Are You Ready for More?
In a world of climate change, freak storms are the new normal. Why we’re unprepared for the harrowing future.
By Sharon Begley
May 29, 2011
Joplin, Mo., was prepared. The tornado warning system gave residents 24 minutes’ notice that a twister was bearing down on them. Doctors and nurses at St. John’s Regional Medical Center, who had practiced tornado drills for years, moved fast, getting patients away from windows, closing blinds, and activating emergency generators. And yet more than 130 people died in Joplin, including four people at St. John’s, where the tornado sucked up the roof and left the building in ruins, like much of the shattered city.
Even those who deny the existence of global climate change are having trouble dismissing the evidence of the last year. In the U.S. alone, nearly 1,000 tornadoes have ripped across the heartland, killing more than 500 people and inflicting $9 billion in damage. The Midwest suffered the wettest April in 116 years, forcing the Mississippi to flood thousands of square miles, even as drought-plagued Texas suffered the driest month in a century. Worldwide, the litany of weather’s extremes has reached biblical proportions. The 2010 heat wave in Russia killed an estimated 15,000 people. Floods in Australia and Pakistan killed 2,000 and left large swaths of each country under water. A months-long drought in China has devastated millions of acres of farmland. And the temperature keeps rising: 2010 was the hottest year on earth since weather records began.
From these and other extreme-weather events, one lesson is sinking in with terrifying certainty. The stable climate of the last 12,000 years is gone. Which means you haven’t seen anything yet. And we are not prepared.
Picture California a few decades from now, a place so hot and arid the state’s trademark orange and lemon trees have been replaced with olive trees that can handle the new climate. Alternating floods and droughts have made it impossible for the reservoirs to capture enough drinking water. The picturesque Highway 1, sections of which are already periodically being washed out by storm surges and mudslides, will have to be rerouted inland, possibly through a mountain. These aren’t scenes from another deadly-weather thriller like The Day After Tomorrow. They’re all changes that California officials believe they need to brace for within the next decade or two. And they aren’t alone. Across the U.S., it’s just beginning to dawn on civic leaders that they’ll need to help their communities brave coming dangers brought by climate change, from disappearing islands in Chesapeake Bay to dust bowls in the Plains and horrific hurricanes in the Gulf of Mexico. Yet only 14 states are even planning, let alone implementing, climate-change adaptation plans, says Terri Cruce, a climate consultant in California. The other 36 apparently are hoping for a miracle.
The game of catch-up will have to happen quickly because so much time was lost to inaction. “The Bush administration was a disaster, but the Obama administration has accomplished next to nothing either, in part because a significant part of the Democratic Party is inclined to balk on this issue as well,” says economist Jeffrey Sachs, head of the Earth Institute at Columbia University. “We [are] past the tipping point.” The idea of adapting to climate change was once a taboo subject. Scientists and activists feared that focusing on coping would diminish efforts to reduce carbon emissions. On the opposite side of the divide, climate-change deniers argued that since global warming is a “hoax,” there was no need to figure out how to adapt. “Climate-change adaptation was a nonstarter,” says Vicki Arroyo, executive director of the Georgetown Climate Center. “If you wanted to talk about that, you would have had to talk about climate change itself, which the Bush administration didn’t want to do.” In fact, President Bush killed what author Mark Hertsgaard in his 2011 book, Hot, calls “a key adaptation tool,” the National Climate Assessment, an analysis of the vulnerabilities in regions of the U.S. and ideas for coping with them. The legacy of that: state efforts are spotty and local action is practically nonexistent. “There are no true adaptation experts in the federal government, let alone states or cities,” says Arroyo. “They’ve just been commandeered from other departments.”
The rookies will struggle to comprehend the complex impacts of climate change. The burning of fossil fuels has raised atmospheric levels of heat-trapping carbon dioxide by 40 percent above what they were before the Industrial Revolution. The added heat in the atmosphere retains more moisture, ratchets up the energy in the system, and incites more violent and extreme weather. Scientists disagree about whether climate change will bring more intense or frequent tornadoes, but there is wide consensus that the 2 degrees Fahrenheit of global warming of the last century is behind the rise in sea levels, more intense hurricanes, more heat waves, and more droughts and deluges. Even if the world went carbon-neutral tomorrow, we’d be in for more: because of the CO2 that has already been emitted, we’re on track for another 5 degrees of warming. Batten down the hatches. “You can no longer say that the climate of the future is going to be like the climate of today, let alone yesterday,” says Judi Greenwald, vice president of innovative solutions at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change. “In all of the plausible climate scenarios, we are going to have to change the way we do things in ways we can’t even predict.”
Changing temperatures will have a profound effect on the plants and animals among us. Crops that flourished in the old climate regime will have to adapt to the new one, as some pests are already doing. Tropical diseases such as malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever are reaching temperate regions, and ragweed and poison ivy thrive in the hothouse world. Yet most of us are naive about what climate-change adaptation will entail. At the benign extreme, “adapting” sounds as easy as home gardeners adjusting to their new climate zones—those colorful bands on the back of the package of zinnia seeds. It sounds as pleasant as cities planting more trees, as Chicago, New York, Boston, and scores of others are doing (with species native to the warmer climes: Chicago is subbing heat-loving sweet gum and swamp oak for the traditional white oak). And it sounds as architecturally interesting as changing roofs: New York, which is looking at an average temperature increase of up to 3 degrees Fahrenheit by 2020, is planning to paint 3 million square feet of roofs white, to reflect sunlight and thus reduce urban heat-island effects.
