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Today’s Irrational Policies Increase the Costs of Tomorrow’s Storms

by Brent Blackwelder

BlackwelderBoth the House and Senate have passed over $50 billion in emergency supplemental appropriations bills to deal with the disaster caused by Hurricane Sandy last fall. New Jersey, New York City, and Long Island were particularly hard hit by the giant storm that measured over one thousand miles in diameter. Who is going to pay for all this and how many extreme weather events will the federal government be expected to rectify through relief and reconstruction?

The Hurricane Sandy legislation (which President Obama is expected to sign) sets a bad precedent because it mixes emergency relief measures, which most people strongly favor, with longer-term reconstruction measures that will enrich developers and exempt coastal projects from key legal requirements. This approach is a formula for maximizing the amount of damage when the next coastal storm slams ashore.

The U.S. urgently needs to develop better storm disaster plans to replace the inadequate and misguided plans of the agencies that deal with disasters. The storm record, marked by a dramatic increase in violent weather events over the last half century, offers evidence to support the need for improved planning (see a graph of the data). From 1900 until 1970 the annual number of such events was below 100, but since 1970 the number has jumped to over 300 a year, and several times it has soared above 500.

Better planning can lessen the damage caused by storms like Hurricane Sandy.

Better planning can lessen the damage caused by storms like Hurricane Sandy.

Today’s damages along the coast are similar to the flood damages throughout inland portions of the U.S. fifty years ago. The special Task Force on Federal Flood Control Policy reported in 1966 to President Lyndon Johnson that the more the country spent on flood control projects, the worse damages became. An effective policy for flood control, the Task Force said, would result in flood damages (inflation-adjusted dollars) leveling off or declining. This report sparked activists, including me, to demand fundamental changes, and we obtained important reforms. But these lessons are being overlooked in the rush to secure and spend money on shoreline projects.

To give a green light and billions of dollars to the Army Corps of Engineers for coastal engineering and beach replenishment schemes turns a blind eye to the agency’s propensity for shoreline boondoggles. It is one thing to obtain emergency relief money, but another to expect taxpayers to fund the reconstruction of everything that was damaged. Some structures should be rebuilt and some should not. A good plan would make this determination. For example, on some level, it might make sense to armor-plate Lower Manhattan to protect dense urban development, but not to do the same along the Jersey Shore or the Long Island coast.

But then again, according to Duke University professor Orrin Pilkey, when the Army Corps of Engineers tries to abate flooding by constructing sea walls, the most common outcome is beach erosion and significant shore steepening. Plus a deeper offshore zone brings larger waves and the potential for more damage. At the time Hurricane Sandy struck, the Atlantic Ocean was a foot higher than its level in 1900 (see a graph of sea level rise). The rapidly melting ice sheet on Greenland could cause a rise of another 20 feet. The coast is becoming more susceptible over time, and the responses being proposed are inadequate.

A better approach, more in step with the scale of the problem, would be to run the economy based on true costs and the principles of sustainability. But Congress seems to be asleep. In the debate about the “fiscal cliff,” instead of attempting to enact 1.6% across-the-board spending cuts (an attempt that failed anyway), Congress could have proposed a carbon tax. Such a tax would have directly targeted greenhouse gas emissions, the systemic cause of this disaster and other extreme weather events around the world.

Even if a carbon tax is too bold for lawmakers to consider, they can at least take a sensible intermediate step: assemble a panel of experts with no conflicts of interest to recommend a long-term approach for protecting America’s coastlines and preserving beaches for both recreation and wildlife habitat. Sound policy calls for damage prevention and reduction in contrast to the Congressionally approved program of storm damage enhancement.

Climate Change Trumps Terrorism as Threat to National Security

by Brent Blackwelder

Climate destabilization eclipses all other security threats to human civilization except for a major nuclear war. But the current global economy gives no signals to investors and consumers about the profound implications of climate destabilization on water cycles, agriculture, and humanity’s ability to grow food for seven billion people.

The latest weather disaster, the monster Hurricane Sandy, demonstrated that changing environmental conditions pose a huge threat to U.S. security and stability. In the aftermath of the storm, thousands of people in New York and New Jersey face grim conditions, with $50 billion in damages, over 20,000 homeless, and some dying of hypothermia.

The American public, however, has been conditioned to think of national security in terms of terrorist threats. The Washington Post’s veteran Pentagon reporter Greg Jaffe makes the case that the world has never been safer, if security is to be measured by acts of human sabotage and terrorism. Jaffe asserts that according to “most relevant statistics, the United States — and the world — have never been safer… global terrorism has barely touched most Americans in the decade since Sept. 11, 2001.”

Jaffe appropriately criticizes presidential candidates and other politicians for exaggerating the national security threat from terrorism because they want to “cast themselves as potential saviors in an increasingly dangerous world.” During this time, he notes, more U.S. citizens have been crushed to death by furniture and televisions falling on them than have been killed in terrorist attacks (Washington Post 11/4/12).

Despite the way politicians are talking about national security, the reality is that over the past twenty years, national security has become more closely tied to environmental factors such as energy, water, food, and climate disruption. President Clinton’s State Department made the formal acknowledgment that deteriorating environmental conditions can cause conflicts and constitute threats to stability.

Hurricane Sandy comes ashore.

Rampaging global weather disasters pose serious challenges to governments around the world. According to Swiss Re, the world’s largest reinsurance company, twenty to forty percent of losses from disasters are uninsured. The company says economic losses from climate-related disasters are substantial and rising. One news release states, “Over the last 40 years global insured losses from climate-related disasters have jumped from an annual USD 5 billion to approximately USD 60 billion.” Another news release says that “without further investments in adaptation, climate risks could cost nations up to 19% of their GDP by 2030, with developing countries the most vulnerable.”

To address the root causes we must move from our current global system of cheater economics and casino economics to a true-cost economy. In a true-cost sustainable economy, the climate-disrupting effects of coal and oil would be factored into their prices, and prices would rise beyond most people’s idea of affordability. Ironically, the current method for calculating national economic well-being (GDP), counts the billions spent on fixing storm damages as a plus.

In the presidential debates Romney and Obama competed to see who could be more supportive of oil and gas and who would accelerate the movement of tar sands oil from Canada the fastest. It was as if they were saying, “Let’s see who can generate the most greenhouse gases the fastest and create even more gigantic storms and weather disruptions.”

The extraction of tar sands oil is devastating the homes of native people in Canada and creating a wasteland scene reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. Utilization of such a filthy fuel on the scale now being advocated means “game over for the climate,” according to NASA climate scientist James Hansen.

At least the victorious President Obama stressed that he wanted more renewable energy, whereas Romney opposed wind power, belittled concerns about climate destabilization, and joked about rising sea levels. Now is the time to demand that Obama fulfills the clean-energy promise he made in his first term. Along the way, we might even alleviate some threats to national security that are already on our shores.