It’s Global Warming, Stupid: telling it like it is in post-Sandy USA


Sandy was an astonishing storm1. Bloomberg Businessweek has taken the opportunity to state the obvious and create one of the great magazine covers to sell the story2. It’s worth reading the magazine’s coverage3 because the usual suspects are out there trying to deny the undeniable. Sandy was a storm made worse by the fact of climate change. We all have to live with that.

While the US mops up, and reinsurers check their cash reserves, we can be sure of one thing. The worst is yet to come — and that’s not being alarmist, just pointing out the consequences of unavoidable future warming. That’s truly alarming.

  1. See Jeff Masters for some of the reasons why. []
  2. The ageing magazine editor in me doffs his hat. []
  3. Or the parsing of it at Climate Progress. []

Shelter from the storm

Towards the end of a recent Yale Environment 360 interview, following a technical discussion of hurricane formation in a changing climate, scientist Kerry Emanuelis asked a question. Given the likely increase in intensity and power of storms and sea level rises, what needs to be done now in the US to start planning for this? His answer caught my attention and set me thinking about New Zealand. Here’s what he had to say about his country:

“…we need to stop subsidizing people to live in dangerous places. The United States is one of the few places in the world that does that, and it does it heavily. So we are basically paying people to move to places where they’re at risk. And, it doesn’t make any sense…”


It’s an indirect form of subsidy whereby people living in safer places are paying perhaps 10 percent too much premium on insurance policies whereas those living in dangerous coastal regions are paying far less than the risk warrants.

He points to the irony of a so-called free market economy capping the premiums insurance companies are allowed to charge. Unsurprisingly it’s wealth and political connections which achieve regulation from legislators setting a cap. The insurance companies need premium income, so they are quietly permitted to overcharge people living inland.

“…it’s a very unfair system. It’s a net transfer of wealth from poor to rich, and the worst aspect of it is it promotes huge coastal development. And, therefore, huge damages when even ordinary storms make landfall in the United States.”

He compares this with the east coast of Taiwan, which is battered regularly by storms. There are a handful of fortresses built by wealthy people to withstand a category 5. Otherwise people build holiday plywood sea shanties which are easily replaced when they get blown away.

The subsidies provided in the US are not limited to manipulation of premiums. Emanuel adds  federal flood insurance, which pays for storm surge damage, and federal disaster relief. Yet storm damage to coastal properties is predictable disaster and risk is knowingly undertaken.

The interviewer asks what is going to happen as the century rolls on in places like Miami and the South Florida coast where development is intense and only a few feet above sea level on the beach.

“I think we know what’s going to happen. There will eventually be a hurricane there, and it will do far too much damage for the state to cover. You know, the state basically has become the insurer of property in Florida. Everybody knows that a relatively small hurricane will bankrupt the [state hurricane insurance] plan, and they will all go with hat in hand to the federal government. So the rest of us will bail them out. And so we have the situation of hard-working people in factory jobs and farmers subsidizing the landowners of Palm Beach. It’s crazy.”

I found myself thinking of what Christchurch mayor Bob Parker had to say after the earthquake when questioned as to why the City Council had permitted building on sites vulnerable to liquefaction. It was a mixed picture. Some of the building was done in the past when the phenomenon was not understood. Some more recently was done with foundations adequate to the danger. But what struck me was the fact that there were cases where the Council did not want building to go ahead but developers won out by going as far as court and winning.

It’s hopefully a reminder to us all that regulations relating to development and building should be made as tough as they need to be.  The financial costs of the damage done by the earthquake will be borne by the whole New Zealand community, and few of us would want it to be any other way. But it’s permissible to reflect that the cost and the heartbreak may have been somewhat less in newly developed areas if more stringent regulations had been in place and not vulnerable to challenge from developers.

This is an important issue for future climate change impacts in New Zealand. Coastal development is one obvious area where appropriate standards set in place now can save great expense later as the sea level rises. Local government bodies have responsibilities to avoid or manage coastal hazard risk, and the Ministry for the Environment provides guidance in the task as it relates to climate change. The document Coastal hazards and climate change: A guidance manual for local government in New Zealand is available here. It contains much useful material. It recommends a precautionary approach to new development and to changes to existing development, based on the avoidance of risk. It promotes the need to secure and promote natural coastal margins. I wrote about it in more detail here last year.

