This Mayor Puts the 'Conserve' Back in Conservative
By Jeff Turrentine
I met Jim Brainard recently on a sunny summer afternoon in Bryant Park, a grassy oasis roughly the size of one square block nestled among the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan. The stately New York Public Library — one of the city's most famous cultural institutions — defines the park's perimeter on one side, and roughly outlining the other three are more than a dozen smaller-scale treasures, including an old-fashioned carousel, several food kiosks, an outdoor cocktail bar, a petanque court, ping-pong tables, and even an extra-miniature miniature golf course.
In the center of the park, someone was setting up hundreds of seats in preparation for a massive game of musical chairs to be played later that evening. The park was filled; though there was no shortage of tables, we had a hard time finding an open one. That afternoon Bryant Park felt like an example of urban utopianism realized, with people of all ages, races and backgrounds coming together to enjoy a clean, attractive, well-appointed public space that seemed to offer something for everybody.
As the mayor of Carmel, Indiana (population 93,000), a suburb of Indianapolis, Brainard oversees the day-to-day operations of a medium-size municipality that few would ever liken to New York City (population 8,600,000). But amid the happy buzz of urban park-goers relaxing, communing, eating, drinking, playing and otherwise enjoying themselves, he was right at home. Since 1996, when Brainard took office, he has shaped the transformation of Carmel from a comfortable if somewhat nondescript bedroom community to a city that makes magazine covers as one of America's best places to live and/or work. And the six-term (soon to be seven-term) Republican has done it in large part by taking some of the best things cities have to offer — density, walkability, mixed-use development and well-designed park space— and grafting them onto the traditional suburban model, creating a unique hybrid.
The Central Park bike trail in Woodland Gardens Park.
All images courtesy of the City of Carmel
But Jim Brainard isn't just a mayor. He's also an ambassador. As a self-identified conservative Republican who not only believes in climate science but has made it his personal mission to incorporate sustainable urban planning and climate resilience into his vision for Carmel, Brainard has become a symbol of what post-partisan climate leadership can and should look like. He has long worked to implement sustainable solutions and green infrastructure, from installing millions of dollars' worth of photovoltaic panels to switching over to LED streetlights to — most famously — replacing all but a dozen or so of Carmel's traffic lights with roundabouts, which are not only safer for motorists and pedestrians but also more fuel-efficient. Six years ago, Brainard was one of only four Republicans appointed by President Obama to a State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience. More recently he appeared before a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives, urging lawmakers to renew funding for the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant (EECBG) Program, which helps local governments launch and maintain projects that reduce pollution and carbon emissions.
All of these activities, he insists, are intrinsically conservative. "The root of the word conservative is conserve," he says. "Conservatives think of themselves as not being reckless, but it would be reckless to ignore what the majority of the world's scientists are telling us about climate change. We see the impacts in our weather every day." A follow-up question elicits a who's who of Republican contributions to the modern-day environmental movement: Teddy Roosevelt's commitment to creating and preserving public lands; the enduring legacy of William Ruckelshaus, the first director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; the championing and signing of the ozone layer–protecting Montreal Protocol by Ronald Reagan; the creation of the National Climate Assessment by George H. W. Bush.
So "there's a tradition" of conservative support for environmental issues, Brainard says; it's just that in today's polarized partisan climate, this tradition has been heedlessly sacrificed on the altar of short-term political expediency. He finds it hard to understand. "Just from a pure political standpoint, it's not smart. It may appeal to a small percentage of the base, but it certainly doesn't appeal to the battleground middle that everyone's fighting over. And from the standpoint of just doing the right thing, it makes no sense either. Thoughtful, well-intentioned people who care about our country should be listening to what the scientific community is saying."
Brainard notes that mayors "don't have the leisure to sit around and argue about philosophy, or about whether the scientists are right or wrong. Our entire job is to get things done." He paraphrases a famous quote attributed to Fiorello LaGuardia, Republican mayor of New York City from 1934 to 1945: "'There's no Democratic or Republican way to fill a chuckhole or plow snow.' And there really isn't. It's about performing the day-to-day tasks at the local level. People are concerned; we have to react to those concerns and try to fix things."
