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Adapting to climate change will be a lot harder than we think. The Texas floods show why.

Parts of the city are shown inundated after days of heavy rain on May 25, 2015, in Austin, Texas.
Parts of the city are shown inundated after days of heavy rain on May 25, 2015, in Austin, Texas.
Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

If you wanted to tell an optimistic story about how we'll handle global warming, it would go like this. Yes, the world will get hotter. Yes, we'll see an increase in sea levels and severe weather. But humans will find ways to adapt or get out of the way. We're resourceful. We're intelligent.

It's a hopeful idea. Except you can also find quite a few examples of places where we're doing the exact opposite of that — places where we're actively increasing our exposure to risks like floods and wildfires, either by building more homes in disaster-prone areas or by subsidizing those who do with taxpayer money.

It sounds nuts. The first rule of climate adaptation should be "stop making things worse." And yet, surprisingly often, we break that rule.

Why Texas keeps building in flood-prone areas

A house near the Blanco River sustained heavy damage May 26, 2015 in Wimberley, Texas. (Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)

A house near the Blanco River sustained heavy damage May 26, 2015 in Wimberley, Texas. (Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images)

Consider the recent horrific flooding in Texas. The state just had its wettest month on record, getting enough rain in May to bury the entire state 8 inches deep in water. Severe floods have killed at least 24 people and damaged thousands of homes.

Scientists are debating whether we can "link" these floods to global warming. Let's set that aside for now. It's hard to tell how much climate change amped up these particular storms, and it's not terribly important here.

What we do know is that central Texas has a long history of extreme downpours and flooding. The area around Austin and San Marcos is dubbed "Flash Flood Alley" because it's perfectly situated, geographically and meteorologically, for these sorts of devastating storms. Check out the history of these events over the past century:

Extreme downpours in Texas. (Credit Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, via Andrew Revkin)

This is not new. It's not a secret. And yet, as Andrew Revkin details in this insightful Dot Earth post, Texas has been rushing to develop in flood-prone areas, sometimes with tragic results. Hays County, which was particularly hard hit in May, is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country.

Not only does rapid development put more people in the path of flooding, but urban sprawl means more land gets covered by concrete, which leads to more runoff during storms, higher peak river discharges, and worse flooding overall. Areas that were once safe from flooding 20 years ago are now vulnerable, because newly built parking lots and roads upstream are increasing the amount of runoff.

Why do people keep doing this? Revkin cites a "go-go development mentality" among politicians and developers who frequently ignore flood risks. Perhaps they've decided that the benefits simply outweigh the costs here (Texas keeps getting richer over time, so it must be doing something right). But that's not the whole story. There are also policy incentives at work, distorting the calculus.

Federal flood policies can encourage risky building

Hampton Road, south of Lynden, Washington, is flooded Tuesday morning, November 7, 2006. (Philip A. Dwyer/Bellingham Herald/MCT via Getty Images)

Hampton Road, south of Lynden, Washington, is flooded Tuesday morning, November 7, 2006. (Philip A. Dwyer/Bellingham Herald/MCT via Getty Images)

Back in 1968, Congress created the National Flood Insurance Program. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable idea: private insurers had long refused to offer flood insurance for homes because it was unprofitable. So when floods hit, governments were often left providing costly disaster aid.

The NFIP program was supposed to change all that. It would identify areas around the United States at risk of heavy flooding and work with communities to mitigate those risks, and the federal government would help sponsor flood insurance for homeowners at reasonable rates. The whole idea was to curtail risky development in flood zones.

In practice, the program hasn't worked as planned. Subsidized federal flood insurance ended up allowing many people to build — and rebuild — in coastal areas or floodplains without paying full cost for the risks involved. Jim Schutze of the Dallas Observer has a pithy description of how this works:

If there is pretty good scientific data to show that our house will be wiped out by a flood about once every 20 years, then the insurance company will want a rate from us that reflects their cost of building it back for us, plus a profit for them, because business.

But nobody whose property is at risk of flooding wants to pay those rates. Many of us can’t. So we don’t. Instead we buy federal government "insurance" from the National Flood Insurance Program, which, according to FEMA officials who run it, is now $23 billion in debt.

