mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Living Through The Storm

With his salt-and-pepper hair and thoughtful demeanor, Chris West
looks like just another mid-career professor as he crosses the streets
of Oxford University. But West, trained as a zoologist, is more an
activist than an academic these days. From his cramped office around
the corner from Balliol College, he directs the government‘s UK
Climate Impacts Program, which educates individuals and businesses in
Britain about the risks they face from climate change and the ways to
cope with it.

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Not long ago, West says, a DuPont executive boasted to him about how
well his company was now treating the environment. Jolly good, West
replied, but was DuPont also prepared for how the environment might
treat DuPont? “I asked how many of his company‘s 300-odd facilities
around the world were located in floodplains,” West says. Global
warming will bring increased risks to anyone located in a floodplain.
“He didn‘t know,” West recalls. “I said, ’Don‘t you think you
should?‘”

For years, global warming was discussed in the hypothetical—a threat
in the distant future. Now it is increasingly regarded as a clear,
observable fact today. This sudden shift puts all of us in the same
boat as that Dupont executive. We must start thinking about the many
ways global warming will affect us, our loved ones, our property and
our economic prospects in the years ahead. We must think—and then we
must adapt to this new reality as best we can.

When climate scientists use the word adaptation, they are referring to
actions intended to safeguard a person, community, business or country
against the effects of climate change. Its complement is
mitigation—any measure that will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, such
as drawing power from a wind turbine rather than a coal-fired power
plant. Mitigation addresses, if you will, the front end of the
global-warming problem; by cutting emissions, it aims to slow rising
temperatures. Adaptation is the back end of the problem—trying to live
with the changes in the environment and the economy that global
warming has and will continue to generate.

For years, adaptation was overlooked or disparaged in policy circles;
many complained that even discussing it was a sellout that gave
governments and others an excuse not to act. Today adaptation has
become an accepted part of the discussion. The latest report from the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), released April 6 in
Brussels, made it official. “Adaptation to climate change is now
inevitable,” says Roger Jones of the Commonwealth Scientific and
Industrial Research Organization in Australia, a co-author of the IPCC
report. “The only question is whether it will be by plan or by chaos.”
Jones, like the other contributors to the IPCC report whom I
interviewed, speaks here only for himself.

The need for adaptation is rooted in the unhappy fact that we can‘t
turn global warming off, at least not anytime soon. The momentum of
the climate system—carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for
decades, while oceans store heat for centuries—ensures that no matter
how much humanity cuts greenhouse-gas emissions, our previous
emissions will keep warming the planet for decades. Even if we were to
magically stop all emissions today, “temperatures will keep rising,
and all the impacts will keep changing for about 25 years,” says Sir
David King, chief science adviser to the British government. So while
we strive to green our economies, we must also mount a major new
effort to strengthen our resilience against the impact on the climate
that our past emissions have set in motion.

In short, global warming is bound to get worse before it gets better.
Humanity has thus entered a new era of global warming and our paradigm
for confronting it must shift accordingly. From now on, the fight
must proceed on two parallel tracks at once. The long-standing focus
on reducing greenhouse gas emissions must continue, indeed intensify;
the longer we wait to make the 80% cuts scientists say are needed, the
hotter and stormier our future will be. “Adaptation is essential, but
it has limits. It cannot be a substitute for mitigation,” says
Richard Klein of the Stockholm Environment Institute, another IPCC
co-author. But as we strive to green our economies, we must also
mount a major new effort to strengthen our resilience against the
stronger hurricanes, heat waves and other impacts that our past
emissions have set in motion.

Public discussion of global warming in the U.S. is years behind the
rest of the world, and adaptation is no exception. “You can‘t adapt to
a problem you don‘t admit exists,” notes Klein. Although the U.S. only
recently acknowledged global warming, other countries are already
taking concrete action to prepare for its impact. The Netherlands has
some of the strongest flood defenses in the world and is making them
stronger. Britain has doubled spending on flood and coastal-defense
management, to about $1 billion a year. France, Spain, Finland and the
European Union have launched less ambitious adaptation initiatives.
Even Bangladesh, one of the world‘s poorest nations, is taking action.

