to the American taxpayer when Congress allocates money directly for the purpose. The fee also supports flood hazard reduction efforts under FEMA’s Flood Mitigation Assistance program. That creates an inequity in favor of private flood insurance. But that is not all. Although federal financial regulators have had authority to establish policies concerning what provisions in a private policy would make them acceptable as an alternative to an NFIP policy, they have not acted. FEMA legal advisors, for whatever reason, decided in 2013 they did not have the authority to issue guidance. So the House bill assigned this responsibility to state insurance commissioners while prescribing that lenders and federal bank regulators “shall accept” the standards laid out by the states. It would be small surprise to anyone knowledgeable in this field to discover that state regulation in most cases is likely to be minimal and limited. The only required equivalency in the House bill will deal with the coverage amount, which may result in much smaller private premiums with high deductibles that may be superficially attractive—until homeowners with large deductibles find they lack the resources to rebuild and just walk away, quite possibly leaving communities and the federal government holding the bag for addressing the problems of neighborhoods with spotty redevelopment and blighted properties.

All of this, at the very least, deserves some serious debate before the Senate accepts the House version, but proponents have been seeking to fast-track the Senate bill (S 1679) under a process known as Unanimous Consent. However, if enough Senators hear enough complaints, fast-track may become a less attractive option. And, as noted earlier, there are good reasons to delay this discussion and take it up as part of the NFIP reauthorization next year, so that both Senators and the public can begin to understand the full implications of what has been proposed.

In no way would this be a death knell for private flood insurance. One problem the bill deals with in two useful paragraphs is to allow the private policies to be considered “portable” for the purpose of maintaining an unbroken record of coverage for a property if the owner switches between public and private insurance. That has not been the case but is not hard to fix. ASFPM notes that there has been a doubling in the last couple of years of companies offering private insurance. In other words, the expansion of private flood insurance is already happening. There is no reason to create a whole class of private policies that are not truly equivalent to those of the NFIP and, in the process, undermine the public goods produced by the NFIP and quite likely, increase the number of property owners seeking disaster assistance after discovering they are inadequately covered.

Flood insurance policy has already entered a volatile period that began with the Biggert-Waters Flood Insurance Reform Act of 2012, passed just a few months before Hurricane Sandy. While trying to place older, subsidized policies on a path to actuarially justifiable rates, it triggered a political backlash when rates began to soar after the impact of Hurricane Sandy. By 2014, Congress somewhat reversed course but has left unresolved a number of issues concerning how previously subsidized policyholders could afford their now escalating premiums as Congress sought to reconcile affordability with a desire to place the NFIP on a fiscally sound footing. It is a thorny issue at best, and we surely have not heard the end of it.  The simple fact is that large numbers of older, poorly protected properties in or near floodplains are likely to continue to generate flood losses into the future.

We already have a flood insurance program that is $23 billion in debt to the U.S. Treasury because of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, which overrode assumptions that the NFIP would largely insure garden-variety disasters. Next year’s reauthorization could sensibly forgive this debt in order to begin to place the NFIP back on a fiscally sound footing, but not with the approaches in HR 2901. We need to strengthen, not weaken, a system that at least drives toward stronger floodplain management and flood mitigation. We need to get this train moving again in the right direction. Congress needs generally to be more productive than it has been in recent years, but it also needs to put more thought into this particular issue and act in less haste. The alternative is to continue to generate a long train of unintended consequences and later ask what happened and why.

Jim Schwab