Why does the program run at such a huge debt? Because it’s not really insurance. It’s welfare. If it were insurance and operated according to anything like actuarial principles, the program would charge us premiums somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 times the current rates.

These subsidies, Schutze argues, lead to a counterproductive cycle: "build in the path of harm, suffer disaster, gather in money paid by national flood insurance and other state and federal subsidies, and build again in the same path of the same harm and forget what happened the last time."

It also gets costly for taxpayers. The floodplains of Houston and Harris County, Texas, see a very high number of "repetitive losses" — structures that get flooded at least twice within a 10-year period and are paid at least $1,000 by the National Flood Insurance Program.

This would be a problem if the planet weren't warming. But now let's add climate change to the mix. A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor, which means when storms do form, there's more water to pour down. That's why heavy precipitation events are expected to increase in the south central United States in the decades ahead, making excessive floodplain development even costlier in the future.

Similar incentives exist around wildfires and rising oceans

Smoke billows near a home from the Black Forest Fire on June 12, 2013 north of Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Chris Schneider/Getty Images)

Smoke billows near a home from the Black Forest Fire on June 12, 2013, north of Colorado Springs, Colorado. (Chris Schneider/Getty Images)

You can see similar dynamics with sea-level rise. Despite clear evidence that ocean levels will rise as the planet gets warmer, the United States is developing in vulnerable coastal regions, which will make adaptation all the harder in the future.

This is enabled by the fact that the government picks up the tab for the risks involved, via both federal flood insurance and public works projects to harden the shoreline. Occasionally, governments go to even greater lengths: in North Carolina, lawmakers have taken the novel step of barring forecasters from using scientifically accurate projections of sea-level rise, so as not to hinder development.

Or take wildfires. Some 250,000 people have moved to Colorado's fire-prone "red zone" over the past decade, in part because they can rely on the federal government to pick up the tab for fire suppression and protection (now at $3 billion and counting). This means wildfires will inevitably cause more destruction over time — again, even before you factor in climate change. But now consider that as the planet warms, western forests are expected to get drier and more fire-prone, and the whole arrangement seems even more perverse.

Fixing perverse policies isn't always easy

There's not really one simple solution for untangling these policies. That's one reason climate adaptation won't always be as straightforward as we might think.

In central Texas, some cities are already taking steps to reduce their flood vulnerability. Sometimes that entails policies that limit development along waterways. Other cities now require new housing developments to install runoff ponds or catchment basins to reduce water discharge.

But these efforts still aren't universal. As Pete Spotts details at the Christian Science Monitor, much of the progress on flood preparation is occurring in cities that have strong land-use policies or building codes. By contrast, a great deal of growth in Texas is happening in unincorporated counties — and these counties have long lacked legal tools to adequately prepare for floods.

What's more, mitigation for existing developments is only part of the answer. "Mitigation is desperately needed across US floodplains, but it's an awful substitute for not building on flood-prone land in the first place," Nicholas Pinter, an expert on floods at Southern Illinois University, told me by email.

Which brings us back to policy incentives that help promote development in disaster-prone areas in the first place. After being in place for decades, those policies are now difficult to change. In 2012, Congress tried to revamp the National Flood Insurance Program. The bill aimed to phase out subsidies for second homes and repeatedly flooded properties, plus gradually increase premiums for others and update flood maps.

But that change proved too drastic, too fast for many homeowners, who were suddenly faced with a massive hike in insurance costs. After a huge public outcry, Congress went back and agreed to delay any reforms"Stop making things worse" is certainly a nice rule of thumb for adaptation. But it's not always that easy.

Further reading

-- Another complication: it's often not the most rational choice for people to move away from disaster-prone areas, especially if jobs or their social circles are there. Read this excellent post by Tim Kovach for more on that.

-- On Twitter, Roger Pielke Jr. notes that adaptation measures don't always go in the wrong direction. Among other things, he points out that flooding damage has been dropping over time as a percentage of GDP, so we must be figuring some things out.

"I think [the] story is that while we often make dumb decisions re hazards, we make smart ones too," he notes. "Smart seems to be winning (so far!)." And fair enough. I'd say it's still worth highlighting and criticizing those perverse decisions and policies. But that broader context is important to keep in mind.