Thursday, August 27, 2009

Climate change adaptation and the lessons of Hurricane Katrina.

The fourth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall in the Gulf Coast passed this weekend with news about the state of the New Orleans economy, the ongoing recovery effort, and a presidental radio address. The common thread in all of the analysis is the magnitude of the challenge in coordinating and implementing better "hurricane preparedness" plan for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

The potentially catastrophic impact of a category three or stronger hurricane on New Orleans was no secret before Katrina hit. The knowledge that the levees and storm protection systems were inadequate to withstand a large storm surge did not spur investment to improve the infrastructure, restore the coastal wetlands and/or a prepare a better emergency management plan. Four years hence, despite the very real evidence of Katrina, the US government is still struggling to ensure New Orleans is protected from another category three or stronger hurricane.

This is the challenge of adapting to climate change. This is why I argue that "adapting to climate change is far more difficult and far more expensive than most people and most supposed experts assume."

There are really two separate questions to ask. First, are we capable of adapting to climate change? Second, will we actually implement the adaptation activities?

Forget for a moment the scientific uncertainty about how climate change will affect hurricane frequency and strength. Instead, think simply about today. Think about adapting our society and our infrastructure to deal with hurricanes, or another climate event, that happen under the background natural variability in the climate system.

Are we as a society investing the time and the money to construct the social and physical infrastructure required to minimize the impact of hurricanes (or other extreme events)? Moreover, are we investing even more time and money to construct the social and physical infrastructure in developing nations that are currently far more vulnerable to extreme events?
Finally, are these efforts successful?

Look at how difficult it is for the wealthiest country in the world to develop the necessary protection in one of its own cities. Even if the will is there, and the money is there, it may not happen. President Obama's address dealt with the challenge of coordinating such a large effort:

To complete a complex recovery that addresses nearly every sector of society, we have prioritized coordination among different federal agencies, and with state and local governments. No more turf wars – all of us need to move forward together, because there is much more work to be done. I have also made it clear that we will not tolerate red tape that stands in the way of progress, or the waste that can drive up the bill. Government must be a partner – not an opponent – in getting things done.

This is, again, in a wealthy nation four years after a storm that any meteorologist or atmospheric science student could have told you would happen one day. Now imagine doing this not just at home, but also for other less-developed countries through complex international aid, with imperfect knowledge of the future climate. Adapting to climate change will not be simple. Even with the ability and the resources, it might not happen.

That is the message of point #3 in the three themes of Maribo post.

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