But those steps don’t even hint at how disruptive and expensive climate-change adaptation will be. “Ten years ago, when we thought climate change would be slow and linear, you could get away with thinking that ‘adaptation’ meant putting in permeable pavement” so that storm water would be absorbed rather than cause floods, says Bill McKibben, author of the 2010 book Eaarth. “Now it’s clear that’s not going to be at all sufficient, as we see already with disruptions in our ability to grow food, an increase in storms, and the accelerated melting of Greenland that could raise sea levels six feet. Adaptation is going to have to be a lot more than changing which trees cities plant.”
As tomorrow’s climate wreaks havoc on agriculture—this spring’s deluges have already kept farmers from getting tractors into fields to plant corn—McKibben foresees tens of thousands more Americans having to work on farms, since human hands can do what machines cannot, like planting seeds in flooded fields. Until now, maximizing yield has been the agricultural imperative, but in the future, stability and resilience will be more important. In much of the Northeast, farmers will be unable to grow popular varieties of apples, blueberries, and cranberries, for instance; in Vermont, maple sugaring will likely go the way of ox-drawn plows.
States and cities will have to make huge investments in infrastructure to handle the encroaching sea and raging rivers. Keene, N.H., for instance, has been a pioneer in climate-change adaptation, says Missy Stults, climate director of ICLEI-Local Governments for Sustainability USA. The city recently enlarged culverts along its highways so storm runoff would be less likely to wash out roads. In the San Francisco Bay area, planners are considering increasing the height of the seawall on the city’s waterfront and the levees at the San Francisco and Oakland airports. In Ventura, Calif., construction crews moved Surfer’s Point 65 feet inland, the state’s first experiment in “managed retreat.” Because warmer air provides less lift, airport runways the world over will have to be lengthened in order for planes to take off.
In Norfolk, Va., where the combination of global sea-level rise and local-land subsidence has brought water levels 13.5 inches higher since 1930, the city has fought a battle to stay ahead of the tide by elevating one often-flooded roadway by 18 inches. But the neighborhood may have to be abandoned—and residents may not be much happier in neighboring parts of Maryland. An expected sea-level rise there of twice the global average means that 371 miles of highway are at risk of looking more like canals, while 2,500 historic and archeological sites could become real-life versions of Atlantis. Thousands of septic systems—5,200 in a single county near Chesapeake Bay—are in flood zones, says Zoe Johnson, who directs the climate-change adaptation program at the Department of Natural Resources.
Already, 13 islands in the bay are submerged, 400,000 acres on the eastern shore are on the way to joining them, and 580 acres of shoreline are lost every year as intense storms erode beaches and wetlands. Homeowners can no longer automatically get a permit to “harden” their beaches by erecting bulkheads and sea walls; they must instead plant vegetation, which may not do the trick. “It’s inevitable that some of our low-lying communities will need to be relocated or abandoned,” says Johnson.
Maryland is not the only place that will have to decide which communities it can afford to protect and which will have to be sacrificed. Environmental scientist Thomas Wilbanks of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, who chaired a 2011 panel of the National Research Council on adapting to climate change, says: “We’ll identify places with iconic value and protect them whatever the cost, even if that means Miami and New Orleans become islands” as surrounding communities are sacrificed. Given that Manhattan is already an island, architects asked to imagine its future have gone a step further: designing Venice-like canals for the southern tip.
In Alaska, six indigenous villages on the coast, including Newtok and Shishmaref, are likely to get swamped as seas rise and storm surges intensify, says Gary Kofinas of the University of Alaska Fairbanks. They also sit on permafrost, which isn’t “perma” anymore. As the ground melts beneath the villages, the state is figuring out how and where to relocate them. Around the world, nearly 1 billion people live in low-lying river deltas, from Guangzhou to New Orleans, that will be reclaimed by the sea, forcing tens of millions of people to migrate. It threatens to be a trail of human misery that will make the exodus after Hurricane Katrina look like a weekend getaway.
The U.S. could take some advice from other countries like the Netherlands, which has more than a little experience keeping the ocean at bay. The Dutch seem to understand just how radically different life will be. As part of a 200-year plan, the country has launched a €1.5 billion project to broaden river channels so they aren’t overwhelmed as a result of the higher flows, says Pier Vellinga, professor of climate change at Wageningen University. Rotterdam raised by two feet a storm gate at the port that holds back the (rising) North Sea, and elevated the ground the new 1,700-acre port sits on by a foot and a half to keep it from being submerged, all at a cost of some €50 million. The country is also adding millions of cubic yards of sand to dunes that hold back the North Sea. All told, it will soon be spending some €4 billion a year to cope with what’s coming down the pike. Britain, too, is taking adaptation seriously, planning to raise the height of the floodgates protecting central London from the Thames by 12 inches.
So what lies behind America’s resistance to action? Economist Sachs points to the lobbying power of industries that resist acknowledgment of climate change’s impact. “The country is two decades behind in taking action because both parties are in thrall to Big Oil and Big Coal,” says Sachs. “The airwaves are filled with corporate-financed climate misinformation.” But the vanguard of action isn’t waiting any longer. This week, representatives from an estimated 100 cities are meeting in Bonn, Germany, for the 2nd World Congress on Cities and Adaptation to Climate Change. The theme is “Resilient Cities.” As Joplin, Mo., learned in the most tragic way possible, against some impacts of climate change, man’s puny efforts are futile. But time is getting short, and the stakes are high. Says Daniel Sarewitz, a professor of science and society at Arizona State University: “Not to adapt is to consign millions of people to death and disruption.”