For a reality check on Governor Rick Perry’s mission of minimalist government, I took a drive to Bastrop County the other day. Once rural, the county has burgeoned into an outlying Austin bedroom community, a patchwork of subdivisions plowed deep into pretty forests of loblolly pine. Formerly pretty, I should say. A summer of parching drought, the hottest and driest on record, turned those forests to tinder, and on Labor Day weekend high winds lashed a few stray sparks into the worst wildfires in Texas history. The inferno here raced across an area 20 by 30 miles, and left 1,500 families homeless.
The fires were finally tamed a couple of weeks ago, but the day I drove out from Austin for a look at the remains, a flare-up incinerated another 1,000 acres. A visibly weary road foreman for the county, Andy Baker, took me around some of the devastation.
“I still can’t believe it, and I’ve been dealing with it over a month,” he said as we wove through a development called Tahitian Village, along roads with names intended to convey a tropical paradise: Mauna Loa, Akaloa, Kipahulu. We passed house after house burnt down to stubble, thickets of blackened pine spindles, husks of incinerated cars and the occasional charred swing set or septic tank.
Here and there, a house had been spared, a dubious mercy: the good news is, you still have a house. The bad news is, it’s all by itself in a vast ashtray.
Shortly before my visit, President Obama, without naming Bastrop, singled it out as a symptom of the Republican Party’s continuing war on reality. “You’ve got a governor whose state is on fire denying climate change,” he told supporters at a fundraiser. The Perry campaign retorted that the president was playing politics with tragedy. But it’s hard to disentangle this tragedy from politics.
No climate scientist would claim a direct relationship between global warming and this or any other individual attack of extreme weather. But most would say confidently that the global trends tipped the odds towards disaster.
“We can’t say climate change is causing the extreme weather Texas is having right now,” Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Perry’s alma mater, Texas A and M, told John Burnett of NPR. “On the other hand, we can say humans have increased the temperature of the base climate state pretty much everywhere. And what that means is it makes the heat more extreme and increases evaporation form the soil. We can be confident we’ve made this hellish summer worse than it would have been.”
The Texas State climatologist, John Nielsen-Gammon, another A and M professor who is effectively Perry’s adviser on such matters, has said much the same. Asked by a reporter whether he had made his views known to the governor, Nielsen-Gammon said he had never been asked.
Actually there is a more immediately consequential link between the hands-off state and the ruins in Bastrop County.
Everywhere Andy Baker took me, you saw the soot-blackened foundations nestled right up against the brush that turned to kindling – no buffer zones, none of what planners call “defensible space.” It turns out the Texas legislature has never given county governments any authority over land use. According to the National Association of Counties, it is one of only three states where counties don’t have zoning power.
“We can educate, and education needs to go on,” said Ronnie McDonald, the highest county executive. “But at the end of the day, it’s an individual choice.” With, needless to day, consequences for everyone else.
Andrew Revkin, a science reporter who writes our Dot Earth blog, calculated that the population of Bastrop County has quadrupled since 1970: “The question is, will the public recognize that losses from such fires are mostly not the consequence of bad luck or fate, but bad planning?”
“Planning,” of course, is an expletive in the libertarian-leaning politics of Texas.
Another is FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In Perry’s campaign manifesto, Fed Up!, FEMA looms as a classic example of the slow-acting, heavy-handed Washington bureaucracy he hopes to dismantle as president.
Would you care to guess which agency arrived in Bastrop County, got temporary housing vouchers into the hands of the displaced families, and helped underwrite the cleanup of debris? You don’t hear a lot of FEMA-bashing in Bastrop County.
3:27 p.m. | Update
What’s it like being a scientist in the land of denial? My friend Glenn Frankel, director of the School of Journalism at University of Texas, Austin, sent along this interesting Q. & A. with Perry’s state climatologist.