- The lessons of Katrina: Global warming "adaptation" is a cruel euphemism — and prevention is far, far cheaper
- The Storm of the Century (so far)
- Energy and Global Warming News for August 28: Climate change causing severe food shortages in Nepal
- Midwestern states to see harshest warming — if their Senators filibuster a climate bill
Posted: 29 Aug 2009 05:58 AM PDT
The L.A. Times has brought to prominence (and fallen for) what I call the "adaptation trap":
G. Gordon Liddy's daughter repeated that standard denier/delayer line in our debate: Humans are very adaptable — we've adapted to climate changes in the past and will do so in the future.
We know that fighting climate change — stabilizing below 450 ppm of atmospheric carbon dioxide — has a low cost, according to IEA, IPCC, McKinsey and every major independent economic analysis (see "Intro to climate economics: Why even strong climate action has such a low total cost — one tenth of a penny on the dollar").
What is the cost of "adaptation"? It is almost incalculable. The word is a virtually meaningless euphemism in the context of catastrophic global warming. That is what the deniers and delayers simply don't understand. On our current emissions path, the country and the world faces faces multiple catastrophes, including:
I think Hurricane Katrina gives the lie to the adaptation myth. No, I'm not saying humans are not adaptable. Nor am I saying global warming caused Hurricane Katrina, although warming probably did make it a more intense. But on the four-year anniversary of Katrina — and the three year anniversary of Climate Progress's initial launch — I'm saying Katrina showed the limitations of adaptation as a response to climate change, for several reasons.
First, the citizens of New Orleans "adapted" to Hurricane Katrina, but I'm certain that every last one of them wishes we had prevented the disaster with stronger levees. The multiple catastrophes — extreme drought, extreme flooding, extreme weather, extreme temperatures — that global warming will bring can be suffered through, but I wouldn't call it adaptation.
Second, a classic adaptation strategy to deal with rising sea levels is levees. Yet even though we knew that New Orleans would be flooded if the levees were overtopped and breached, even though New Orleans has been sinking for decades, we refused to spend the money to "adapt" New Orleans to the threat. We didn't make the levees able to withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane (Katrina was weaker at landfall than that, but the storm surge was that of a category 4).
Third, even now, after witnessing the devastation of the city, we still refuse to spend the money needed to strengthen the levees to withstand a category 5 hurricane. We refuse to spend money on adaptation to preserve one of our greatest cities, ensuring its destruction, probably sometime this century.
If we won't adapt to the realities of having one city below sea level in hurricane alley, what are the chances we are going to adapt to the realities of having all our great Gulf and Atlantic Coast cities at risk for the same fate as New Orleans — since sea level from climate change will ultimately put many cities, like Miami, below sea level? And just how do you adapt to sea levels rising 6 to 12 inches a decade for centuries, which is the fate we risk by 2100 if we don't reverse greenhouse gas emissions trends soon. Climate change driven by humans GHGs is already happening much faster than past climate change from natural causes — and it is accelerating.
The fact is, the deniers don't believe climate change is happening, and the the delayers don't take the climate change impacts above seriously, so they don't believe in spending serious money on adaptation. The Center for American Progress has written an important paper on hurricane preparedness, which is a good starting point for those who are serious about adaptation.
But don't be taken in by heartfelt expressions of faith in human adaptability. If Katrina shows us anything, it is that preventing disaster would be considerably less expensive — and more humane — than forcing future generations to "adapt to" an unending stream of disasters.
Finally, a major new study finds the cost of adaptation — and the costs of inaction — are far, far higher than anyone thought. Duh! Since it provides strong economic and analytical support for my analysis here, I will blog on it soon.
Posted: 28 Aug 2009 12:37 PM PDT
On August 23, 2005, a tropical depression formed 175 miles southeast of Nassau. By the next day, it had grown into tropical storm Katrina and was intensifying rapidly. Early in the evening on August 25, Hurricane Katrina made landfall near North Miami Beach. Even though it was only a Category 1 storm, with sustained wind speeds of about 80 miles per hour, it caused significant damage and flooding, and took 14 lives.