And people, including the largely conservative and Republican residents of Carmel, are definitely concerned about many of the geophysical changes they're witnessing around them. "We're seeing more storms, and more intense storms," Brainard says. "Storm-surge systems that were designed for maybe four or five inches a day have now become totally inadequate." He says flooding that "before might have been considered a 100-year event is now a yearly event." Cities that haven't built climate resilience into their operations are at grave risk — and not just at some future time, but right now.
The former Monon Railroad tracks were converted into a recreational greenway running through Carmel as part of a rails-to-trails project.
Brainard tells me of a freak set of thunderstorms that raged through Carmel in May, sparking half a dozen fires and causing power outages for three and a half days. Thanks to previously installed propane-powered generators, the city was able to pump water into towers and maintain pressure in its water lines. For the mayor and many others, the storms and their minimized impact were yet more proof that a decision to invest more than $3 million in a solar-powered battery system was the right one for Carmel. "Temporary generators work short term, but what if we lost access to power for a longer period of time?" Brainard wrote in a locally published op-ed shortly after the storms passed. "Consider how much we rely on power to operate the lift stations that pump our water, power the operations at our sanitary facilities, pump our fuel, cool our homes and operate sophisticated medical equipment for our sick and elderly." Thanks to the city's investment in solar power, he wrote, "[in] the event of a sustained shortage of fuel — due to storm damage or other factors — our first responders will have options to use stored energy to continue to serve residents in need."
It shouldn't take a disaster or near-disaster, Brainard says, to convince lawmakers and other elected officials to take climate action — both proactively, through emissions reduction and sustainable operations, and reactively, through resiliency measures. He bemoans the politicization of climate change at the national level. But he's hopeful that mayors, whatever their party affiliation, can step in as the leaders America needs right now. He points out that there are more than 1,200 mayors of cities with populations over 30,000 in the U.S., "and all but about 10 of them signed the climate protection agreement that the U.S. Conference of Mayors proposed a number of years ago." Roughly a third of those mayors, he notes, are Republicans.
"At the local level, most elected officials just see it as a nonpartisan issue that needs to be tackled," he says. "And that's encouraging."
Reposted with permission from our media associate onEarth.
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Kevin T. Smiley
When hurricanes and other extreme storms unleash downpours like Tropical Storm Beta has been doing in the South, the floodwater doesn't always stay within the government's flood risk zones.
New research suggests that nearly twice as many properties are at risk from a 100-year flood today than the Federal Emergency Management Agency's flood maps indicate.
Flooding Outside the Zones<p>About <a href="https://furmancenter.org/files/Floodplain_PopulationBrief_12DEC2017.pdf" target="_blank">15 million</a> Americans live in FEMA's current 100-year flood zones. The designation warns them that their properties face a 1% risk of flooding in any given year. They must obtain flood insurance if they want a federally ensured loan – insurance that helps them recover from flooding.</p><p>In Greater Houston, however, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1539-6924.2012.01840.x" target="_blank">47% of claims</a> made to FEMA across three decades before Hurricane Harvey were outside of the 100-year flood zones. Harris County, recognizing that FEMA flood maps don't capture the full risk, now <a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/floodinsurance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">recommends that every household</a> in Houston and the rest of the county have flood insurance.</p><p>New risk models point to a similar conclusion: Flood risk in these areas outstrips expectations in the current FEMA flood maps.</p><p>One of those models, from the <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/2020-national-flood-risk-assessment-highlights/" target="_blank">First Street Foundation</a>, estimates that the number of properties at risk in a 100-year storm is 1.7 times higher than the FEMA maps suggest. Other <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aaac65" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">researchers</a> find an even higher margin, with 2.6 to 3.1 times more people exposed to serious flooding in a 100-year storm than FEMA estimates.</p>