Nevertheless, adaptation has implicitly emerged on the American
agenda, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. The earth‘s weather system is too
complex to pin blame for Katrina definitively on global warming. But
unusually strong hurricanes like Katrina are exactly what scientists
expect to see—along with fiercer heat waves, harsher droughts, heavier
rains and rising sea levels—as global warming intensifies.

If the United States is serious about rebuilding New Orleans and its
neighbors, it must make them as resilient to global warming as
possible. “We have to fight for New Orleans,” says Beverly Wright,
director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard
University. (Her house took on 8 ft. of water after Katrina.) “If
we‘re vigilant, we can make New Orleans the safest coastal city in the
world and then use it as a model for how the rest of the country can
get ready for global warming.”

Unfortunately, New Orleans today remains far from that ideal. “On the
second anniversary of Katrina, the safety of New Orleans will be very
similar to what it was on the first anniversary, which was not okay,”
says Robert Bea, a professor at the University of California Berkeley
and former oil industry engineer. Bea co-authored a landmark report
for the National Research Foundation that analyzed why the federal
government did such a poor job of protecting Louisiana both before and
after the storm. Most of the problems he identified persist, he says,
adding, “As a nation, we still think we can solve these kinds of
problems quickly and on the cheap and go back to watching football.”

That is not Louisiana‘s problem alone, Bea emphasizes. The Army Corps
of Engineers recently announced that 122 major levee systems in the
United States are less than safe; those levees will face greater
stresses with global warming. Extra-strong hurricanes will threaten
cities along the entire Gulf and Atlantic coasts. New York City is
overdue for a major hurricane; global warming raises the odds.

True, New Orleans is a high-risk location—much of it sits below sea
level and Category 3 hurricanes strike the Louisiana coast every 7.6
years—but it is also high value. Besides its cultural eminence as the
birthplace of jazz, “New Orleans is the busiest port in the world,
vital to exporting the Midwest‘s farm products internationally. And
30% of America‘s oil and gas production comes from off-shore Louisiana
in the Gulf of Mexico,” says John M. Barry, author of Rising
Tide
.
“Once you pay to protect those investments, protecting the people who
live there is almost a throwaway cost.”

“All Americans should look carefully at what is and isn‘t happening in
New Orleans,” says Mark Davis, professor of environmental law at
Tulane University. “If we can‘t marshal the money, technology and
political will to succeed here, I wouldn‘t be confident we‘ll do much
better in your part of the country either.”

Meanwhile, northern Europe offers the most practical yet far-reaching
examples of how to prepare against climate change.

The Netherlands

It‘s no surprise that the Netherlands has one of the best records in
the world on adaptation. The Dutch have been coping with their
low-lying location for nearly 800 years. Dutch law requires that river
defenses deliver so-called 1-in-1,250 years protection—that is, that
they limit the odds of catastrophic system failure and consequent
flooding to 1 in 1,250 each year. (By comparison, New Orleans‘
defenses offered 1-in-100-years protection.)

To maintain this level in the face of greater anticipated flows down
the Rhine River (thanks partly to accelerated snowmelt in the Alps),
the Dutch are radically revising traditional flood-management
thinking. Instead of trying to contain floods, they will accommodate
the extra water flow by allowing predesignated areas to flood. The
strategy is called Living with Water. Near Nijmegen, the oldest town
in Holland, a sparsely populated strip of land that is home to farms
and a nature reserve will be allowed to flood to spare the more
heavily populated areas downstream. Birds in the nature preserve can
fly away until the waters recede, but not homeowners, who have
protested. One lesson, says Bas Jonkman, an adviser to the Dutch
Ministry of Water Management, is that “society must recognize that
there will be losers from adaptation, and they must be compensated.”

The greatest flood danger to the Netherlands comes from the North Sea,
which is more powerful and unpredictable than the Dutch rivers. So,
Dutch law has historically required North Sea defenses to deliver a
1-in-10,000-years level of protection. “And now the Parliament wants
to raise the North Sea standard to a 1-in-100,000-years level of
protection,” says Pier Vellinga, a senior government adviser and
professor at Wageningen University and Research Center. Vellinga
calculates that to maintain this higher level of protection, the
Netherlands would have to commit about 0.2% of its GDP annually—some
$1.3 billion. The Dutch are straightforward about making adaptation to
global warming a high priority. The alternative is the prospect of
losing its coastal cities altogether. (“We Are Here to Stay” is the
accompanying public slogan.) “We want foreign visitors and investment
to keep coming to the Netherlands,” Vellinga says, “so we must assure
them this will remain a safe place.”

