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In case you needed a reminder, I am rather liberal in my temperament, Democrat in affiliation, but increasingly more libertarian in what still remains of my interest in political philosophy. Increasingly I find politics and politicians, regardless of party, maddeningly insulting in their over-simplification of complex issues and unwillingness to embrace compromise. Decisions seem to be guided more and more by appeals to the mob, and stubborn, and out-of-touch, if not completely nonsensical, ideological stances that have become more and more inflexible with time.
My girlfriend is pretty much a tea party conservative. The future longevity of our relationship will likely be inversely proportional to the number of hours we discuss politics (just kidding sweetie…I love you, Fox News Channel and all :-)….)
Last night, however, I did give in to her recent request that we watch Sarah Palin’s recent CPAC address together. And about halfway through her speech, Sarah’s speech-writer just had to do it….reduced climate change and sea-level rise to a half-a-sentence punch line for an Obama joke. I was not amused, and attempted to explain to the love of my life, as I have to my ultra-conservative family members and others, that from an Emergency Management point of view, the climate is changing and it is going to have an effect on our country…and the effects will happen whether you “believe” in climate change or not (for many years a lot of smokers chose not to “believe” the body of accumulated medical science that showed cigarette smoking could kill you- for many that choice not to believe in the science can be reasonably argued to have contributed to their eventual deaths from cancer, COPD, heart disease, and other smoking-related illnesses).
Identifying and rectifying the root causes of that climate change is on the whole mostly inconsequential to the Emergency Manager. Emergency Managers, a majority of whom likely have conservative rather than liberal leanings, could care less if it is greenhouse gases or Martians causing it–the scientific consensus is that it is coming and we need to prepare for its possible consequences. Even if some of the effects are less than predicted, there are things in this world being over-prepared for is a far sight better than being under-prepared….especially if you are responsible for a coastal community.
My girlfriend was not amused.
But the truth appears to be that larger and larger numbers of conservatives are beginning to tire of the official stance of climate change denial and downplay used by many conservatives, especially those of Tea Party sympathies, as has been noted in several articles, such as this 2010 NY Times, and this 2013 National Journal article. It should be telling us something important when a noted conservative economist (Arthur Laffer) and Al Gore agree on something about climate change: some (many perhaps?) issues and one’s stance towards it, have nothing to do with whether you identify yourself as liberal or conservative. It does have something to do with whether you are a rational, reasonable, and thoughtful type of problem-solving individual; or whether you are an anti-intellectual, anti-science, if-I-hide-my-head-up-my-ass-I-can-believe-whatever-I-want-to-believe-and-its-true type of person.
On the positive side, if you are a doubter of climate change and you are wrong, it is unlikely to be of much consequence to your life…..it will be your children and grandchildren who will be paying the check you left sitting on the nation’s table….
Yesterday I was watching/listening to CNN, which repeated (in honor of Winter Storm Nemo) several times during the day a previous special on the effects of Superstorm Sandy and the likely effects/costs of future storms in the northeast.
Some have been trying for years to warn the northeast to start taking mitigation actions, including construction of flood gates. It was estimated that a massive flood gate across New York Harbor (much like what the Dutch built as part of its colossal Delta Project in the 1950s, which has now resumed to prepare for rising sea levels, as mentioned in an earlier blog) could have prevented much of the damage in New York. Estimated cost: $20 billion over many years of construction. Estimate of insured losses from Sandy: $28.2 billion. Amount approved by Congress so far for post-Sandy reconstruction: $60 billion. This also does not take into consideration economic losses from lost wages and production. Even figuring in government waste and pork-barreling, as well as replacement of depreciated capital and infrastructure, it appears somewhere around $60-$80 billion in costs will be incurred over the next three or so years. Plus you still need to construct that $20-$30 billion flood gate or be prepared to pay another $80+ billion (considering population growth, etc., costs of the next one may likely be substantially higher).
Does that $20 billion flood gate project sound quite so bad now?
In New Orleans, the upgrade/improvement of the levee system cost $14 billion. Louisiana’s Coastal Master Plan to make the state more resilient to storm/flood threats will cost an estimated $50 billion over the next 50 years. That is still far cheaper than Katrina’s estimated damage/economic toll of $80-125 billion (depending on how that number is calculated-with some who have considered the total damage + economic effects of Katrina across the Gulf coast states at around $250 billion with about half suffered by Louisiana).
And I haven’t even mentioned south Florida and Miami, which sits thinking Cat 5 Hurricane Andrew taught it a lesson. They may have learned the wrong lesson…we will find out when the area faces a very un-Andrew-like, but far more typical Category 4-5 hurricane storm surge.