What FEMA’s Flood Maps Miss<p>Understanding why areas outside the 100-year flood zones are flooding more often than the FEMA maps suggest involves larger social and environmental issues. Three reasons stand out.</p><p>First, some places rely on relatively old FEMA maps that don't account for recent urbanization.</p><p>Urbanization matters because impervious surfaces – think pavement and buildings – are not effective sponges like natural landscapes can be. Moreover, the process for updating floodplain maps is locally variable and can take years to complete. Famously, New York City was updating its maps when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012 but hadn't finished, meaning flood maps in effect <a href="https://projects.propublica.org/nyc-flood/" target="_blank">were from 1983</a>. FEMA is required to assess whether updates are needed every five years, but the <a href="https://www.fema.gov/cis/nation.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">majority of maps</a> <a href="https://www.oig.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/assets/2017/OIG-17-110-Sep17.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are older</a>.</p><p>Second, binary thinking can lead people to an underaccounting of risk, and that can mean communities fail to take steps that could protect a neighborhood from flooding. The logic goes: if I'm not in the 100-year floodplain, then I'm not at risk. Risk perception <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/ab195a" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">research</a> backs this up. FEMA-delineated flood zones are the major factor shaping flood mitigation behaviors.</p><p>Third, the era of climate change scuttles conventional assumptions.</p><p>As the planet warms, extreme storms are becoming <a href="https://nca2018.globalchange.gov/" target="_blank">more common and severe</a>. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase at a high rate, computer models suggest that the chances of a severe storm dropping 20 inches of rain on Texas in any given year will increase from about 1% at the end of the last century to 18% at the end of this one, a chance of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1716222114" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">once every 5.5 years</a>. So far, <a href="https://www.rstreet.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/195.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">FEMA hasn't taken into account the impact climate change is having</a> on extreme weather and sea level rise.</p>
Racial Disparities in Flooding Outside the Zones<p>So, who is at risk?</p><p>Years of research and evidence from storms have highlighted social inequalities in areas with a high risk of flooding. But most local governments have less understanding of the social and demographic composition of communities that experience flood impacts outside of flood zones.</p><p>In analyzing the damage from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston area, I found that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1088/1748-9326/aba0fe" target="_blank">Black and Hispanic residents disproportionately experienced flooding</a> in areas beyond FEMA's 100-year flood zones.</p><p>With the majority of flooding from Hurricane Harvey occurring outside of 100-year flood zones, this meant that the overall impact of Harvey was racially unequal too.</p><p>Research into where flooding occurs in Baltimore, Chicago and Phoenix points to some of the potential causes. <a href="https://www.nap.edu/read/25381/chapter/4#16" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">In Baltimore and Chicago</a>, for example, aging storm and sewer infrastructure, poor construction and insufficient efforts to mitigate flooding are part of the flooding problem in some predominantly Black neighborhoods.</p>
What Can Be Done About It<p>Better accounting for those three reasons could substantively improve risk assessments and help cities prioritize infrastructure improvements and flood mitigation projects in these at-risk neighborhoods.</p><p>For example, First Street Foundation's risk maps account for <a href="https://firststreet.org/flood-lab/research/flood-model-methodology_overview/" target="_blank">climate change</a> and present <a href="https://floodfactor.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">ratings</a> on a scale from 1 to 10. FEMA, which works with communities to update flood maps, is <a href="https://www.fema.gov/media-library-data/1521054297905-ca85d066dddb84c975b165db653c9049/TMAC_2017_Annual_Report_Final508(v8)_03-12-2018.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">exploring rating systems</a>. And the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine recently <a href="https://www.nationalacademies.org/news/2019/03/new-report-calls-for-different-approaches-to-predict-and-understand-urban-flooding" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">called for a new generation of flood maps</a> that takes climate change into account.</p><p>Including recent urbanization in those assessments will matter too, especially in fast-growing cities like Houston, where <a href="https://authors.elsevier.com/a/1boBRyDvMFW6W" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">386 new square miles</a> of impervious surfaces were created in the last 20 years. That's greater than the land area of New York City. New construction in one area can also <a href="https://scalawagmagazine.org/2018/01/city-in-a-swamp-as-houston-booms-its-flood-problems-are-only-getting-worse/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">impact older neighborhoods downhill</a> during a flood, as some Houston communities discovered in Hurricane Harvey.</p><p>Improving risk assessments is needed not just to better prepare communities for major flood events, but also to prevent racial inequalities – in housing and beyond – from <a href="https://www.npr.org/2019/03/05/688786177/how-federal-disaster-money-favors-the-rich" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">growing</a> after the unequal impacts of disasters.</p>
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