On March 5, National Public Radio (NPR) posted an investigatory piece entitled, “How Federal Disaster Money Favors The Rich,” which asserted that the U.S. is experiencing more disasters due to climate change and that federal disaster assistance favors the wealthy over the poor.
This is a classic call to action: things are bad and getting worse and we (the federal government) must do something!
As such, the article by two federally-funded NPR reporters supports the Green New Deal, both in goal and narrative.
Specifically, the Green New Deal, promoted by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-NY, asserts that people are causing climate change, which drives more weather disasters, which harm the poor, which demands government action—to help the poor.
The text of the Green New Deal (House Resolution 109 by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez), in part, posits that:
…human activity is the dominant cause of observed climate change… causing sea levels to rise and an increase in wildfires, severe storms, droughts, and other extreme weather events that threaten human life… (causing) mass migration… the greatest income inequality since the 1920s, with—a large racial wealth divide…
(Requiring) the duty of the Federal Government to create a Green New Deal—
…to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions through a fair and just transition for all…to promote justice and equity…”
(By) create(ing) high-quality union jobs… guaranteeing a job… to all people of the United States… (and providing for everyone) high-quality health care…”
Buttressing the Congressional Green New Deal resolution, the NPR piece claims that:
Disasters are becoming more common in America. In the early and mid-20th century, fewer than 20 percent of U.S. counties experienced a disaster each year. Today, it’s about 50 percent. …(and) climate change is already driving more severe droughts, floods and wildfires… But…white Americans and those with more wealth often receive more federal dollars after a disaster than do minorities and those with less wealth…
Put another way, after a disaster, rich people get richer and poor people get poorer. And federal disaster spending appears to exacerbate that wealth inequality.”
Do the Green New Deal resolution and NPR have a case? Let’s look at their foundational contention—that the frequency and intensity of climate change related disasters is increasing, demanding action.
In making its claim, NPR cites a 2017 working paper entitled, “The effect of natural disasters on economic activity in U.S. counties: a century of data.” In it, the authors assert that,
“From 1920-1980, around 500 separate county-disaster events took place in a given year. From 1980 to the present, and especially after the early 1990s, there has been a clear acceleration in disaster counts, reaching around 1,500 county-level events per year by the 2000s.”
There are 3,142 counties and county-equivalent governmental units in the U.S., meaning that about half of all counties in the past 20 years experience an average of about one disaster per year compared to less than 20% from 1920 to 1980.
That’s a big contention. How do the study authors arrive at that conclusion? Simple. Initially using American Red Cross from 1920 to 1964 and then federal records from 1950 to 2010, they consider every county and look at three things: was a disaster declared, and how many people died, with 10 or more being classified as “severe” and 100 or more “super-severe.”
The problem with classifying the severity of disasters by their death toll becomes immediately apparent when calculating that, in 1920, the population of the U.S. was 106.5 million. But by 2010, the number of people living in the U.S. had almost tripled to 309.3 million, an increase of 190%.
Not by coincidence, the number of disasters almost tripled over the same time period, suggesting that the increase in disasters might have more to do with the increase in people who can be affected by them than any change in severe weather caused by climate change.
Indeed, one of the key disasters the authors track are tornadoes, but the incidence of tornadoes has been in decline for the past 20 years.
Similarly, after peaking at 24 hurricane strikes in the continental U.S. from 1941 to 1950, with 10 major storms, hurricane activity has also trended down with 10 hurricanes, of which three were major, so far this decade.
If climate change gives us fewer tornadoes and hurricanes, where do we sign up?
To be prudent, the authors admit that they, “…suspect that the federal government became more expansive in the declaration of disaster events…” over time, potentially due to political considerations, but they stand firm in their claim that disasters are worsening.
In fact, prior to President Nixon, federal disaster spending was small, and disasters were infrequently declared. Since President George H.W. Bush, disaster declarations and spending have both spiked. This is the result of politics, not weather.
Interestingly, as the U.S. and global population continues to increase, with larger numbers of people living near frequently flooded coastal waters and rivers, the mortality rate from weather disasters has steadily declined as human ingenuity, adaptability and wealth has increased.
So, if the main point—that the world is becoming a more dangerous place due to climate change—isn’t true, what else is there?
On the matter of disaster assistance favoring the wealthy over the poor, as cited by NPR, there is a point. Afterall, much of the federal aid is targeted to homeowners and businesses, and, the wealthy tend to own homes and businesses at higher rates than the poor.
That understood, the whole system of federal disaster-related assistance tends to cause moral hazard, encouraging developers, homeowners, and farmers to take risks with the backing of federal taxpayers that they might not otherwise take. This causes a misallocation of resources, with more development occurring in low-lying areas subject to inundation.
As for the “large racial wealth divide”—a few more years of record unemployment among African-Americans and Hispanics caused by President Trump’s pro-growth—and pro-energy—tax and deregulatory policies, will do far more to lift up America’s poor and minorities than any sort of massive, socialist-inspired federal intervention into the economy—even if it is justified by misleading studies.
This commentary was originally published in Forbes on March 5, 2019.