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Tip Sheets

Cost of climate change comes due with California wildfires

Wildfires continue to rage in California, Oregon and other western states as residents evacuate, while cities like San Francisco face eerie smoke cover and poor air quality.


Kathy Bergin

Adjunct Professor of Law

Kathleen Bergin, professor of law at Cornell Law School, is an expert in disaster and constitutional law whose work in mass evacuation shelters after Hurricane Katrina is used as a blueprint for protecting survivors of natural disaster. She says the cost of climate change is coming due as California and other states tap into disaster recovery ecosystem.

Bergin says:

"The cost of failing to address the root causes of climate change are coming due. FEMA alone has already spent over $2 billion helping California recover from the 2017-18 wildfire season, and that’s not counting money coming from HUD, the SBA, the USDA and other federal and state programs. 

"Hurricanes, floods, and earthquakes destroy lots of homes, but sometimes the damage is contained to certain rooms, or is limited enough that the structure is safe to occupy with a few basic repairs. Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, for example, New York’s Rapid Repair program helped homeowners with essential heat, hot water, and electrical repairs, while the details of the long-term recovery program were being ironed out. As a result, thousands of survivors who would have been displaced, were able to live at home in the immediate aftermath of the storm. But programs like that aren’t always feasible after a wildfire that burns entire structures to the ground, and covers whole communities in toxic debris and ash. On top of the environmental, economic, and emotional fallout of these fires, finding a safe way to house survivors after record-breaking wildfires like this is going to be a major challenge.

"There’s a whole ecosystem of entities involved in disaster recovery that we don’t always think of, but that homeowners, farmers, and small-businesses rely on when they’re displaced or can no longer operate. This year’s fire season is already blowing past prior records, promising to increase the cost of recovery in both the short and long term. 

"Lack of available housing to shelter survivors is a problem after every kind of major disaster, and this is especially true in a state like California, where the housing shortage was already one of the worst in the nation. But part of the solution can be found in emergency legislation at the local level - zoning ordinances that temporarily lift restrictions on the location of mobile homes or the number of utility hook-ups allowed on a single property can open up housing options that aren’t typically available. FEMA had trouble finding enough temporary housing after California’s 2017-18 wildfire season, in part because of obstacles presented by local zoning ordinances. 

"So local emergency legislation that's flexible is typically a good idea, though there have been cases where that flexibility has been used to discriminate. Following Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parrish revised its zoning and land use laws in order to limit local housing opportunities to African Americans. That move ultimately cost the Parrish $2.5 million in a discrimination action brought by the Department of Justice, so there was some vindication. But the episode goes to show just how much power and influence local officials have - for better or worse - over the recovery process. 

"But while post-disaster spending is necessary to address housing shortages and environmental clean-up, we’d be better off focusing on mitigation, investing in green jobs, and curbing carbon emissions to reduce the force, frequency and fall-out of future disasters."

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