December 14, 2016 11:11AM

You Ought to Have a Look: How‐​to Guides to Undoing the Climate Action Plan, Fixing the National Flood Insurance Program, and Killing Mosquitoes

You Ought to Have a Look is a regular feature from the Center for the Study of Science.  While this section will feature all of the areas of interest that we are emphasizing, the prominence of the climate issue is driving a tremendous amount of web traffic.  Here we post a few of the best in recent days, along with our color commentary.


With news of the past week or so dominated by announcements and then post-announcement scrutiny of Trump’s cabinet picks, we highlight a few pieces that go into deeper waters on these (and other) topics.

First up is an informative piece by Vox’s Brad Plumer that’s built from an interview he conducted with Jody Freeman, a Harvard law school professor and former climate adviser to President Obama. Over the course of their conversation, Plumer and Freeman pretty much lay out a road map as to how the Trump Administration could go about undoing much of President Obama’s ill-advised (in our opinion) Climate Action Plan. The selection of Scott Pruitt to head the EPA is definitely a big step in that direction.

There is a lot of good stuff in Plumer’s piece, discussing ways to approach everything from overturning the moratorium on coal leases on public lands, to disallowing consideration of the social cost of carbon, to the rescinding the Clean Power Plan—some of these things, Freeman explains, are easier to do than others. Ultimately, Plumer tries to sum things up with what we guess was supposed to be an optimistic tone from his point of view (after all, he does write for Vox):

"It does sound like the main point here is that the federal government is this vast bureaucracy that can’t just be turned around overnight.”

To which we’ll add that perhaps this is true, but with a bit of slimming down and concerted effort, we can hope for success.

Next up we highlight another interview, this one between Christopher Flavelle, a Bloomberg View journalist, and Craig Fugate, director of FEMA. In the article, “FEMA’s Director Wants Capitalism to Protect Us from Climate Change,” Flavelle and Fugate discuss the federal government’s flood insurance program and how Fugate would like to see it overhauled to place more of the burden of ill-advised development on the states and localities that acceded to it in the first place, and to relieve the burden on the American taxpayer at large. Here’s a taste:

[Flavelle]: Federal disaster policy is built on a perverse incentive: Local governments have the greatest ability to reduce damage from storms but face little pressure to do so, because FEMA will pick up the tab. Earlier this year, you proposed a disaster deductible. How would you characterize the response from states?

[Fugate}: They felt this was a shifting of funding burden from the federal government back to the local. And I said, quite honestly, the answer is yes. We have set the threshold and the pain point of disasters so low, we're not seeing a change in behavior.

The decisions about our built infrastructure are made at the local level on a daily basis, through land-use decisions, building-code decisions, permitting decisions. If they're not looking at what that means as far as future stability in their tax base, future risk, a lot of times we get short-term development that is sold on the idea of jobs and growing the tax base -- but also transferring more risk to the taxpayer.

There's got to be a forcing mechanism. You've got to really look at this from the standpoint of, Can you afford disasters?... Why do we treat these areas with such deference and subsidies that nobody except for the taxpayer ends up on the hook?

[Flavelle]: Why is that so hard to change?

[Fugate}: Because we won't call people out and say they're socialists.

[Flavelle]: Who's socialist?

[Fugate}: The builders and developers and all the people running around saying they're capitalists and they're Republicans and they're conservatives, and it's all about individual freedoms and making money and growing the tax base, and all the bullshit they throw at people, convincing them this is an economic boon activity. It's nothing but socialism and social welfare for developers when you subsidize risk below which the public gets a benefit from.

They've got to be called out.

Property rights and all of that are such a powerful argument in many parts of the country, I don't want to get into the argument about telling people where they can and can't build. What I want to talk about is, Why are we subsidizing that risk?

While addressing climate change through adaptation was the presumptive premise of the conversation (an approach we prefer over mitigation), climate change or not, efforts to get the federal government out of the flood insurance business are very welcome.

And we’ll round out this week’s edition of You Ought to Have a Look with an article that may have been overlooked in the post-election news coverage but would potentially have made a bigger splash had it come out during this summer’s climate-change-is-behind-the-Zika-outbreak scare. It is a new study that finds that, no, it is not climate change that is behind the flourishing of mosquito populations across America, but rather the growth of the urban/suburban landscape and, more importantly, the ban on DDT use.

Valerie Richardson does a good job in covering the new finding in her Washington Times article. Richardson runs through a litany of claims by environmental groups that global warming is leading to more mosquitoes and, of course, more mosquito-borne disease outbreaks, and then gets to the kicker—“In the latest study, however, scientists said that previous research failed to take into account the impact of DDT and land use.” She continues:

“Although many studies have found positive correlations between temperature and insect populations, most have been limited in temporal scope to the past five decades and nearly all of these studies have ignored the influence of land use or anthropogenic chemical use,” said the paper.

The study also said that population growth had resulted in mosquitoes expanding their habitat to urban areas.

“While our correlative analyses suggested that DDT was the strongest driver of mosquito populations overall, other factors, such as land use, that have changed monotonically over the last century, were also important in explaining patterns of change in mosquito communities,” the paper said.

Richardson points out that “[t]he U.S. mosquito population is on the rise, but don’t blame climate change.”

And another one bites the dust.