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Climate Case Studies – Hurricane Sandy (1)

By: Dr. Ricky Rood, 7:19 PM GMT on November 12, 2012

Climate Case Studies – Hurricane Sandy (1)

Hurricane / Superstorm Sandy provides a case study of how climate impacts us. Such events demonstrate how many aspects of day-to-day life are interconnected, and how massive disruptions to that day-to-day life have both short-term and long-term consequences.

Previously I have written about the 2010 Pakistani Flood and Russian Heat Wave as climate case studies. In both the Pakistani and Russian cases there was damage across great swaths of land. In the case in Pakistan, there was loss of built infrastructure in regions of political unrest. In the case of Russia, there was threat to the wheat crop that propagated through commodity markets, which caused increases in food prices in, for example, Egypt. In the case of Hurricane Sandy there was great loss along the New Jersey Shore and in New York City. Though limited to a relatively small portion of the U.S., this part of the U.S. is highly populated, with great importance to the industrial and financial base of the country.

If a person chose, then a person could look at the impacts of Hurricane Sandy and maintain that the impacts of hurricane Sandy are due to there being too many people too close to the coast. They can then argue that this is a matter of bad planning, or choices that people make knowing that there is risk. This is a frequent argument made by those trying to dismiss the importance of climate change. The argument being, that this is “just weather,” and we have too many people who are in the wrong place. A focus on only population does not, in fact, make any statement about climate or climate change.

People have always lived with their climate, and the successes and failures of societies and civilizations have been influenced by climate. In the case of New York and New Jersey, some people will stay and some people will move. It may be that the people who stay and rebuild will make decisions of climate adaptation. Perhaps they will have higher sea walls, build on stilts, get rid of the basement, or build wetland buffers. They might demand governmental response. The people who move are adapting to the climate as well. They may have resources and decide that it is too risky to stay next to the sea. They may have no resources and can only retreat - to become climate refugees.

A comparison of Hurricane Sandy in New York and New Jersey and the 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans provides numerous useful contrasts. New Orleans is a city where great portions are below sea level. It is protected by levees that are themselves an adaptation to climate. These levees have been designed as a response to both flooding of the Mississippi River and to the historic hurricanes. The challenges in New Orleans are amplified by a wide array of water management and water use practices that have caused the city to sink. The natural barriers that might help protect New Orleans, especially the wetlands, have been managed and destroyed in way that increases the city’s vulnerability. Not only has the city’s vulnerability been increased, but also we have placed in those former wetlands houses and a large amount of the nation’s petroleum infrastructure. Thus we make ourselves direct risks of known extremes of climate.

Again, if a person takes a narrow view, then the argument could be made that the impacts of Katrina are the result of poor land use, poor environmental engineering, and people making decisions to live too close to the sea. However, this is an oversimplification of a complex problem; it ignores climate. People have already taken climate into account in their planning; they built levees. They already have proof from the present disaster that what they did was not enough. Therefore, it is logical that if they decide to persist in the same place, then they need to take climate into account in a different and more important way.

An important difference between hurricanes Katrina and Sandy is that people of wealth and insurance were more notably impacted in New York. A greater portion of poor people was damaged in New Orleans. The poor people had often not made the decision to live in low-lying areas near the sea because they liked low-lying areas near the sea. Their decision was made by affordability, and a requirement for short-term affordability to make a way of life. They are guided to their climate adaptation decisions by a lack of wealth. The well to do and the insured will be able to rebuild. The cost of the environmental disaster – the cost of climate - will be mitigated by insurance. This is also climate adaptation. I note that insurance companies are one of the sectors of our commercial enterprise that is most actively incorporating climate change knowledge into their business. This is climate-change adaptation, and it will change people’s behavior on the decisions that they make.

The concept that Hurricane Katrina lit in my mind was the how our response to climate change will likely be motivated by a series of climate disasters. Each hit will be a blow, and each blow will cause us to accumulate a bit more climate fatigue. The current method of building resilience to climate disruption, buying insurance, will fall to the side as insurance companies refuse to write policies in areas with high climate risk. They will see this risk growing either through model projections of climate change, or through the increasing number of Sandy-like events. This wealth-laden approach to adaptation is short-sighted, and it will prove inadequate. The impact of hurricanes in rich parts of the U.S. is often a small economic revitalization fueled by insurance and rebuilding. This will not always be the case, as the cost of insurance and rebuilding gets too high.

So the question arises, are we so entrenched that we have to rely on a series of climate disasters to show us the cost and to light up the path to address climate change? Our current approach to energy policy and land-use policy assures that our climate-related disasters will get larger. There will be increasingly frequent economic blows to fragile economies. There will be more frequent threats on the scale of the Pakistani floods and the Russian heat wave, which might bypass economies and go directly to nation stability. In a small way, Sandy showed us that using information from models to plan helps us reduce damage and risk. That is what the projections from climate change models provide us, the ability to smartly address the question of how do we carry our current adaptations to climate risk in the future of a changed climate.


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The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.