Friday, June 14, 2013
Selling Global Warming - Local May Be the Key
There seems to be greater success getting through when global warming is addressed as a local issue. Sort of like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg did earlier this week in a speech delivered from a Brooklyn lighthouse damaged last fall by Hurricane Sandy:
"By mid-century, up to a quarter of all New York City’s land area, where 800,000 residents live today, will be in the flood plain,” he said, and “40 miles of our waterfront could see flooding on a regular basis just during normal high tides.” We no longer have the luxury of ideological debate, he said. “The bottom line is we can’t run the risk.”
Bloomberg used the speech to unveil a $19.5 billion adaptation programme mainly designed to protect the city from the worst impacts of sea level rise and to reinforce hospitals and essential infrastructure to withstand flooding.
Perhaps focusing on real-time adaptation strategies, real measures, concrete, tangible is essential to moving the conversation along into mitigation - serious emissions reductions, weaning ourselves off fossil fuels and shifting to alternative, clean energy.
The impacts we're seeing now (you know who I mean, Toronto) are from just 1 degree Celsius of warming and, while we're already reeling from them, we have to think of ourselves as boxers in the ring. That's just one punch, one of many to come. You've got twelve rounds to get through... if you've done enough sparring, enough conditioning, enough cardio to stand a chance. What's that? You haven't done any of those things? Oh dear.
This real time, local approach does seem to be catching hold. In Pennsylvania, for example, the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center has released a report entitled "In the Path of the Storm." It brought home climate change truths such as how, since 2007, nine out of ten Pennsylvanians have experienced at least one weather-related disaster in their home county.
In Newfoundland & Labrador the provincial government has released a report into the short- to mid-range impacts of climate change showing a mixed bag of impacts. Among the positives are fewer frost days, shorter winters, longer growing seasons. Among the negatives are severe storm events of increasing frequency and intensity, the migration of invasive pests, flooding and coastal erosion.
There is an enormous volume of truly powerful, easily accessible information coming online now. For example, Google Maps now allows a satellite view of how your neighbourhood or any part of the world has changed over the past 30-years. You can access it at the link above. Navigate to your chosen spot, zoom in, and run the slider at the bottom to view the changes that have occurred every year since 1984. As these systems improve we'll have a helpful tool to help reverse some of the landscape amnesia that impairs our ability to recognize the scope and severity of change we have experienced even over the recent past.
In the eastern U.S. people are now having to come to grips with the reality of living without flood insurance in an era that promises heavy flooding of increasing severity and frequency. A study released this week by FEMA, the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency, warns that mega-floods are not only here to stay but they'll worsen by yet another 40- to 45% over the course of this century. The report also warns that sea levels will rise by about four feet during this century. The NOAA predicts up to a six foot sea level rise.
Private insurers long ago abandoned the flood insurance market in the eastern U.S., forcing the federal government to come through for all those soshulist-hatin' Tea Baggers with a government programme, NFIP, the National Flood Insurance Program. Hurricane Katrina put NFIP in the hole for $16-billion. Hurricane Sandy increased NFIP's deficit another $25-billion and still counting. The FEMA report warns of massive future losses, concluding that losses on each insured property could increase by 90% over the course of this century.
There's a debate underway in the States over whether FEMA and NFIP relief actually worsen the future situation by encouraging people to rebuild and resettle areas that really ought to be abandoned to the sea and to the ravages of climate change. It's unfathomable that a place as treasured as New Orleans could be abandoned but the city continues to subside, sink, even as the sea level rises and major storm events become more frequent, more severe. There are a lot of people who claim the city cannot be defended forever.
What the Americans are being forced to come to grips with is a critical point that is usually overlooked - our frailty. We can consider climate change in the context of a single major event - say the flooding that has recently hit southern Ontario. But, like the boxer in the 12-round title fight, it's not a question of how we take that hard punch, what matters is how many such punches we can absorb before we hit the mat.
The Newfoundland & Labrador report, for example warns that once a century storms will now become once every fifty years or even once every twenty-five year storms. What had been once in 20-year storms will become one in five or even one in two year storms.
Across Canada we will be coming to grips with the cumulative effects of climate change, not because our governments are inclined to that sort of thing - they're not, but because we (they) won't have any choice. Whether it's sea level rise and storm surges, sustained drought or severe flooding, the cumulative impact will take a major toll on our societies on a regional basis and we won't be able to afford not to respond.
Each locality is going to have to weigh its vulnerabilities on both single event and cumulative impacts bases. In British Columbia, for example, Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, face many climate change problems that are different and often greater than the situation that faces other parts of the province. Parts of the Lower Mainland have a subsidence vulnerability. Parts have a sea level rise vulnerability and the related storm surge vulnerability. Parts of the Lower Mainland have an annual flooding vulnerability from earlier and more intense melting of interior mountain snowpacks. Logic dictates that parts of the Lower Mainland should be abandoned or cleared and rebuilt on stilts but the political will and economic imperative are not there - yet. And, despite all these growing vulnerabilities, the population of the Lower Mainland continues to swell.
Each region of each province has its own set of challenges whether it be the north, either coast, the prairies or central Canada. And it's on that regional and provincial scope that the reality of global warming will be anchored. And it is on that regional and provincial level that demands will finally be made on Ottawa to deal with global warming mitigation, i.e. major GHG emissions reductions, spurred on by the painful knowledge that while we can't undo much of what we'll have to endure from existing global warming, we can still make the ordeal very much worse for the future.