It has been a sobering month of news about climate change. A few weeks ago the National Climate Assessment was released, which documented the increasing impacts of the changing climate across the U.S. The take away of the Assessment report was climate change is happening now and it is affecting all Americans. Meanwhile, new research reported in Science Magazine this month indicated we have already committed the world to over three meters of sea level rise, as a result of the irreversible disintegration of the West Antarctic Ice sheet – and now there is nothing we can do to avoid this level of rise in the sea. Together these stories are contributing to an ever clearer picture that the ‘here and now’ of the climate crisis is inextricably intertwined with the ‘distant and future.’
For many Americans increasingly focused on the hyper-local and hyper-now, these sorts of reports are difficult to process, and the risks of our changing climate are often imperceptible. Occasionally, a big climate-related event crashes down on American communities and acts as a temporary wake-up call to the risks posed by climate change. For example, nine years ago, Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans killing nearly 2,000 people and resulting in $81 billion of damage. Katrina shook the nation. Americans watched the devastation in disbelief as it seemed more reminiscent of the disasters that take place in the developing world, not in the United States of America.
Then came Superstorm Sandy, the wildfires and ‘biblical floods’ in Colorado, and the prolonged drought throughout the much of the nation. All of these events led to a temporary upsurge of interest in global warming by news media and the American public.
Do these moments provide opportunities to build a culture that looks beyond the hyper local and hyper now – to the distant here and the future now so critical for building a global society resilient to global environmental changes?
The immediate question that arises after mega-weather related disasters is: Are these extreme events the result of the changing climate? While scientists cannot say that any specific extreme weather event was caused by human-induced climate change,one thing we can say with certainty is that most of the devastation from both Katrina and Sandy was the direct result of human activities. Poorly planned coastal development exposed populations and economic assets to storm damage. Much of New Orleans sits several feet below sea level.
Despite an extensive levee system city officials knew that they faced considerable riskof flooding from coastal storm surge – it was not a question of if, it was a question of when. The same can be said about Sandy. New York had been given warnings of its vulnerabilities. William S. Nechamen, New York State’s floodplain chief, warned in 2006that New York could face “higher than necessary flood damages” if efforts were not made to upgrade the city’s flood maps. Yet despite Nechamen’s warning, FEMA decided to save money in New York City by digitizing old flood maps rather than updating the maps using the newest available science and technology. These decisions reflect the deep-rooted reluctance to think and plan beyond the here and now, and ultimately one of society’s biggest hurdles in addressing climate change.
Another huge hurdle that Americans need to overcome if we want out children to live in a society of peace and prosperity, is the recognition that community disaster risk management is no longer just a local issue; it has now become an issue of global security and economic stability. This is because local economies, ecologies and human health are now all connected by the continuous ebb and flow of goods and services as well as the ebbs and flows of the ‘bads and disservices.’
The shock of Hurricane Sandy was felt well beyond the US eastern shorelines as the resulting two day shutdown of the New York Stock Exchange had ripple effects across global economies. Similarly, the 2011 floods in Thailand and the 2013 typhoon in the Philippines were a reminder of the vulnerability of global supply chains to local weather disasters. And consider an event like the 2010 floods in Pakistan which destroyed 1.8 million homes and killed over 1,700 people. These floods impacted the poorest parts of Pakistan where extremists and separatist movements thrive. As a result this devastation created not only a humanitarian crisis but also a national security crisis for Pakistan, and a potential regional and international security threat for the world.
The international community must begin to approach the risks of local climate and weather-related disasters as a global threat. American must begin to recognize that reducing vulnerability to climate risks in any community is ultimately contributing to the economic and human security for the world.
We have to be smarter about preparing for climate change—both at home and abroad: if we’re not, climate disasters abroad will increasingly mean problems for us here at home.
Article by Amy Luers, Director of Climate Change, Skoll Global Threats Fund