The hurricane's quick nighttime trip across Florida barely fazed the storm. Entering the Gulf of Mexico's warm waters quickly kicked Katrina into overdrive, like a supercharged engine on high-octane fuel. Hurricanes fuel themselves by continually sucking in and spinning up warm, moist air.
On August 28, Katrina reached Category 5 status, with sustained wind speeds of 160 mph and a pressure of 908 millibars. A few hours later, wind speeds hit 175 mph, which they maintained until the afternoon.
At 4:00 pm, the National Hurricane Center warned that local storm surges could hit 28 feet, and "Some levees in the Greater New Orleans Area could be overtopped," a warning that was tragically ignored by federal, state, and local emergency officials. Over the next 14 hours, Katrina's strength dropped steadily. When the hurricane's center made landfall Monday morning, it was a strong Category 3, battering coastal Louisiana with wind speeds of about 127 mph. The central pressure of 920 millibars was the third lowest pressure every recorded for a storm hitting the U.S. mainland.
The devastation to the Gulf region was biblical. The death toll exceeded 1300. The damage exceeded $100 billion. [Combined with the effects of Hurricane Rita] two million people were forced to leave their homes, more than were displaced during the 1930's Dust Bowl. One of the nation's great cities was devastated.
About 20 miles to the west of the second Gulf landfall was the small town named Pass Christian, Mississippi, where my brother lived with his wife and son.
Tropical cyclones in the northern hemisphere rotate counterclockwise, and so the most intense storm surge is just to the east of the eye, because the surge represents the intense winds pushing the sea against the shore. A 30-foot wall of water with waves up to 55 feet crashed over the town. Although my brother and his family lived one mile inland, their house was ravaged with water up to 22 feet high, leaving the contents of the house looking like they had been churned "inside of a washing machine," in my brother's words. While they lost virtually all their possessions, they were safe in a Biloxi shelter.
Thanks to the generosity of many people, my brother's family was able to find a temporary home in Atlanta. But like many families whose lives were ripped apart by the storm, they had difficult choices in the ensuing months. Perhaps the toughest decision was whether to rebuild their home or to uproot themselves and try to create a new life somewhere else.
I very much wanted to give my brother an expert opinion on what was likely to come in the future. After all, climate change was my field, and while my focus has been on climate solutions, I had done my Ph.D. thesis on physical oceanography.
As I listened and talked to many of the top climate experts, it quickly became clear that the climate situation was far more dire than most people-and even many scientists, myself included-realized. Almost every major climate impact was occurring faster than the computer models had suggested. Arctic sea ice was shrinking far faster than every single model had projected. And the great ice sheets of Greenland and West Antarctica were shedding ice decades earlier than the models said. Soils appear to be losing their ability to take up carbon dioxide faster than expected. At the same time, global carbon dioxide emissions and concentrations were rising faster than most had expected.
As for hurricanes, global warming had been widely projected to make them more intense and destructive, but again the recent increase in intensity was coming sooner than the computer models had suggested. Why is that a concern? Since 1970, the temperature of the Atlantic Ocean's hurricane-forming region has risen 0.5°C (0.9°F). Over the path of a typical hurricane, this recent ocean warming added the energy equivalent of a few hundred thousand Hiroshima nuclear bombs. On our current emissions path, the Atlantic will warm twice as much, another 1°C, by mid-century, and perhaps another 2°C beyond that by century's end. Who can even imagine the hurricane seasons such warming might bring?
This is what I ultimately told my brother, the same advice I would give anyone contemplating living near the Gulf Coast:
[This is excerpted from my book, Hell and High Water. The description of Katrina is from two terrific sources: Grauman et al., Hurricane Katrina: A Climatological Perspective, Technical Report 2005-01, NCDC, October 2005, update Jan 06, and Richard D. Knabb, Jamie R. Rhome, and Daniel P. Brown, Tropical Cyclone Report: Hurricane Katrina, 23-30 August 2005, National Hurricane Center 20 December 2005.]
