That ocean breeze may be full of tiny bits of plastic
India’s capital city of New Delhi has been making headlines this week for its abysmal air quality as the concentration of particulate matter reached above 400 micrograms per cubic meter, 20 times the levels deemed healthy by the World Health Organization and the worst the city has seen since 2016.
On October 31, the government declared a public health emergency, closing schools, banning construction and fireworks, and limiting private vehicle use to every other day for five days in an effort to protect the population and make a dent in the pollution. Flights have been delayed and hospitals inundated with patients suffering from coughs, dry eyes and throats, and other symptoms brought on or exacerbated by the toxic air.
On the ground, it looks like a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie. Blanketing the streets is smog so dense you can’t see the length of a city block, and the sharp smell of smoke is detectable even through a mask, without which you’d be exposed to air that, over the course of a day, is equivalent to smoking a couple packs of cigarettes.
Unfortunately, this sort of air pollution is nothing new to the residents of Delhi, nor those of many other Indian cities. A study released earlier this year found that 22 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities are in India, and the fall and winter months are always especially toxic.
The stew of pollution choking New Delhi this time of year doesn’t have one single source. Massive clouds of smoke drift south from the neighboring states of Punjab and Haryana, where farmers burn crop stubble from their fields after the harvest to trap nutrients in the soil. Fireworks set off in the streets by the city’s 2 million residents during the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali, don’t help either. And then there are the usual suspects: car and industrial emissions.
But it’s not just human activity that’s to blame — local weather patterns don’t help the problem, either. Cold air settles into the low-lying city, bringing with it, and holding in, pollutants.
The government has been struggling for years — mostly without success — to curb air pollution. Crop burning and firecrackers are both illegal, but people mostly ignore these bans, as well as the efforts to replace the practices with greener alternatives.
Hopefully residents will be breathing easier soon — air quality has begun to improve significantly in the last couple days thanks to winds, the odd-even car scheme, and a reduction in crop burning in Haryana. But these are short-term fixes, and just as history tells us that this year’s emergency-level air pollution wasn’t a fluke, it also suggests that large-scale measures will need to be taken if the people of New Delhi hope to avoid future polluted falls and winters.
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North Carolina is a magnet for hurricanes. Hurricanes Matthew and Florence both paid a visit in recent years, inundating towns and causing billions in damage. So if anyone in the United States knew firsthand that climate change was here, it would be the residents of New Hanover County, home to Wilmington and one of most vulnerable places in the country to hurricanes and sea-level rise.
A new study published in the journal Climatic Change looked at whether homeowners in this coastal county accepted climate science, and whether that made a difference in how they safeguarded their house against a future storm. The short answer: It didn’t.
The conventional wisdom is that if people knew the threat they faced and believed measures to protect their home would work (and had the money to act) they’d do the logical thing and try to keep their family safe. But the new research, which surveyed more than 600 homeowners in New Hanover County in 2017, found that none of these factors made a difference. “That was the biggest sobering takeaway,” said Tracy Kijewski-Correa, an author of the study and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and earth sciences at Notre Dame University.
Although the study found a few “bright spots” — some people who connected the dots and tried to protect themselves — the correlation wasn’t strong enough to make a statistically significant difference, Kijewski-Correa said. The new research is in line with previous studies that suggest that giving information alone is not enough to change behavior, according to Susan Clayton, a professor of psychology at the College of Wooster in Ohio who wasn’t involved in the study.
Why didn’t homeowners who knew they were at risk do a better job of preparing? It comes down to the complexities of human behavior. People do things all the time that they know are risky, like smoking cigarettes and driving cars. And when it comes to hurricanes, insurance and assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency might have lulled people into complacency, Kijewski-Correa said.
“Even if people think they could be at risk, they assume that they’ll be taken care of if that bad day should ever happen,” Kijewski-Correa said. That’s often not how things turn out. FEMA just last week denied a funding request for residents of several North Carolina counties that suffered property damage from Hurricane Dorian in September. That includes some 400 people on Ocracoke Island who lost their homes.
