05/17/2011 04:17 pm ET Updated Jul 17, 2011

Climate Triage and the "New Normal"

Triage: the process for sorting victims into groups based on their need for or likely benefit from immediate treatment, when limited resources must be allocated.

The delay in acting to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases means that more and more anthropogenic climate changes are now unavoidable. Climate impacts are already evident and they are going to get worse and worse. It's the "new normal." In coming years, we are going to be faced with increasingly difficult decisions in what must now be called climate triage -- choices about who and what is going to be protected and saved, versus abandoned and lost.

The recent decision to open the Morganza spillway and other relief valves on the Mississippi River is a clear example of climate triage. Officials had a difficult choice: intentionally divert part of the Mississippi to flood a 3,000-square-mile area affecting more than 25,000 people, or risk even worse catastrophic flooding in Baton Rouge and New Orleans.
Society is going to be faced with more and more such decisions.

As sea levels rise, communities will have to make choices about where to build costly seawalls and what coastal properties to completely abandon. As temperatures rise, the poor and elderly will face higher risks of heat deaths if adequate resources to protect them are not made available. Increased flooding on some of the world's major rivers will threaten communities over larger areas, and more frequently, than in the past. Some agricultural lands will have to be abandoned because the climate will no longer be favorable or limited water resources will be diverted to more valuable demands. There has already been talk about "endangered species triage" in California as conflicts over water resources, land management, urban and agricultural priorities, and ecosystem protections grow, with the explicit acknowledgement that climate change will make these conflicts worse.

A recent study by the Pacific Institute on the impacts of sea-level rise on the California coast identifies half a million people already living in areas that are at risk of future flooding, hundreds of miles of roads, billions of dollars of homes and businesses, airports, wastewater treatment plants, power plants and much more. These assets cannot possibly all be protected given the level of financial resources and institutional will that will have to be found and mobilized. What will be protected and what will be abandoned? And who decides?

A few marginal, irresponsible voices still desperately deny the reality of climate change. A few argue that it's happening but due to natural causes, and a few argue that while real, climate change isn't going to be bad or else it will be too expensive to fix. But Bob Dylan said it best: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." Just look outside, as scientists have done. "Normal" is over. Climate change is now influencing every weather event.

Here's the new normal, from just a tiny set of the recent scientific papers and observations on the growing risk of extreme events: record heat waves; record flooding; more intense rainfall; disappearing Arctic ice; growing atmospheric water vapor; disappearing Antarctic ice; disappearing Arctic lakes; retreating permafrost; and Greenland shedding ice.

The insurance sector is already changing how they view, and cover, climate risks, acknowledging that climate change is already influencing weather-related catastrophes, as noted in a post on Climate Progress. Munich Re (one of the world's leading reinsurers) has said:

"The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change. The view that weather extremes are more frequent and intense due to global warming coincides with the current state of scientific knowledge".

The triage decisions along the Mississippi were part of long-term plans for the river -- we knew that some communities living in the floodplains were at risk. But climate triage decisions are going to come as a surprise to many because we've denied or ignored the risks for so long. Getting on board with that kind of thinking and planning needs to become the new normal.