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William S. Becker

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Can We Handle Nature's New Norm? (Part 1)

Posted: 08/31/11 01:14 PM ET

The term "perfect storm" is overused now, but it is the perfect metaphor for the violent relationship between people and the environment today. We are experiencing a convergence of factors that are putting us at great risk. For example:

o Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe.

o The big public works projects we built to protect us from natural disasters over the past century may no longer be affordable or the best option.

o The idea that we can bulldozer natural systems into submission and live wherever we wish has put millions of Americans in harms way.

o Weather-related disasters are becoming a clear and present danger to security at home and abroad.

o Our national leaders generally seem oblivious to this mounting danger, or in denial that it is real, allowing politics and flat-earth ideology to prevail over common sense.

o Even if our politicians were willing to unify around a national response to extreme weather, budget problems have greatly diminished governments' capacity to act.

In this three-part post, I'll weave together data from a variety of sources and experts to explore whether we are ready to cope with nature's new norm.

* * *

The threshold question is whether the historic storms, drought, fires, floods and hurricanes we're seeing today are aberrations, or the beginning of an epoch of angry weather? Evidence suggests the latter. But the majority party in the House of Representatives and most of the politicians running for president subscribe to the aberration theory.

Shortly after he announced his candidacy for president in August, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was caught on tape commenting on the drought that is killing crops, cattle and family businesses in his state. As he spoke, Texas was suffering from a period of drought that so far has lasted, off and on, for 15 years. Seventy-eight percent of Texas was suffering from "exceptional drought." Farmers and ranchers were expecting to lose $10 billion this year waiting for rain.

That's not all. Texas has been on fire. Since the current fire season started last November, the Texas Forest Service and local fire departments have been called out to fight more than 20,000 fires that have burned more than 3.5 million acres.

"We'll be fine," Perry told folks at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 15. "As my dad says, it'll rain. It always does."

That forecast was both insensitive and risky. Regrettably, it's not his father's weather any more.

Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, one of the 97 percent of climate scientists who conclude that climate change is real, sees the drought differently. "It's a new normal and I really do think that global weirding is the best way to describe what we're seeing," she says.

At a campaign event in Florida, Michele Bachmann implied that Hurricane Irene and the recent earthquakes in Colorado and on the East Coast were a message from God that government is spending too much money. In her words:

I don't know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We've had an earthquake; we've had a hurricane. He said, 'Are you going to start listening to me here?' Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we've got to rein in the spending.

Bachmann said later she meant the comment in a "humorous vein," but natural disasters are not a laughing matter. In 2010, there were more than 370 natural disasters worldwide, killing nearly 300,000 people, affecting more than 200 million others and costing nearly $110 billion.

Some of the worst natural disasters last year, for example the earthquake in Haiti, were not climate-related, but most were. Weather-related disasters are by far the most frequent type.

As Perry noted in other comments at the Iowa fair, we've always had bad weather years. What's new is that climate change apparently is adding adrenalin to other more traditional forces, and we're seeing a trend. The International Research Institute for Climate and Society estimates that worldwide financial losses from climate-related disasters increased 50 percent from 2000 to 2009, from $50 billion to $72 billion annually.

The United Nations General Assembly has become concerned enough to conduct its first-ever debate on disaster risk reduction in February 2011. "Barely a day went by without lives devastated, homes demolished, people displaced, and carefully cultivated hopes destroyed," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said of 2010. "It was one of the deadliest years in more than a generation."

The Secretary General's Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström, warns that 2010 could have been just a sample of what's in store. Last year's exceptional destruction "could be seen as benign in years to come." she says. "Unless we act now, we will see more and more disasters due to unplanned urbanization and environmental degradation. And weather-related disasters are sure to rise in the future, due to factors that include climate change."

In the United States so far this year, families and communities have been slammed with 10 weather disasters costing $1 billion or more. Damages from floods, fires, tornadoes and drought totaled $35 billion as summer ended, not counting Hurricane Irene and whatever other destructive tantrums Mother Nature throws between now and Dec. 31.

These huge costs have big implications for local and national budgets, many of them disasters in their own right. That should concern fiscal conservatives and taxpayers, as well as disaster victims who may find someday soon that the government does not have the capacity to help.

No one -- Republican, Democrat or Independent -- and no part of the country -- East, South, North or West -- is exempt from the effects of climate change, whether the impacts are destructive in seconds or slow-moving erosions of our economic vitality and quality of life.

The American Security Project has compiled state-by-state projections of the costs of unmitigated climate change, including the states represented by some of Congress's most adamant climate deniers:

o In Michigan, represented in part by Rep. Fred Upton, chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, declining water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron will threaten a shipping industry that contributes more than $3 billion in regional business and personal income. Warmer temperatures and drought are likely to adversely affect the state's $64 billion agriculture industry. Overall, the failure to mitigate climate change could cost Michigan's economy more than $18 billion and more than 100,000 jobs.

o In Kentucky, home of U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, climate change could alter or destroy 25 percent of the state's forests, harming a wood-products industry that employs 37,500 Kentuckians and adds $64 billion to the state's economy. Changes in the state's water supply are expected to harm fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing and a tourism industry that provides nearly 42,000 jobs.

o In Oklahoma, represented by Sen. James "It's a Hoax" Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment, wheat yields may decline by nearly 40 percent as temperatures exceed that crop's tolerance for heat. The failure to mitigate climate change could cost the Oklahoma economy nearly $40 billion and 312,000 jobs over the next 40 years.

Politicians who support big oil, one of the fossil fuels responsible for anthropogenic climate change, will find themselves at odds with other big industries vulnerable to climate instability, among them property and casualty insurers. According to Thomas Loster of Munich Re -- one of the big companies that insures insurers:

The number of really big weather disasters has increased four-fold if we compare the last decade to the 1960s. The economic losses have leaped seven- fold and the insured losses are 11 times greater. 


The CEO of America's largest publicly traded home insurer, Thomas Wilson of Allstate, told investors earlier this year that his company now assumes frequent extreme weather events are here to stay. "There is a lot more severe weather," he said. "We are running our homeowners business as if this is a permanent change as opposed to an anomaly."

Whatever their politics, world-view or vested interests, elected officials have a responsibility to help the American people manage the risk that extreme weather and other climate-related traumas will continue. Skepticism about climate science is no excuse. Paradoxically, the more uncertain the deniers are about climate change, the greater their responsibility to act. As researchers at Sandia National Laboratory have put it:

Policy makers will most likely need to make decisions about climate policy before climate scientists have resolved all relevant uncertainties about the impacts of climate change...Compelling risk derives from uncertainty, not certainty. The greater the uncertainty, the greater the risk. It is the uncertainty associated with climate change that validates the need to act protectively and proactively.

As I'll explain in Parts 2 and 3, reducing our climate risks will require some profound changes in the way we think and do business. The willingness to lead and facilitate those changes ought to be a perquisite for public office today. Indeed, the 2012 election season should go down in history as the Great Climate Campaign. Anything less will literally invite disaster.

Bill Becker is a senior associate at the London-based sustainability think tank E3G and at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Colorado. This post is excerpted from articles in the current issue of the Crisis Response Journal and next January's issue of the journal Solutions. http://www.thesolutionsjournal.com. For more information on how to assess and manage climate risks, see the E3G study "Degrees of Risk".

 

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