So how do you convince people living in vulnerable places to spend time and money preparing for a catastrophe that’ll strike who knows when?
Clayton, the psychologist, recommends using social norms to apply pressure. One problem with installing hurricane-proof windows is that nobody can really see the difference, she explained. “A community could give people little signs to put in their lawns: ‘I’ve hurricane-proofed my house,’” Clayton said. “That would let people know that other people were taking action.”
Relying on people to do the smart thing voluntarily can only go so far. For a more far-reaching solution, governments could mandate enhanced building codes or use other policies to motivate homeowners to protect themselves. But the new study found that the North Carolinians surveyed “were very much opposed to the government intervening,” Kijewski-Correa said.
Money might prove the most effective way to get through to people. Kijewski-Correa suggested that the influence of real-estate markets might work better than government regulation. “One way we can change this is to change what we value in home buying and selling,” she said. So, safety measures trump granite countertops.
“Think about how many times [real-estate agents] show off the kitchen and the brand-new bathrooms,” Kijewski-Correa said. “How many times do they the show off the roof that will actually keep your family alive in a hurricane?”
One silver lining: The study suggests that denying the scientific consensus on climate change isn’t that much of an obstacle to keeping people safe.
The “leave climate out of it” approach is already having some success in towns in North Carolina. Some local governments have adopted ordinances pushing new construction to higher ground, mentioning “flood damage” but not rising seas.
Kijewski-Correa said that bringing up climate change in discussions about preventing disasters might backfire with some people who live in flood-prone areas, and recommended talking about how hurricanes are getting stronger and flooding is getting worse.
“They’re at risk,” she said, “and that’s what keeps me up at night, more than the partisan bickering around the issue.”
The unexpected culprit that could throw a wrench in the world’s efforts to stop climate change? Runaway methane levels. Researchers monitoring air samples have noticed an alarming observation: Methane levels are on the rise and no one’s quite sure why.
NOAA’s Earth System Research Laboratory scientists have been analyzing air samples since 1983. Once a week, metal flasks containing air from around the world at different elevations find their way to the Boulder, Colorado, lab. The scientists look at 55 greenhouse gases, including methane and its more-famous climate villain, CO2.
You might know methane as the stuff of cow farts, natural gas, and landfills. It’s also an incredibly potent greenhouse gas, absorbing heat 25 times more effectively than CO2. While the rise of carbon dioxide has been stealing the spotlight as of late, methane levels have also been on the incline.
Methane levels, not surprisingly, have been steadily rising since the Industrial Revolution. Things picked up in 1980 and soon after, the NOAA scientists began consistently measuring methane. Levels were high but flattened out by the turn of the millenium. So when levels began to increase at a rapid rate in 2007, and then even faster in 2014, scientists were baffled. No one’s best guesses came close to predicting current methane levels of around 1,867 parts per billion as of 2018. This means studies evaluating the effects of climate change and action plans to address them, like the Paris Climate Agreement, may be based on downplayed climate crisis forecasts.
Methane levels from 1950 to present. 2° Institute
So what’s the big deal? Carbon dioxide emissions are relatively well understood and can be tracked to various human activities like transportation and electricity, which means policies can be enacted to target and lower emissions. Pinning down the source of methane, on the other hand, is a little more complicated.
“The really fascinating thing about methane,” Lori Bruhwiler, a NOAA research scientist, told Undark, “is the fact that almost everything we humans do has an effect on the methane budget, from producing food to producing fuel to disposing of waste.”
As if things weren’t complicated enough, a study published in AGU100 distinguished microbe-produced methane from fossil fuel methane — historically the more abundant one — and found that “natural” methane had taken the lead. This unexpected result might explain the upticks in methane levels that do not seem correlated with human activity. Of course, it could also be any number of human-made causes, including warming temperatures freeing up the gas and more frequent floods amplifying the methane output of wetlands.
