‘Risk Blindness’ Is Making the Climate Crisis Worse

Catastrophes like the Maui wildfire may be avoidable if governments and insurers stop looking to the past to predict a warming future.

(Bloomberg) — The firestorm that razed the Hawaiian town of Lahaina this month was catastrophic. At least 115 people died and another 1,000 remain missing. Some 2,200 buildings were incinerated by an inferno that caused at least $5.5 billion of damage.

But as with earlier wildfires in California, Colorado and elsewhere around the globe, the disaster was by no means inevitable.

The frequency of fires on the island of Maui has steadily increased over the past five years. The local utility, Hawaiian Electric Industries Inc., was aware of the danger and even submitted a spending plan last year aimed at diminishing the risk. But by the time the fire swept across Lahaina, driven by winds from a hurricane hundreds of miles away, officials had yet to approve the plan. That delay—and its calamitous consequences—arguably speak to a common shortcoming across governments, insurers and industries when it comes to global warming. It’s called “risk blindness.”

In the Bloomberg Originals mini-documentary Maui Fire: How ‘Risk Blindness’ Made It Worse, we explore why people, companies and politicians who are well aware of climate risk nevertheless fail to plan or react appropriately. While the precise cause of the Maui wildfire is yet to be determined, and Hawaiian Electric has said it is working with officials on the investigation, the failure to adapt to a rapidly changing environment has been made devastatingly evident. 

Thanks to global warming, storms are more frequent and droughts more common, both of which make wildfires more likely. The consequences of the climate crisis include increasingly dire economic damage as well—like low water levels slowing trade on arterial routes such as the Panama Canal and the  Mississippi and Rhine rivers. But governments and companies have been slow to pivot, leaving no workable alternatives in place. In the US, insurers have only just begun to respond to increased fire, flooding and hurricane risks in states such as Louisiana and Florida, and local officials remain unwilling to spend the money necessary for effective climate adaptation.

A critical component of risk blindness is looking to the past to predict the future when human behavior—namely the burning of fossil fuels—has changed all the rules. As extreme weather and climate-related disasters multiply, the magnitude of change required to stay ahead of a shifting atmospheric landscape may only increase.

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