Adapting to Fire Risk

For those who reject, my Climatopolis vision that individuals (if they face market and social incentives) will adapt to emerging climate change risk then take a look at this quote from this Sunday’s NY Times.  

“California has been a leader in adopting building codes and brush-removal regulations, but for the most part, despite the clear evidence from Cohen’s published research, municipal governments in the western United States have been slow to follow. Some people don’t want to cut down trees; others don’t want government telling them what to do with their property. Cohen said that when he took his research to urban firefighters, he didn’t find an enthusiastic audience. His experience with fire departments that had not been “kicked multiple times” by wildfire has been that they don’t want to be the ones telling homeowners they’re part of the problem; his impression is that urban firefighters prefer instead to say, “This fire was so big and fast, there was nothing we could do to save your house.” And that’s true, as far as it goes. But until people grasp or act on what Cohen has demonstrated — that homeowners would not need to rely on firefighters as much as they do if their houses were better built and maintained and the properties around them were prepared to withstand fire — changes to forest management and firefighting policies are unlikely to significantly improve matters.”

Author: Matthew E. Kahn

Professor of Economics at UCLA.

23 thoughts on “Adapting to Fire Risk”

  1. Well, I have been skeptical of your Climatopolis vision :), but unless I’m missing your point, this excerpt reinforces my skepticism. Clear evidence, clear market and social incentives (i.e., your house not burning down, lower insurance, etc) yet: “until people grasp or act on what Cohen has demonstrated… changes to forest management and firefighting policies are unlikely to significantly improve matters.” Isn’t this exactly the opposite of what you predict: individuals (facing market and social incentives) failing to adapt to existing fire risk?

  2. Who needs coastal cities anyway? Angelinos can all go and live in fireproof, floodproof, hurricane-proof, sea-level proof nuclear aircraft carriers.

    Matthew: the problem with adaptation to climate disruption is not that it´s infeasible. In some tautological sense it is bound to be possible, though perhaps at a genocidal price. The problem is that it´s the wrong answer, in the kindergarten sense of ¨wrong¨. We – the humans living today – have sometime quite soon to mitigate, to stop our carbon emissions, or face the premature death or worse of our children and grandchildren. Forgive me for thinking that adaptation (though it is already necessary) is a distraction from the existential challenge.

  3. This example has to be understood in the context of California’s distinctive post-1980 +/- culture of magical thinking. What we believe is that we have a right to have nice things without giving up any other nice things, and in particular without paying taxes or having to think about things that make us sad or anxious, like fires and earthquakes. We also have corollary rights, like the right to drive anywhere alone with no traffic lights and park free when we get there. What we have been taught is that we can exercise these rights if we close our eyes and click our heels together three times, and enact by initiative that up is henceforth down.
    San Diego County voted down a fire protection tax the same year in which they had just had historically destructive fires. It wasn’t an Arkansas hillbilly who couldn’t fix his roof when it was raining and didn’t need to when it wasn’t, it was a Californian in Berkeley or Westwood.

    1. Michael: You recognize that the political makeup of San Diego County is very different from Los Angeles and Alameda counties, don’t you?

      1. Sure. But the whole state passed Prop 13 and elected governors who would never use the words taxes and services in the same speech. And when Berkeley proposed to enlarge the firehouse in our hill/fire zone after the Oakland Hills fire, the neighbors objected because it would be noisy. There’s enough non-grownup behavior in the whole state to go around.
        On reflection, I would amend my gripe to say we have learned we can have lots of nice things merely by stiffing our children on things like schools, college, parks, etc.

    2. This example? What example? It says in the quoted text, “California has been a leader in adopting building codes and brush-removal regulations” and then refers to “municipal governments in Western states.” How do you get from that to “California’s distinctive culture of post-1980 +/- culture of magical thinking”? The text is ambiguous, but either it says “California’s leading, but other western states aren’t following” (i.e., California isn’t guilty of magical thinking on this issue) or that municipal governments in California (but not the state government?) are just like those in other Western states (i.e., this has nothing to do with a “distinctive” California culture).

      1. Yeah, it’s a poorly written paragraph with an ambiguous opening sentence, selected by Matthew for inscrutable reasons to make a point that no one else apparently can follow.

        Other than that, it’s all clear.


  4. The article describes people failing to adapt, and firefighters failing to encourage people
    to adapt. You then assume the correctness of your own argument, in supposing that if
    suitable incentives were in place (presumably stronger incentives than the shockingly
    weak “not being burnt alive with your home and family and all your worldly possessions” ?),
    people would adapt. I don’t think this helps you at all.

  5. Having followed the link from the NYTimes article to the complete article
    about Cohen’s research, I still don’t find a thing to support Kahn’s position.
    Cohen is mostly interested in the physics of fire propagation, and has some
    experimental evidence that goes against conventional wisdom (in particular,
    houses are not very vulnerable to radiation from nearby fires, but are
    vulnerable to small embers, even from far away, landing on flammable roof
    materials or flammable debris – pine needles etc – in gutters; fires spread
    laterally not by radiation, but by convection currents causing flame vortices).
    That’s interesting stuff, and suggests that people *could* do a better job of
    adapting. But they don’t.

    And even if they did, the technical aspects of fire propagation tell us
    nothing at all about the technical possibilities for adaptation to other
    climate change effects – e.g. changes in crop growth patterns, changes in
    water availability, rise in sea level. So the only fact here that is of
    wider relevance is that people do not adapt to increased risks of low-probability
    disasters, even when there is good evidence for relative easy and cheap ways
    to reduce their individual risk.