Natural methane or not, this finding doesn’t exonerate anyone. The study’s authors made that clear in their concluding remarks.
“If the increased methane burden is driven by increased emissions from natural sources,” they wrote, “and if this is a climate feedback—the warming feeding the warming—then there is urgency to reduce anthropogenic emissions, which we can control.”
Curbing methane could be a powerful tool in our upcoming climate fight. Since the greenhouse gas is relatively short lived, only around 12 years, versus the 20 to 200 years of CO2, and is more effective at trapping heat than carbon dioxide, addressing methane emissions could be effective as a short-term climate remediation tool. The first step? Bringing more attention to methane so we can figure out where it comes from and nip it in the bud.
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Scientists are baffled by a giant spike in this greenhouse gas (it’s not CO2)
Earth Month starts tomorrow, and there’s never been a better time to?kick your green living into gear. These easy sustainability will help you get started.
Climate change is looking pretty grim?we no longer have the luxury of considering sustainability an “option”. Each and every one of us needs to start pulling our weight and pressuring businesses and governments to make rapid, significant?shifts if we care about?rescuing our planet.
To get you started on the road to personal sustainability, here are a few straightforward ways you can have a major impact on the planet (without much effort)?just in time for Earth Month!
Fast fashion is a sustainability nightmare.?Buying new clothes every season? Guess what happens when you?toss your old clothes out?they get thrown in the landfill. And since?many clothes are made with manmade materials like polyester, they likely aren?t biodegradable. Let?s not forget that manufacturing clothing requires a tremendous amount of water resources and chemicals pollutants.
To lessen your impact, shop second hand when you have a craving to go shopping.?If you must buy new, invest in high-quality pieces that will last for years to come. It?s time to ditch fast fashion for good.
It can be tantalizing to go out and buy the latest and greatest tech device as soon as it hits the market, but if you care about sustainability you?re going to want to think twice.
According to the New York Times, ?The production of an iPhone 6, for example, released the equivalent of 178 pounds of carbon dioxide, or about as much as burning nine gallons of gas, according to a 2015 study.?
Sure, Apple and other tech companies have become more environmentally conscious since the iPhone 6 launched way back in 2014 (Apple has some particularly cool green initiatives going on), but the most sustainable option is still to keep your current phone for as long as possible.
You don’t?really need the latest,?shiniest phone, if you have a perfectly fine functioning one. And when it is time to replace your old phone, definitely make sure to recycle it with the manufacturer, so that it doesn’t leach chemicals in a landfill somewhere.
Take a peek at your retirement funds or other investments. Are you supporting the fossil fuel industry (and climate change alongside it)? Divesting is becoming a popular (and effective) way to take a stand.
According to a 2018 report, ?Today, nearly 1,000 institutional investors with $6.24 trillion in assets have committed to divest from fossil fuels, up from $52 billion four years ago?an increase of 11,900 percent.?
It’s not a fringe idea anymore?and it’s sure to make a direct impact on fossil fuel companies. Don?t be afraid to?take a real stand.
If you’ve been avoiding it, it’s finally time. No more single-use plastics. That means cutting back on plastic straws, single-use flatware, cups and bottles, grocery and produce bags, food wrap and even garbage bags.
It?s relatively?easy to find more sustainable alternatives?for all these plastic products?whether they?re compostable bio plastics or 100 percent plastic-free. All it requires is a small amount of effort.
When you buy things, put your money where your mouth is.?Find sustainable alternatives for the products you use most, and support the businesses that make them. For instance, instead of buying plastic food wrap a couple times a year, why not invest in parchment paper or reusable (and incredible) Bee?s Wrap?
The more we support green businesses, the more power we gain as consumers to encourage greater sustainability efforts across the board.
Do you have any other easily-adoptable tips for living a sustainable lifestyle? Share them with the community in the comments section below!
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Images via Getty
Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.
