In the aftermath of the real super-storm (or hurricane) Sandy, there has been, not surprisingly, a super-storm of reporting, opinionating, blogging, and twittering. This is good – there is, in certain quarters at least, some kind of debate going on. However, I have a problem, and so, to wrap up the current sequence of the ongoing theme, I will add my two cents to the maelstrom.
The cover, above, from a recent issue of Bloomberg Business Week illustrates my problem quite well. Putting aside my resentment at being addressed as stupid (I’m sure it wasn’t meant personally), I should say that the cover article is good in many respects. It begins, perhaps a little petulantly, “Yes, yes, it’s unsophisticated to blame any given storm on climate change” and goes on to declare that “Clarity, however, is not beyond reach. Hurricane Sandy demands it…” Then, in my opinion, it fails in its own quest for clarity by confounding two vital issues, two problems, both of which need to be urgently addressed – although these problems are related, the paths to successfully addressing them are distinct, and this distinction is lost in the furore. And Bloomberg are not alone.
The challenge of managing our coasts is not
the same as the challenge of “managing” climate change. We urgently need a
rigorous, evidence-based, approach to developing policy on both – but with
the recognition that the solutions are distinct. Coastal management policy
should be informed by analysis of the changing climate but should not
be dependent on it. Successfully addressing global warming is neither a pre-requisite nor the solution for coastal management.
Here’s a simple summary of my argument (not that I claim any intellectual property rights whatsoever – I am simply following the logic of the experts):
- The consequences of the damage caused by even a relatively modest storm such as Sandy are socially, financially, economically, and environmentally unsustainable.
- More – and more violent – storms are inevitable, regardless of global warming, and their frequency and targets impossible to predict.
- It is likely that warming oceans are exacerbating the strength and frequency of storms and hurricanes such as Sandy – but then the situation is arguably bad enough already.
- Any hoped-for global action to address global warming will operate on a timeframe that is irrelevant to storm frequency in the foreseeable future and the consequent immediate coastal management issues.
- Fundamental reform of the current free-for-all in coastal development needs to be an immediate and local issue, distinct from any longer-term actions to reduce emissions and ameliorate climate change.
So when a video report included in the Bloomberg piece tells me that “our cover story this week may generate controversy, but only among the stupid,” I have to take exception. It’s not that they don’t hit many of the components – insurance costs and so on - and their message that “We have to pay attention” is, of course, correct. Their concluding statement is absolutely correct: “The U.S. can’t afford regular Sandy-size disruptions in economic activity. To limit the costs of climate-related disasters, both politicians and the public need to accept how much they’re helping to cause them.” But, at the same time, there’s my problem – Sandy was a “climate-related disaster” independent of climate change; and yes, “politicians and the public need to accept how much they’re helping to cause them,” but the immediate cause of the scale of the disaster is not inactivity on climate change.
I really don’t mean for this to be tirade against the Bloomberg article – after all, it succeeded in its intention to be controversial, and that’s a good thing; it’s simply symptomatic of what I feel is a muddying of the waters. But let’s clarify what we should be arguing about. Bill Hooke at Living on the Real World hit the proverbial nail on the head in “Hurricane Sandy’s Real Lesson…will we learn it?”:
America needs a comparable national effort and accompanying long-term investment in reducing the need for emergency response on such a grand scale.
The need for emergency response will never go away. But we shouldn’t resign ourselves to the idea that emergencies will necessarily continue to grow in scope, number and impact, just because our society is growing in numbers, in property exposure, and in economic activity. We can grow our society’s resilience to such events. We can reduce the geographical extent and the population adversely affected by future events.
Exactly (except that it’s not just about America). The issue is resilience – and adaptation, and sustainability.
And some further words of wisdom from Rob Young, often quoted in this blog, from a New York Times piece, “As Coasts Rebuild and U.S. Pays, Repeatedly, the Critics Ask Why”:
“The best thing that could possibly come out of Sandy is if the political establishment was willing to say, ‘Let’s have a conversation about how we do this differently the next time,’ ” said Dr. Young, a coastal geologist who directs the Program for the Study of Developed Shorelines at Western Carolina University. “We need to identify those areas — in advance — that it no longer makes sense to rebuild.”
That’s one urgent issue. Climate change is another one.
From Judith Kildow (who directs the National Ocean Economics Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies), and Jason Scorse, an associate professor of economics at the institute, in a New York Times opinion piece a couple of days ago:
IT’S no surprise that it can be very expensive to live near the ocean. But it may come as a surprise to American taxpayers that they are on the hook for at least $527 billion of vulnerable assets in the nation’s coastal flood plains. Those homes and businesses are insured by the federal government’s National Flood Insurance Program.
You read that right: $527 billion, which is just a portion of the program’s overall liability of $1.25 trillion, second only to Social Security in the liabilities on the government’s ledgers last year, according to government data.
…The bottom line is that the flood insurance program is a fiscal time bomb for the government.
We should phase out the program, begin thinking strategically about how to shift populations away from the most risky coastal areas, and use the best available science to update the woefully out-of-date coastal-zone risk profiles that government agencies currently rely on to determine danger. We also need to encourage more stringent building codes that take into account the full range of climate risks.
Which is also precisely what Michael Gerrard, director of the Columbia Center for Climate Change Law emphasised in his recent piece “What Hurricane Sandy was not.” Herewith, his conclusion – which, you will be relieved to know, I shall use as mine:
The prospect of future storms like Sandy is not something where our best future course of action at all plain and obvious. The magnitude of public investments that has been discussed is immense, and these projects must compete against a great many other compelling priorities. The land use decisions we face are heartbreaking — we seem to be left with a choice between rebuilding communities in places that will continue to be vulnerable to storms like Sandy, or not rebuilding them and requiring their residents and the rest of us to lose an immense amount of what we value. Perhaps a small fraction of the tens of billions of dollars we’re talking about for sea walls and flood gates should go to offering to buy out the homeowners in the extremely vulnerable areas — that should probably be on the table. After the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Chile in 2010, serious land use restrictions were imposed on coastal areas that continue to be vulnerable to such events. That, too, should be on the table. Some really tough decisions lie ahead — and failure to make a decision is itself a decision, but often the worst one.