    As for the wider Climatopolis vision, what’s flabbergasting to me is that
    Kahn actually agrees with the pessimists about much of what’s going to
    happen – e.g. rising sea levels, low-lying areas spending vast sums on
    flood protection and/or being abandoned as people move inland. It’s just
    that what most of us would view as a disaster – decades of infrastructure
    investment written off, property becoming worthless, people being forced
    to migrate and build from scratch elsewhere – he calls “adaptation”.
    That’s bizarre.

    1. That’s what happens when you adopt a value-free, reductive approach to everything. It’s all GDP, right? If nothing is inherently good or bad, nothing bad can happen to us.

      which brings me to a question I want to ask Mr. Kahn. What, in your view, would constitute a failure? Failure in both senses: in the sense of a human disaster; and of failure of your hypothesis?

      1. This is freshwater economics gone crazy, So presumably the only thing that would count as
        a disaster would be a catastrophic fire, flood, or blizzard which directly affected the
        University of Chicago School of Economics, Kahn’s alma mater.

        On the wider question of whether humans are likely to adapt to adverse circumstances,
        Prof Kahn’s continuing willingness to post here on this subject and get his arguments
        repeatedly eviscerated would suggest that, for him at least, the answer is no.

        1. And now I’m imagining Kahn in Biblical Egypt, discussing how the prevalence of
          blood, frogs, boils, and locusts all present opportunities for individuals to
          adapt when presented with the appropriate incentives. Those alarmists shouldn’t
          be calling them “plagues”.

  6. I think Matthew’s point here is that maybe big governments like California will impose regulations (e.g. building codes) that facilitate adaptation to climate change, while communities that take a more laissez-faire approach will fail to adapt and be incinerated.

    Wait, that can’t be right.

    Maybe his point is that heavy-handed statist efforts to prevent and fight wildfires (forest management, firefighting) wouldn’t be necessary if homeowners faced the right free-market incentives, because homeowners could voluntarily adopt the same practices that have been mandated by California’s regulations.

    That makes a bit more sense, except that I seem to recall that California still engages in forest management and firefighting … as discussed at great length in the NY Times article that Matthew quotes.

  7. We’ve found, in Montana, that insurance companies are the best messenger for ‘fire-safe’ zones around your home on the urban fringe. Insurance companies offer incentives to homeowners for meeting basic property clearing requirements, and local firehouses instruct them how and why it’s done. Then local landscaping companies offer ‘fire-safe’ landscape design as a service. Everyone wins.

  8. The effeciveness of a threat of negative reinforcement is inversely proportional to its perceived likelihood, and inversely proportional to its perceived remoteness in time.

    “My house might burn down with some unknown probability at some unknown future time” isn’t a very strong reinforcement mechanism to lead people to spend money and effort on effective countermeasures now. …which is EXACTLY what the Sunday Times article says. … which is exactly counter to Matthew’s supposition that people may sometime grasp and act on the threat.

    What that leaves is what Matthew denies … lacking that grasp and action, governmental action (in the form of changes to forest management and firefighting policies) is the ONLY way to significantly improve matters.

  9. Matthew Kahn: “For those who reject, my Climatopolis vision that individuals (if they face market and social incentives) will adapt to emerging climate change risk then take a look at this quote from this Sunday’s NY Times. ”

    Nobody is disputing this – well, correct but useless vision. What they are pointing out is that there are massive costs involved. I’m amazed that an economist is discussing such issues without asking such basic questions.

    1. Or while positing the gigantic, truck-exit loophole: “if they face sufficient economic and social incentives”.

      Again — Mr. Kahn, what,exactly, would constitute a refutation of your point?

    2. For those who reject, my Climatopolis vision that individuals (if they face market and social incentives) will adapt to emerging climate change risk..

      No one rejects this. The problem is that it omits a key phrase. Individuals will adapt insofar as they are able. But many will not be bale to adapt to any meaningful degree, because they lack the resources to do so. In addition, there will be problems that require collective action, or are best solved that way, or minimized with an ounce or two of collective prevention.

    3. Not an economist, but an “environmental economist”, right ? Apparently
      an Orwellian phrase meaning someone who doesn’t care about the environment
      and doesn’t seem very interested in economics. Double plus ungood.

  10. Everything about this post by Matthew is inexplicable.

    The NYT quote is poorly written and ambiguous.

    It’s not clear how it supports any point that Matthew would want to make, in fact most obvious interpretations of the NYT quote would seem to be contradicting Matthew’s beliefs.

    And I don’t think that anyone has mentioned this yet, but why in God’s name is this post given the tag “Category: Medicare” at the top?


    Maybe it’s all a joke. Maybe Matthew is doing an experiment of posting nonsensical stuff and seeing how the RBC community responds.

    1. My apologies are due to Mr. Kahn. Upon reflection it is fairly clear that he at some point concluded that the marginal utility of yet another Concerned Person on an earnest, urgent, and vital mission to Warn the World of impending and disastrous human-induced destruction — no matter how abundantly justified in fact, — is nil.

      He has observed that lending yet another Bill McKibben’s or Al Gore’s voice to the ever-enlarging chorus of such voices is unlikely to move any person who is not already moved — as has been shown by the degree inertia and inaction to date.

      Therefore has he adopted this arch, faux-absurdist voice, by which he hopes to shock some into action who were not moved by the alarm of sheer common sense — to out-freshwater the Friedmanesque, if you will, via reductio ad absurdem — to invoke the shock value of patently outrageous rhetorical nonsense — the only rhetorical approach, he has concluded, that may be capable of “incenting” an audience of modern humans — reared on a constant diet of irony and self-removedness, snark and archness — to act in its own interest.

      Well played, Mr. Kahn!

      1. At this point, I’d be happy just to get an explanation of why Matthew Kahn thinks that post has something to do with Medicare.

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