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August 15, 2023

The Cricks Do Rise

Climate change hysteria is distracting from other man-made environmental problems.

Maui

Climate change is mentioned prominently in almost every story about the fires in Maui. How Invasive Plants Caused the Maui Fires to Rage in The New York Times explains the actual cause: “A sweeping series of plantation closures in Hawaii allowed highly flammable nonnative grasses to spread on idled lands, providing the fuel for huge blazes.”

The article then has the expected section on climate change “But as the planet heats up, it is becoming apparent that even a tropical place such as Hawaii, known for its junglelike rainforests and verdant hills, is increasingly susceptible to wildfires.” The quote ignores the context of the article, which is that the fields in West Maui are neither junglelike rainforests nor verdant hills. The flammable grasses are there because they were imported, and they’ve spread because the danger they pose has been neglected.

Monday morning quarterbacking is all too easy but the article quotes earlier warnings:

“After West Maui was hit in 2018 by an earlier round of fires that destroyed 21 homes, Clay Trauernicht, one of Hawaii’s most prominent wildfire experts, warned in a letter then to the Maui News that the island was facing a hazard it had the potential to do something about. ‘The fuels — all that grass — is the one thing that we can directly change to reduce fire risk,’ he wrote...

“In Lahaina, much of which was destroyed during last week’s fire, invasive grasses cover the slopes above town, growing right up to the edge of housing areas.”

Apparently funds were not available to either replace the dangerous grasses (probably not an easy task) or even to create firebreaks to slow the spread of blazes. An obsession with global climate change, as real as that threat may be, distracts from solving local environmental problems. Incenting electric vehicles didn’t help avoid the predictable and probably preventable disaster in Maui; the money that went to those incentives could have been used more effectively locally.

Pakistan

Last year flooding in Pakistan caused widespread death and destruction. “Climate change” blared the headlines. However, the land which was flooded in sinking much faster than the sea is rising. The sinking – known as subsidence – is caused by extraction of ground water from under the land. A recent study measured subsidence worldwide:

“Satellite data indicate that land is subsiding faster than sea level is rising in many coastal cities throughout the world. If subsidence continues at recent rates, these cities will be challenged by flooding much sooner than projected by sea level rise models. We measured subsidence rates in 99 coastal cities around the world between 2015 and 2020 using satellite data. Subsidence rates are highly variable within cities and from city to city. The most rapid subsidence is occurring in South, Southeast, and East Asia. However, rapid subsidence is also happening in North America, Europe, Africa, and Australia. Human activity—primarily groundwater extraction—is likely the main cause of this subsidence. Expanded monitoring and policy interventions are required to reduce subsidence rates and minimize their consequences.”

It's politically popular to attribute all disasters to climate change. Ignoring other natural and man-made causes of catastrophe – like subsidence, makes it impossible to take effective avoidance and mitigation measures. No matter how many Teslas we drive, Pakistan and many other countries will suffer increasingly severe floods so long as water is being pumped out from under collapsible sandy soil.

Lamoille County, Vermont

ProPublica published a list of how badly each county in the US is likely to be affected by climate change. At the very bottom of the list – least likely to be affected - is Lamoille County, VT, where I live. Ironically, shortly after the list was published, Lamoille County was hit with the worst flooding since the locally famous floods of 1928 and is the county in Vermont with highest percentage of homes per capita rendered uninhabitable according to VTDigger.

ProPublica may be right that we are not at great risk from climate change; but climate change is not the only threat we need to prepare for.  This may just have been an “expected” hundred-year flood or it may be part of a predicted trend of increasing extreme weather events. Either way the damage was exacerbated by anthropogenic causes other than climate change. For years, Vermont land use planning has been to discourage building anywhere but in downtown areas to prevent “suburban sprawl”. The downtowns, however, were built in lowlands, often at river junctions. It was, predictably, the downtowns and the trailer parks on the inexpensive riverbank land which flooded. The flooding was exacerbated by successful efforts to prevent the rivers from meandering; the rivers were cut off from the floodplains which would otherwise have reduced downstream impact.

Vermont spends huge sums and mandates huge expenditures to prevent global climate change. As we build back better after this flooding, we should concentrate some of that spending on our local environment as well as allow and encourage building on higher ground.

Flooding is nothing new here. The first Vermontism I learned 50 years ago was “If the good Lord’s willin’ and the cricks don’t rise.” They will surely rise again even if we forgo all use of fossil fuels.

See also:

Building Back Better in Vermont

It’s The Subsidence

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