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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Over the past decade, the honeybee story has been the stuff of science fiction. Back in 2006, beekeepers first noticed their honeybees were mysteriously dying off in huge numbers, with no clear cause. For some, a whopping 30 to 90 percent of their colonies were disappearing, especially on the East Coast. Worker bees were abandoning their queens and leaving hives full of honey. That first winter, beekeepers nationwide lost about a third of their colonies. Since then, the numbers haven’t improved.
Researchers now call this ongoing phenomenon “colony collapse disorder,” but scientists still haven’t identified a singular cause. They say it’s a combination of factors: pollution, habitat loss, herbicides, and viruses, though some experts believe viruses may be the primary driver. For instance, “deformed wing virus,” which causes bees to develop disfigured, nonfunctional wings, can be nasty, and, like other viruses, is transferred to bees by parasitic mites. Until now, scientists haven’t developed any antiviral treatments to protect the bees.
But in a landmark study published Thursday in Nature journal Scientific Reports, researchers revealed they’ve discovered the first-ever “vaccine” for bees, procured from an unexpected source: mushrooms. Specifically, it’s mycelia — cobweb-like fungal membranes found in and on soil — from two species, “tinder fungus” and Red Reishi mushrooms.
Total winter colony loss rate in the United States (preliminary 2017-2018 results)National Honey Bee Colony Loss Survey / Bee Informed.
“Up until this discovery, there were no antivirals reducing viruses in bees,” Paul Stamets, the lead author on the study, tells Mother Jones. “Not only is this the first discovery, but these extracts are incredibly potent.” Stamets is a Washington-based mycologist and author whose work includes books “Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save The World, Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, and Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World.” Stamets also holds patents “pertaining to the use of fungal extracts for antiviral activity and honeybee health,” according to the study.
This giant discovery actually has very humble origins. Decades before colony collapse hit the United States, Stamets says he had noticed bees in his own yard feeding off water droplets on the mushrooms that were growing on wood chips in his garden. They had pushed the wood chips aside to expose the mycelium. At the time, he thought they might be getting sugars from the fungi, and it wasn’t until about five years ago — after researching the antiviral properties of fungi for humans — that he made the connection to viruses affecting bees. “I had this waking dream, ‘I think I can save the bees,’” he says.
In collaboration with researchers from Washington State University, Stamets decided to conduct a two-part study to test his theory that fungi could treat the viruses in honeybees. First, in a controlled, caged experiment, he and his team added small amounts of mushroom extract, or “mycelial broth,” to the bees’ food (sugar water) at varying concentrations and measured how it affected their health. Then, they tested the best-performing extracts in the field.
The extracts worked better than Stamets ever imagined.
The team measured the virus levels in 50 bees from 30 different field colonies and found the bee colonies that consumed the mycelium extracts saw up to a 79-fold decrease in deformed wing virus after 12 days and up to a 45,000-fold reduction in Lake Sinai virus (another virus linked to colony collapse) compared to the bees that only ate sugar water.
“We went out of the laboratory, into the field — real-life field tests,” says Stamets. “And we saw enormous benefit to the bees.”
So what’s going on here? Stamets says the operating hypothesis is this: “These aren’t really antiviral drugs. We think they are supporting the immune system to allow natural immunity to be strong enough to reduce the viruses.” More research, he says, is needed to fully understand how the fungi are working.
Diana Cox-Foster, a research leader and entomologist at the USDA’s Pollinating Insects Research Unit in Utah who was not involved in the study, tells Mother Jones the research looked “promising” and adds that it could have ramifications for other pollinators, like bumblebees. “These viruses are widely shared,” she says. “If we could knock down viruses in honeybee colonies, it could lead to greater health in other pollinators.”
The paper provides “valuable new data,” Erik Tihelka, an insect researcher Hartpury College in the U.K., tells Mother Jones in an email. But it may only help solve part of the problem. “The health challenges honeybees are facing are multifactorial and interacting,” he says, “ranging from loss of the flowering plots for nutrition, use of pesticides in agriculture, a complex of parasites and pathogens, and other stressors.”