Subsequently, the scientific literature has supported the view that human-caused global warming is "more likely than not" partly responsible for the fact that "In the period 1971–2005, since the beginning of a trend towards increased intense cyclone activity, [economic] losses excluding socio-economic effects show an annual increase of 4% per annum" (see here).
I have further elaborated on the growing threat to the Gulf from warming-driven superstorms:
And the literature also supports that analysis:
Needless to say, sea level rise will turn many other coastal cities into sitting ducks pre-Katrina New-Orleans:
Posted: 28 Aug 2009 11:32 AM PDT
Posted: 28 Aug 2009 10:10 AM PDT
I'm reposting this piece by Ryan Grim, which was on the front page of Huffington Post yesterday. This is a new analysis from The Nature Conservancy of the temperature and precipitation impact on the country of staying on our current emissions path. The darkest red on the map is where average annual warming greater than 10°F. The results are very similar to "Definitive NOAA-led report on U.S. climate impacts warns of scorching 9 to 11°F warming over most of inland U.S. by 2090 with Kansas above 90°F some 120 days a year." I changed the HuffPost headline since this is really just a map of where warming will be the greatest. Where "climate change" (including all the impacts) will hit the hardest is a tougher to say, but Florida and Louisiana probably top that list. To bad three of the four senators from those states are also likely to vote for inaction and hence inundation.
Note: If you want to see how the deniers mock one more warning of what's to come, read "Exclusive Weekly Standard Climate Change Projection."
The politics of climate change are difficult in the Senate, it's often said, because it's a regional issue: coal state senators are afraid their economies will be driven under if the price of dirty energy rises too quickly.
Climate change is, in fact, a regional issue, but not in the short-term way that the coal senators think, according to new analysis from The Nature Conservancy. The environmental group finds that rural Midwestern states will face the greatest consequences of climate change. The three that will face the steepest rise in temperature — Kansas, Nebraska and Iowa — are farm states whose soil will be significantly less productive as temperatures rise more than 10 degrees Fahrenheit there by 2100.
The rise by by 2050 — only 41 years from now — is also projected to be substantial. (Click here for an interactive map of the analysis.)
The two Republican senators from Kansas, which will be most ravaged by climate change, are unlikely to support legislation addressing it.
Sen. Sam Brownback, who is retiring from the Senate but continues to have statewide ambitions, has said that humanity has a religious imperative to reduce climate emissions, but he has also signed on to the "No Climate Tax Pledge" being pushed by Americans for Prosperity, which opposes climate change legislation. The pledge says that Brownback will "oppose legislation relating to climate change that includes a net increase in government revenue" — which means any of the plans currently being considered.
Sen. Pat Roberts will also be a difficult vote for advocates to score.
In Nebraska, Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson often works to pull legislation in a more conservative direction and Sen. Mike Johanns (R-Neb.) isn't clamoring to support taking action to address climate change. Nelson signed a letter in June, along with nine other Democrats concentrated in the Midwest, saying he couldn't support the current version of the bill and outlining principles that would need to be met to get his vote.
Republican Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the state that will face the third worst catastrophe, will be a key player on the Finance Committee, which hopes to claim jurisdiction over the distribution of the revenue that will be raised through a cap and trade system. His Democratic counterpart, Sen. Tom Harkin, is a much more likely yes vote.
The consequences to these farm states will be far reaching. As droughts become more common, their soil and climate will begin to look more like their neighbors' to the south in Texas and Mexico.
The ten-degree rise in temperature in the three states assumes that carbon emissions will continue their rate of increase. If the world's population somehow manages to reverse greenhouse gas emissions, the temperature is still expected to rise more than three degrees, which would still devastate those states' economies. A study released Thursday by Columbia University adds further concern about the viability of soybeans, corn and cotton — the expected temperature rise over the next century from even a slow warming scenario could decrease crop yields by 30 to 46 percent.
"To many, climate change doesn't seem real until it affects them, in their backyards," said Jonathan Hoekstra, director of climate change for The Nature Conservancy. "In many states across the country, the weather and landscapes could be nearly unrecognizable in 100 years."
Here is the map from the 13-agency NOAA-led impacts report.
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