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Time Warp on Climate Change

 

In yesterday's New York Times, there were two articles on climate change. The first was a front page piece about how President Obama will try to end-run Congressional paralysis on dealing with climate change by seeking to update the existing Kyoto treaty in ways that comm...
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SANDY AND THE WINDS OF CHANGE: You don't need a climate scientist to see which way the wind blows


Friday November 30, 2012

 

by EUGENE LINDEN

 

Even as Sandy underwent its bizarre metamorphosis from hurricane to winter storm, the question arose in many inquiring minds (at least those not beholden to a solemn oath of climate-change denial): Was this historic storm a symptom of global warming? Climate science has two ready answers: Absolutely! And, of course not!

On the one hand, a warming globe makes megastorms more probable, while on the other, it is impossible to pin a global warming sticker on Sandy because the circumstances that turned it into a monster could have been mere coincidence.

There is, however, another way of looking at Sandy that might resolve this debate, and also help frame what we really should be worried about when it comes to global warming: An infrastructure created to defend against historical measures of worst-case natural threats was completely overpowered by this storm.

THEN AND NOW: Devastation from super storm Sandy

New York City's defenses were inadequate, and coastal defenses failed over a swath of hundreds of miles. Around the nation, such mismatches have been repeated ever more frequently in recent years.

This summer, barge owners discovered that dredging in the Mississippi River, predicated on the history of the river's ups and downs, left it too shallow for commercial traffic because of the intense Midwestern drought. And, famously, levees in New Orleans that were largely through the process of being improved even as Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005 were still breached in 50 places. Then, seven years to the day after Katrina struck, Plaquemines Parish was drowned by Hurricane Isaac in flooding residents described as worse than Katrina's.

It's true that factors other than megastorms — loss of flood plains, subsidence and neglect — can exacerbate a failure, but the number of failures of all types of defenses has been stunning.

Such failures are telling us that something new is afoot. Our levees, dredging protocols and, in New York City, subway tunnel designs and improvements incorporate society's best guess of what it takes to protect against the worst nature might throw at us. Such defenses are expensive, so a city or agency won't spend more than it deems necessary. But the consequences of underestimating are also so enormous — consider the billions that will be spent restoring Manhattan's infrastructure and ruined neighborhoods alone — that we routinely construct them to withstand 100- or even 500-year events, estimates based on probability calculations and history of rare, extreme disasters. Yet these days such events seem to occur annually.

This is borne out by statistics. Among the many records set by Sandy, one was for the highest wave ever recorded in New York Harbor: 32.5 feet. That eclipsed the previous record wave of 26 feet. When was the earlier record set? Just last year, courtesy of Hurricane Irene.

Another message from Sandy is the reminder that climate change is camouflaged. It arrives as familiar weather events and after slowly accumulating changes.

Sandy was unusual in many ways, but it is also easy to dismiss its significance because it started out as a hurricane and hurricanes have always marched up the Atlantic coast, even as late as November. As for the surge that inundated beach towns and city streets, it came on top of a sea level that has been rising slowly, on average less than one-tenth of an inch per year, though the pace has been accelerating in recent decades. The oceans are now roughly 9 inches higher than they were 140 years ago, and, for the most part, our sea defenses have not kept pace.

Perhaps the most important message from Sandy is that it underscores the enormous price of underestimating the threat of climate change. Damage increases exponentially even if preparations are only slightly wrong. In trying to protect Grand Forks, N.D., from a spring flood in 1997, the city used sandbags to defend against a high-water mark of 52 feet, comfortably above the 49-foot crest predicted by the National Weather Service but, unfortunately, below the 54-foot crest that occurred on April 21. It was only 10% higher than what was expected, but the damage was many hundred times greater than if the protections had not been breached; 50,000 homes suffered damage.

At some point the consensus among climate scientists might convince even those now in denial that they ignore the role of global warming in extreme weather events at the nation's peril. In the meantime, Sandy's trampling of the Northeast's defenses against the weather, as well as scores of other major infrastructure failures in the face of extreme floods, heat, drought and winds in the United States and around the world, tell us that climate change is already here.

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Short Take

Since 1998, when The Future in Plain Sight was published, I’ve been watching the nine clues to future instability that I put forth in that book come into to the headlines one by one, and, unfortunately, way ahead of schedule. The basic argument in TFIPS is that the contours of the future might best be glimpsed through the filter of stability. While predicting whether we’d all have personal flying machines is a fool’s errand, we could know a lot if we could make an informed guess as to whether the future was likely to be more or less stable than the present.

With that in mind, I proposed nine, long wave-length trends/clues that strongly implied that the future would be less stable than the present. After exploring how different an unstable world is from a relatively stable one (less investment and innovation, religion/family/clan more important, etc), the book offered a series of scenarios set in the year 2050, which tried to put some flesh on what such a future might look like.

Alas, it looks like we won’t have to wait until 2050 to see this unstable future. We have had vivid, real world examples of the disruptions wrought by religious extremists (the chapter “The Rise of the True Believers” was written before the religious right gained ascendence here, and radical Islam began its bombings and wars); a disappearing Middle Class (“the Ubiquitous Wage Gap”); markets wrecking economic chaos (“Hot-Tempered Markets”); and so on.

And now, with the Ebola crisis, unless the world takes action real fast, we are going to witness the unholy synergy of three other clues offered in the book – “Infectious Disease Resurgent,” “A Biosphere in Disarray,” and the inherent instability of swollen, emerging nation cities. Wholesale ecological disruption very likely played a role in Ebola jumping from its animal host to humans, its emergence also signals that the “honeymoon” from infectious disease that started with sanitation in the late 19th century and the discovery of antibiotics in the 20th, is coming to an end, and the swollen cities of emerging nations are providing the springboards for the return of the microbes.

In the years since I wrote that book, I’ve looked back many times, wondering whether I was wrong about any of the clues, or whether I missed one that I should have added. One such candidate for inclusion is the rise of international criminal gangs. The drug cartels and their affiliates have made much of Mexico to dangerous to travel, and similar, large scale criminal enterprises destabilize scores of cities around the world.

As for a clue where I might have overstated the threat, there is one that bears directly on whether or not the world will contain the Ebola threat. That clue focused on the destabilizing aspects of the emergence of megacities. Given their size and importance to regional economies, it is easy to see how problems in a megacity could bring down an entire nation’s economy. What happens to Japan, for instance, if radiation from Fukushima continually worsens and makes Tokyo uninhabitable, or, what happens to Brazil if large parts of Sao Paolo really do run out of water, as is threatened now? On the other hand, these giant cities also create a critical mass of intelligence and the capital to deploy it. There's a ray of hope in the fact that an Ebola carrier made it to Lagos, the very poster child of a city always on the verge of collapse, and yet the city was able to respond and contain the disease. If the home of kleptocrats and email scams can deal with Ebola, maybe other African cities can too. Go Lagos!



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