Posted Tuesday, June 3, 2008, at 1:22 PM
As often as not, so-called "natural disasters" owe the latter word as much to acts of human agency as anything else. Floods and wildfires and mudslides do seem worse than ever because there are more people and buildings on flood plains, mountains, and hillsides than ever. That answer should mark the beginning, not the end, of discussion.
It's easy to understand why a profit-seeking developer would build in fragile areas. Easy, too, to understand why someone would buy there—it seems every California wildfire story includes an interview with a homeowner who'd been attracted by the relatively lower prices of new houses far from city center and who knew nothing of the fragility of the area. What's not easy to understand is why policymakers permit ever more construction in such areas; that's a question deserving more examination in this country.
As for countries outside the United States, the problem often is more acute. Regions threatened by the expected consequences of climate change include places like the densely populated Mekong Delta . Putting into place policies that will avert disaster there is an act that human agents ought now to undertake.