The results could be particularly impactful for farmers. Some crops are almost entirely dependent on honeybee pollination for survival, including blueberries, avocados, onions, broccoli, carrots, and cantaloupe. Almonds are 100 percent dependent on honeybees. California farmers currently rent bee colonies from out of state to pollinate their trees in spring.
On a planet where about one-third of all our crops rely on pollinators, losing bees could be disastrous. “A loss of bees is like rivets in an airplane,” says Stamets. “If we lose the bees, it is a critical rivet in an airplane that can lead to catastrophic failure.”
The giant vessels that carry colorful boxes of cargo around the world are becoming more energy efficient.
China’s COSCO Shipping has outfitted its container ships with new propellers and a protruding “bulbous bow” to reduce wave resistance and curb fuel consumption. CMA CGM of France has equipped vessels with electronically controlled engines to optimize performance, and more of its ships can plug into shoreside electricity supplies to avoid running their massive diesel engines at berth.
As a result, carbon emissions associated with moving those boxes have steadily declined in recent years. From 2009 to 2017, container ship emissions dropped roughly 37 percent on average — per container, per kilometer for global ocean transportation routes, the Clean Cargo Working Group reported earlier this month. (Per mile, that’s about a 60-percent reduction.)
But that progress is starting to level off, showing the limits of the shipping industry’s existing actions to tackle climate change, according to the new study.
Examining the emissions-reduction efforts of those operating container ships could help illuminate some of the challenges involved in getting oil tankers, bulk carriers, and other types of cargo vessels to curb pollution. Container ships account for only about 5.5 percent of the world’s merchant fleet, and it’s the only sector that reports its collective emissions in such a comprehensive way.
When it comes to emissions data, says Suzanne Greene of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics, “The shipping industry has so much potential to be more transparent.” (Greene was not a contributor to the new report.)
The container ship survey tallied annual data from about 3,200 vessels, or nearly two-thirds of the world’s container fleet, shared by 22 companies. The data don’t reveal exactly what portion of the reductions were due to energy-efficiency investments or were a result of external factors, such as the consolidation of major container carriers or shifting trade patterns, says Nate Springer, who manages the Clean Cargo Working Group for BSR, a sustainability-focused consultancy. However, he adds, “The consistent progress since 2009 provides compelling evidence that progress is due in large part to industry efforts.”
Like its rivals COSCO and CMA CGM, A.P. Moller-Maersk has invested in new, fuel-efficient vessels and retrofitted older ships with energy-saving designs. Its real-time tracking system allows it to avoid delays, maximize cargo space, and optimize ship speeds for fuel efficiency. Thanks to these measures, the company’s container division — the largest in the world — has seen a 43-percent drop in emissions per container moved since 2007.
Despite all of this, the rate of emissions reductions is slowing down for the broader container industry, the report said. Container-related emissions fell by 1 percent from 2016 to 2017 — below the 2.4 percent from 2015 to 2016, which was below the previous year’s reductions.
Springer says he expects container companies will continue reducing emissions. But he concedes: “We know that if the progress continues at this lower rate, then it will be difficult to remain on track to meet the ambitious climate goals recently announced in the International Maritime Organization climate strategy.”
Last April, the U.N.’s International Maritime Organization agreed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from global shipping by at least 50 percent from 2008 levels by 2050. If all types of cargo ships formed a country, their total annual emissions would rank in the top 10, between those of Japan and Germany.
The Clean Cargo data don’t provide a full picture as to why carbon reductions are shrinking. But one partial explanation could be that rising shipping activity is offsetting improvements in efficiency.
Container port traffic rose by nearly 15 percent from 2013 to 2017, while ships of all types unloaded more than 12 percent more cargo tonnage over that five-year period, according to a United Nations trade database. At the same time, the world’s container fleet has added dozens of new (and enormous) vessels.
Another explanation might be be that companies’ individual efforts are beginning to hit a wall. “We are reaching the point where it will be more and more challenging to drive significant CO2 efficiency on our own,” says John Bang Kornerup, head of sustainability strategy and shared value at Maersk.