There is also a revised New Zealand Coastal Policy Statement under consideration, which includes reference to the impacts of climate change on coastal hazards. However this appears to be stalled as controversy has developed over the report of a Board of Enquiry which considered submissions on the draft document and has recommended changes to it.

It is clear that, for the present at least, much responsibility devolves on local government bodies and it’s not too difficult to imagine the pressures that they will come under. Risky new development projects will be promoted vigorously. Expensive protection will be sought for areas already developed and threatened by sea level rise and accompanying storm surge damage. It will require strong planning measures and savvy councils to ensure that the future problems from climate change facing coastal developments are not permitted to grow bigger than they already will be. One wonders whether guidance to local bodies will be sufficient. National level prohibitions may need to be brought into play, for which we would need national politicians who understand the seriousness of the risks ahead.

The impacts of climate change on New Zealand coasts may not reach the level of seriousness which confronts the US, but we would be wise to prevent the investment of financial capital and human expectations in development which will prove unsafe in the course of the century.

[Mr Zimmerman]

Fire and rain

The last few weeks have seen some extraordinary weather events around the world: relentless extreme heat in Russia, biblical flooding in Pakistan and devastating landslides in China. Tens of millions of people have had their lives disrupted and thousands have died, and — beyond reasonable doubt — global warming is playing a part in creating these extremes. But how much of a part? Michael Tobis asked this question in a recent post:

Are the current events in Russia “because of” “global warming”? To put the question in slightly more formal terms, are we now looking at something that is no longer a “loading the dice” situation but is a “this would, practically certainly, not have happened without human interference” situation?

The answer, at least in the case of the current extremes, would appear to be yes.

Continue reading “Fire and rain”

Fools rush in…

At the Heartland climate crank conference in Chicago a speaker predicts global cooling, and immediately becomes headline news for Morano and the denial echo machine. At the very same time, NOAA releases its global climate report for April, and notes that not only is April the warmest in the long term record, but that January to April is also the warmest start to any year. If you were gambling on 2010 becoming the undisputed warmest year ever, the odds just shortened considerably. As Joe Romm noted yesterday, the last 12 months is already warmer than any other 12 month period…

On the other hand, this is what Don Easterbrook thinks will happen:


Interesting graph. It might need some work, given that he seems to start all his blue lines almost 0.5ºC below where 2010 is likely to end up. I’ll bet it got warm applause from the crank crowd…

Meanwhile, Jeff Masters notes the continuing high sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic: “an eye-opening 1.46°C above average during April.” Not good news for the hurricane season…

Hat tip to Andy Revkin, first to note the delicious irony.

[Ricky Nelson]

Life in the Hothouse

“Wetlands are wastelands” was the explanation the chair of a local trust in my city gave for opposing a grant to a wetlands restoration project. He’s a rabid climate change denier and hence unlikely to read Melanie Lenart’s recently published book Life in the Hothouse: How a Living Planet Survives Climate Change. If he did he would discover how wrong he was. Not that he needed wait for her book: it has been evident for many years that wetlands are vital to ecological health. So are forests, which play an equal part in Lenart’s explanation of how Gaia, or, if you don’t like metaphor, the complex interacting system of the biosphere, responds to maintain a temperature within a range suitable for life. A scientist with a background in journalism, Lenart is well placed to provide a coherent account for the general reader of the work of a host of researchers who have explored some of the intricacies of response to warming in Earth’s ecosystems.

She opens with an interesting account of hurricanes as both a symptom of global warming and one of its cures. A warmer world is likely to mean they are more intense. She considers them from the perspective of their cooling function, helping to shift heat away from the tropics. Their destructive power, which is clearly pictured, paradoxically boosts plant life in the sea and on land through sediment stirring and transfer and so aids the drawing down of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They also contribute to carbon sinks by burying logs, soil and sediment in landslides, the ocean, and anywhere they can better escape decay.  In these respects they are one of Gaia’s natural defences to rising temperatures.

