The case for building codes.

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There's Another Climate Fight. (We're Losing That One, Too.)

Christopher Flavelle writes editorials on health care, energy and environment for Bloomberg View. He was a senior policy analyst for Bloomberg Government and chief speechwriter for the leader of the Liberal Party of Canada.
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The proposal boiled down to just three paragraphs in the Federal Register: Would it be a good idea, the Federal Emergency Management Agency wondered, if Washington gave states a financial incentive to pass building codes, better protecting their residents against the effects of climate change?

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That was in January. By March, the response from states was clear: No, it would not be a good idea. Not good at all.

Just as there is a political economy of fighting climate change, there turns out to be a political economy of adapting to it. And navigating it could be just as hard.

FEMA's proposal looked modest enough. Rather than continue to provide federal assistance once the president declares a disaster, the agency suggested making states responsible for an initial share of the costs -- in other words, a deductible. States could lower that deductible by taking basic steps to prepare for disasters, such as passing tougher (or any) building codes, establishing their own disaster funds, or buying private insurance on government buildings.

The goal, according to FEMA, is twofold: First, reduce federal spending on disaster assistance (something Congress has already demanded), because fewer states would request money. Second, protect more people and property from damage caused by the increase in storms, flooding and general meteorological mayhem already happening thanks to climate change.

It's hard to dispute the need for such a shift. FEMA says just 65 percent of the U.S. population is covered by building codes; just 20 states have a mandatory building code for residential construction, according to the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, an industry-backed research group. That's despite research showing that areas with tougher building codes sustain less damage in extreme weather.

The most exposed states also tend to be among the least prepared. Last year, the institute ranked 18 states along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts for their approach to building codes and enforcement; they found that just five used the latest version of the International Residential Code, which covers everything from foundations and wall construction to storm drainage and gas piping. Six states had no mandatory residential building code, deferring instead to cities and counties. Most of those states also had no statewide program to license building inspectors. 

State and local officials say they would prefer that the federal government continues to provide disaster aid with no new conditions, and they have urged FEMA to abandon its proposal.

The reasons for the opposition range from the bureaucratic to the absurd. The National Governors Association, in comments to FEMA, said its members worried that the agency will have a hard time measuring (and putting a value on) states' actions to protect residents, and that the deductible would create too much paperwork.

Susan Frederick, a lobbyist for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said FEMA needs to appreciate that different states face different fiscal realities. After all, she ventured, building codes cost money to produce.

"If a state or a locality contracts out for engineers to do a building code, that's a financial expense," Frederick told me. "These people don't work for free."

Debra Ballen, head of policy for the insurers' institute, said that makes no sense. "They don't have to pay anyone to write the building code -- the International Code Council provides the model code," Ballen said. Adopting a building code "would be the cheapest kind of legislation to pass."

There might be a better explanation for states' reluctance to impose building codes: Home builders would rather they didn't. And home builders matter in state and local politics. In 2014, the construction industry spent $17 million on state-level lobbying, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

So what explains the industry's aversion to mandatory statewide building codes, with no room for cities to opt out? According to Susan Asmus, a vice president at the National Association of Home Builders, codes have become little more than a device to boost sales for specialty goods. "What's happened over time in the building code process is that manufacturers and other special interests want to get their specific window, insulation, piping, whatever other products recognized by the code so that everybody has to purchase their products," she said.

At a White House conference this week on how to pass more resilient building codes, Tim Kant, the mayor of Fairhope, Alabama, said his efforts to pass tougher codes have hurt him politically.

"We get beat up every time we put a new requirement on," Kant said, adding that his own state's government has been reluctant to help. His city persevered and is now one of the nation's leaders in constructing buildings that can survive high-speed winds.

What makes the fight over FEMA's proposal so important is that imposing tougher building codes is the easiest part of adapting to climate change. Harder still is preventing the construction of new buildings in the most at-risk areas -- especially along the coasts, which tend to be where people want to live. Astronomically harder would be relocating people who already live in those areas. Both will seem impossible if simply adopting building codes proves too much to ask.

The White House said this week that FEMA will use the feedback it got from January's proposal and issue a revised plan for a state deductible. It's unclear how much the agency can massage its plan to account for the objections of states and cities: Ultimately, states will either face financial repercussions for failing to pass building codes, or they won't.

"We want to come up with a shared solution before something is forced upon us," FEMA spokesman Joshua Batkin told me, a warning that states should accept the deal or brace for even worse cuts from Congress. Whether Congress would actually cut disaster money is questionable. But threats like these may be what it takes to coerce more states to get ready for climate change. Common sense alone doesn’t seem to be enough.

(Updates description of building codes in 14th paragraph of article published May 12.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Christopher Flavelle at cflavelle@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net