Companies can only do so much to trim emissions from existing technology. To truly move the needle, the entire industry will need to shift toward cleaner fuels and zero-emissions propulsion technologies. That requires widespread investment in research and development to make alternatives more commercially viable, Kornerup says.
“Efficiency measures alone are not enough to deliver shipping’s share of achieving the Paris ambition,” he explains, referring to the landmark climate agreement. He adds that it is “an industry challenge to drive the needed innovation in new propulsion technologies.”
Yet many shipping companies, container or otherwise, still haven’t adopted even relatively straightforward strategies for curbing emissions, such as tracking and reporting their carbon footprints. Much of the data available today is based on averages from shipping routes or sectors, not individual ship performance.
Without more rigorous accounting, it will be difficult to truly know how well the industry is progressing toward meeting its climate targets, says Greene, the MIT logistics expert. That lack of data will also make it harder for major shipping customers — the IKEAs and DHLs of the world — to calculate their supply chain emissions.
“The bottom line in sustainability these days is really the carbon emissions number,” she notes. “And if that’s what we’re using, it should be decently accurate.”
Container ships are getting cleaner, but the effort is adrift
This story was originally published by CityLab and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Almost 75 percent of declared disasters in the United States are flood-related, and flood risk continues to rise due to development in floodplains and a changing climate. The beleaguered National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), which was due to expire on July 31 but just got a four-month extension from Congress, can help lessen some of that risk and serve as a lifeline for survivors.
However, in reauthorizing the program, Congress did not fix its many problems. The need to make the NFIP more effective is urgent. And as America’s flood risk grows, we will be even more reliant on it.
The NFIP was created 50 years ago after losses mounted from disasters such as 1965’s Hurricane Betsy. In creating the program, Congress recognized three things: first, that the federal government would have to provide flood insurance because private insurers would not. Private insurers had, by and large, refused to cover floods since the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive river flood in U.S. history to that point. Insurers must weigh the level of risk to individual properties, how much payouts will cost and how profitable policies are, and homeowners’ willingness to pay premiums — all of which are problematic for assessing flood risk.
Second, Congress knew that national flood risk was too high. The government had been working to address this through the Flood Control Act of 1938 and other laws. But by 1968, these policies had been relatively unsuccessful at lowering the risk; flood insurance was seen as a different strategy. Third, and finally, Congress realized that homeowners needed financial assistance to recover from floods.
In its first four decades, the program was generally solvent — that is, revenue from premiums was approximately equal to payouts. Between 1968 and 2005, when the program did incur debt, FEMA, which oversees the NFIP, borrowed money from the U.S. Treasury and quickly repaid it.
Then, in 2005, Hurricane Katrina and the resulting levee failure instigated an outpouring of anger and frustration with the NFIP. Katrina’s impacts were more severe than anything the United States had experienced since the program began. Post-Katrina, FEMA borrowed $18 billion from the Treasury without a repayment plan, instead of adding it to the supplemental appropriations passed by Congress. The agency borrowed billions more after Hurricane Sandy, and the debt eventually rose to $24.6 billion.
This debt has become the pressure point for the NFIP, with critics citing it as evidence of the program’s failure. But when we consider why the program was created, the debt shows just how vital the NFIP is. Private insurers could not provide affordable flood insurance to the people who needed it, but through subsidies, the federal government — and by extension, the American taxpayer — could. So complaints about insolvency seem misplaced, given that the program’s debt is an obvious outcome of its design.
Financial solvency is of clear interest to taxpayers and politicians. But it’s worth considering the other problems, besides the scarcity of private insurance, that Congress hoped to address by creating the NFIP: flood mitigation and recovery.
A key objective of emergency management is to prevent or limit risk from disasters. Homeowners tend not to voluntarily implement such measures, but the designers of the NFIP thought the program could be used to incentivize safer building and better land-use practices. To this end, the NFIP was intended to work in tandem with the community rating system (CRS), which scores communities for undertaking flood mitigation (by, for example, building levees or changing land-use policies) and offers commensurate reductions in premiums.