So we get the idea…we need to get on the ball on start more aggressive mitigation projects in anticipation of climate change and sea level rise, or else storm and flooding costs will keep rising.
Actually that is only part of the idea.
The other hazards of the U.S. are not going to take a vacation and let climate change have all the fun. We still will face possibly catastrophic earthquakes (Anchorage, Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Madrid Fault zone), F5 tornadoes (entire Great Plains and Southeast U.S), and Volcanoes (Hawaii, Seattle, and Tacoma). We will still have a woefully aging critical infrastructure. We will still have the terrorists (but frankly, unless they have gotten their hands on a weapon of mass destruction, house fires in the U.S. have caused greater loss of life and economic damage than terrorist attacks).
The U.S. needs an unified, integrated, exhaustively detailed, long-range, state-by-state natural hazard/vulnerability assessment, and mitigation cost estimation and priority plan. Then we need to get the priority projects underway. I do not think we can afford to wait much longer.
As one of the scientists said on the CNN program, this is truly an issue that threatens our homeland security.
Some time ago I was watching a program on disasters, though I can’t remember now exactly which channel (Discovery? National Geographic?) or the exact topic (earthquakes? Mt. Ranier lahars?). One of the educated “talking heads” that frequently appear on these shows made a very interesting observation.
He noted that most of the world’s great cities are built in areas that, from a geological perspective, are fairly stable. The world has had a few thousand years to discover that some places on earth might not be good locations for a city, especially an important city. America (and really most of the Western Hemisphere) on the other hand, has less than 200-300 years of direct experience with the natural hazards of our corner of the earth. In reality the amount of direct experience is even less, as it has only been in the last 125 or so years that our population as become dense enough to increase the frequency and impact of encounters with those hazards. Either way, our cities were not planned with much knowledge of their locations’ inherent hazards.
Through experience and science our knowledge of the natural hazard vulnerabilities of U.S. cities has expanded. Every now and then we discover some more that we hadn’t even thought about: spontaneous lahars at Mt. Ranier and the ARkStorm scenario (Atmospheric River 1000 Storm) threat to California are examples. Even when we are quite aware of a potential threat (the “big one” or the “bigger one than we ever imagined” that will eventually hit California again; New Orleans becoming like Venice, minus the canals) we tend to believe that either the threat isn’t so great, or that science, technology, and human creativity will forever come to our rescue. So we continue investing vast resources trying to hold back mother nature, then rebuilding when we fail. We are like someone that falls in love in a whirlwind romance and gets married, only to discover too late our spouse has more than a few unpleasant habits and a closet full of secrets. Our commitment has already been made, so we try to make it work.
When do we decide that it is time to move on and try a new approach? Is there a better way? As people who have read The Angry Earth would know, many ancient civilizations in Central and South America learned to adapt their way of living to the hazards of their environment. Of course, in our own defense, disaster resilience (without substantial planning) becomes all the more difficult as a society becomes larger and more complex. This is also spoken of in The Angry Earth.
At least we are not alone now. With a sea level rise of 1-4 feet projected over the next 85 years, and an end to the rising sea not anticipated for several centuries, countries all over the world now confront harsh realities. The Dutch, being rather smart, farsighted people who took notice of what we faced with Hurricane Katrina, decided to be ahead of the curve. It should also be noted that 25% of their country is below mean sea level, and they have been fighting against the sea for centuries. In 2007, they appointed a second Delta Committee to develop a water management plan to deal with sea level rises through the year 2200. Delta issued its recommendations in 2008. The plan, while it includes massive engineering and construction projects (the first Delta Works flood control project started in the 1950’s is one of the seven wonders of the modern world), it also involves continuing measures already underway in the country, such as strategically giving land back to the rivers, beach replenishment, and finding new ways to store and use excess rainwater. Implementation of the Delta recommendations started in 2009 with the 2009-2015 National Water Plan, and the 2011 passage of the Delta Act in the Dutch parliament.
Total costs for all Dutch climate-related flood control measures could be around $3 billion (about $190 per person based on current population; or about a 0.5% decrease in per capita GDP) per year or higher for at least the next 85 years. They believe the long-term costs of doing less will be far greater.
I ponder the issue because an article in the Harvard Gazette suggests the U.S. is nowhere close to developing a coherent plan at the national level of how to prepare for the future. States may not be doing much better. At least we have our National Response Framework and National Incident Management System to guide us in what to do when catastrophe strikes.
This is good, because if we don’t start seriously thinking of how best to prepare (or not prepare) our cities beforehand, and how best to rebuild (or not rebuild) them after the worst-case scenarios, we may have a lot more catastrophes to respond to in the future.