Former Executive Editor Bill Keller, now a columnist for the paper, used the tragic fire in Bastrop, Texas to let loose an Obama-inspired rant against the conservative argument for limited government (and again targeted Texas Gov. Rick Perry) on his New York Times blog Monday: 'Life Without Government.'
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.
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.
Keller suggested that the state's lack of government land-use planning contributed to the fire.
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.
Keller linked to this September 7 post by Revkin, which fingered population growth and global warming as a contributing factor in the fire damage (some Texas residents take informed issue with his conclusion in the comments).
Speaking of population contributing to disasters, during Keller's editorial tenure the Times' editorial page pontificated on how essential it was after Katrina to issue tax credits to continue the efforts to rebuild houses in flood-prone New Orleans. Apparently the state of Louisiana bears no blame for letting people live in dangerous spots, but the state of Texas (and potential Obama opponent Rick Perry) is on the hook.