There is evidence that the NFIP has succeeded in improving mitigation. Even so, it could do more. The program could be reformed so that more communities are incentivized to join and participate fully in CRS, and it could refuse to cover repetitive-loss properties, or require that they be rebuilt to higher standards.
Repetitive-loss properties are a real problem: Less than 1 percent of homes insured under the program have been responsible for nearly 10 percent of paid claims. Allowing homes to be rebuilt or repaired multiple times without requiring sufficient modifications to prevent future damage is not an efficient use of taxpayer money, and this loophole needs to be closed.
The NFIP was designed to provide insurance to people who could not afford to pay its actuarial price. Critics claim that simply by offering affordable flood premiums, it incentivizes development in hazardous areas. In fact, researchers have found that other factors, such as the high desirability of beachfront property, road and bridge access, and the availability of public services, are equal if not bigger contributors to the increase of development in high-risk areas.
To the extent that the NFIP does help encourage such development, of course, it must be reformed to prevent that. For example, former FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate argued that future development in 100-year floodplains should be ineligible for NFIP coverage.
The NFIP was also designed as a resource for American homeowners during recovery from floods. Disaster survivors often describe recovery as “the second disaster,” a long, expensive process of cobbling together aid from savings accounts, second jobs, loans, friends, family, nonprofits, and the government.
Homeowners with flood insurance can receive substantially more money than those who are helped through FEMA’s individual-assistance program. The maximum NFIP payout is $350,000, whereas the largest possible individual-assistance payment is about $34,000. After Sandy, the average payout from FEMA’s individual-assistance program was only $8,000, compared with over $66,000 from the NFIP. Nevertheless, some survivors have struggled to access the NFIP funds they needed or were entitled to. An investigation following Sandy found evidence of poor management by both FEMA and the private insurance companies tasked with NFIP’s administration.
The extremely small number of people who carry policies also inhibits the program’s assistance in recovery. Currently, only about 5 million American households (or about 4 percent) hold flood-insurance policies, even though about 10 percent of households are located in the 100- or 500-year floodplain and face substantial risk. And the real number is likely higher, given the inaccuracy of flood maps.
These, too, are fixable problems. To improve NFIP’s effectiveness in recovery, FEMA must strengthen its oversight. The agency must provide clarity to policyholders about payout requirements and increase the number of people who buy flood insurance by updating flood maps and extending the requirement to purchase a policy to homeowners at lower risk of flooding.
Congress has, on numerous occasions, attempted to reform the NFIP so that it would avoid future debt. These efforts have consistently failed, because the financial burden they place on homeowners is so large and so politically unpalatable. As a result, the program has been caught in a cycle of short-term reauthorizations, with debt from Katrina and Sandy keeping it on the proverbial chopping block.
As attempts at reform have demonstrated, big, expensive changes to the program will be unpopular. Still, the NFIP has the potential to create safer communities and help people recover faster and more smoothly. Another way of looking at it: The federal government spent more than $100 billion on the response to and recovery from Katrina, and over $48 billion for Sandy. The NFIP’s debt of $24.6 billion is just what’s left of those bills.
That the NFIP costs American taxpayers money is the result of policy choices made over decades. We decided we weren’t going to pay up-front to avoid climate change, and we decided to build along the coasts and in floodplains. The debt the NFIP has incurred is expensive, and it will continue to grow. But it is only a small fraction of the interest on the loan that we’ve taken out on our future.
The debt also tends to overshadow the real good that the program does for Americans. Nearly 1.8 million losses have been paid out since the program’s inception. Without it, where would these survivors be in their recovery process?
Although the country has been debating whether and how to limit long-term climate change, we have done relatively little to protect ourselves from its consequences that are already here, including more flooding. The NFIP can help us manage the effects of climate change. But for it to be successful, we have to make it more effective and just — which means accepting its financial cost.