A chapter on circulation patterns explores many of the ways in which precipitation has increased in warmer climates in the past and considers the contribution of such features as the Hadley circulation between the equator and the sub-tropics. The comparative dryness of the ice ages came as a surprise to climatologists. The evidence Lenart adduces spanning the ice ages to ancient hothouses makes it clear that global precipitation rates increased as the climate warmed. This she sees as helping boost a Gaian response to changing climate, namely increased plant growth.

There follows a survey of carbon dioxide uptake by plants and trees and how various forests fared in past climates.  More carbon dioxide has meant more growth.  More precipitation and more warmth has helped that growth. The contribution of plant life in taking carbon dioxide from the air is significant.  The world’s trees alone hold nearly as much carbon as the atmosphere. In this way life becomes part of the Gaian attempt to regulate temperature.

Soils and wetlands also soak up excess carbon dioxide. Wetlands’ special talent for this is related to their remarkable productivity combined with their slow decay rates. Decay stalls in stagnant waters, including the decay of organic material from far and wide that ends up in wetlands because of their low-lying position.  The world’s soils are considered by some researchers to hold three times the amount of carbon in the vegetation growing on them. Lenart explains in detail how this happens, with coal being the prime example of the process in the distant past: carbon well sequestered until we started to extract and burn it.

Weathering is the final process Lenart considers as another method by which Earth balances its carbon dioxide ledger. It takes place over a long term and is perhaps not likely to be of much assistance in dealing with our present problems, but it’s a fascinating sequence she describes as nature’s version of acid rain works to break down rocks with a resultant carbon storage in the sea – for limited periods in the case of limestone, but more permanently in the case of basalts and granites, at least until it becomes volcano fodder.  Weathering speeds up in hot, humid climates, pulling more carbon dioxide out of the air when there is more than usual there.

I’ve scratched the surface of chapters that are packed with interesting detail about both past and present.  Lenart does an excellent job of pulling together information from numerous studies, often updated by direct communication with the experts involved, and building it into a sustained overall picture. The story is enlivened by some of her own direct experience in forest and desert. The good science writer or journalist is able to render the general reader this service in a way that the specialists engrossed in their work would be harder put to provide.

The book’s strands come together in a chapter titled systematic healing. Lenart fully subscribes to the recognition that our use of fossil fuels must be drastically cut. She’s not suggesting any alternative to that. Her particular interest is rather in how we can also work with the natural systems her book has been describing to help moderate the warming and soften the severity of its impacts. She acknowledges that is difficult in our current economy where the bottom line ignores environmental costs and overlooks environmental services. In fact the services provided to humans by wetlands and forests, including urban forests, go well beyond carbon counting. Urban forests provide shade and evaporative cooling valuable in times of elevated heat.  She refers to the efforts in Chicago to plant rooftops and increase ground tree and shrub planting as an example other cities might follow. Urban greenery not only cuts heat, but provides habitat for birds and other wildlife, insulates against noise, offers recreational possibilities and reduces air pollution including carbon dioxide. There is even some evidence that it cuts crime!

Forests on a larger scale  promote rainfall. Forests and wetlands slow down winds. Wetlands absorb storm surge and slow flooding rivers. They also purify water. Biodiversity and genetic diversity are greatly assisted by wetlands and estuaries. These and many other services are additional to the carbon capture contribution made by forests and wetlands, the protective shield a warming planet produces. Our current experiment is to interfere with the development of these natural protective processes. We are lowering biomass, lowering water tables, lowering the quantities of weathering product reaching the sea through extensive development, logging, groundwater pumping, and river diversion.

Lenart metaphorically shudders at the thought of some of the geo-engineering fixes being proposed. Why build artificial trees to chemically remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, she asks, when Gaia can make trees that provide food and shelter, sunscreen and windbreaks, and flood-control and drought-prevention services even while collecting carbon dioxide and other pollutants? She looks to a variety of forest and wetland restoration projects to restore these key systems. The more we can count on forests and wetlands to stabilise the carbon dioxide drawdown, the less pressure we put on oceans to take up the gas and thus increase their acidity. And the more we pull down greenhouse gases into forests, their soils and wetlands, the less need the planet will have for cooling hurricanes and floods. Life gets better at all scales when we boost Gaia’s natural defences.