Britain

The most visible example of the British commitment to adaptation is
the Thames Barrier, a set of hulking but beautiful silver floodgates
that stretch across the namesake waterway about 11 miles downriver
from central London. When the Barrier became operational in 1983, 30
years after the massive flood that motivated its construction,
planners expected that it might have to close once or twice a year to
keep ocean-storm surges from inundating London. In the past decade,
however, the Barrier has been closing an average of 10 times a year.
“The Barrier was initially designed to offer a 1-in-2,000-years level
of protection,” says West of the UK Climate Impacts Program. “But
sea-level rise is projected to reduce that to a 1-in-1,000-years level
by 2030.” In response, the British government is prepared to add 12
inches of protection on top of the existing floodgates—a contingency
built into its original design—and to keep building patches and
extending the Barrier as necessary. Planners in Britain assume it will
have to be replaced within 100 years, but they don‘t yet know with
what.

Adaptation isn‘t just about building a stronger physical
infrastructure. A new urban village is being planned 120 miles north
of London that will bring together mitigation and adaptation. “Bilston
village will not only be a low-carbon-energy user, it will also try to
make itself resilient to future climate changes,” says West. For
example, it will build flood protection into its design. “This could
be a new model for how communities can walk on both legs into the
climate future.”

Bangladesh

As a low-lying country that faces the sea and drains 92% of the
snowmelt from the vast Himalayan mountain range, Bangladesh is one of
the most vulnerable places on the earth to global warming. Already,
sea levels are rising in the Bay of Bengal and pushing salty water
inland, lowering the productivity of rice cultivation in the south of
the country. Farmers are adapting by switching land over to shrimp
farming, which tolerates saltier water.

“Bangladeshis have lived with flooding forever. It‘s part of our
culture and essential to our agricultural system,” says Saleemul Huq,
who directs the climate-change program for the International Institute
for Environment and Development. “In the past, we experienced a very
big flood about once every 20 years,” Huq says. “But in the last 20
years, we‘ve had four very big floods—in 1987, 1988, 1995 and 2005. So
it appears that the new pattern is to get a 1-in-20-year flood every
five or 10 years.” That increase has gotten policymakers‘ attention.
After years of lobbying by Huq and his colleagues, the Ministry of
Water Resources recently agreed to incorporate climate-change models
into all future planning and decisions.

But because of its poverty—78% of its population lives on less than $2
a day—Bangladesh cannot afford the kind of defenses planned in Europe,
or even New Orleans. As a matter of fairness, Huq says, adaptation
measures in poor countries should be subsidized by rich countries. “It
is poor countries that are suffering the brunt of climate change,” he
says, “but it is the rich countries‘ greenhouse-gas emissions that
caused this problem in the first place.” Britain is already
subsidizing a substantial program in Bangladesh that will raise roads,
wells and houses above the level of the last major flood. “Bangladesh
is a showcase of what will happen under climate change,” says Penny
Davies, a diplomat at the British High Commission in Dhaka. “It
amounts to a testing ground for what island states, including Britain,
will need to do to protect ourselves in the years ahead.”

New Orleans

By that same logic, the U.S. should be trying to climate proof New
Orleans. The fact that much of the city is already below sea level
makes its lessons all the more valuable for other coastal communities
that will soon face the same situation.

“There is no need to shrink the footprint of New Orleans, if we do the
job right on flood protection and coastal restoration,” says Ivor van
Heerden, the director of the Louisiana State University Hurricane
Center. Van Heerden and his team at LSU foresaw the likelihood of a
Katrina disaster back in 1999. They have long urged a big-picture
approach to hurricane protection. Restoring coastal wetlands, Van
Heerden says, is as important as building sound levees. During a
hurricane, wetlands act like speed bumps, absorbing the force of
incoming storm surges so that they are weaker when they reach inland.
Louisiana‘s wetlands have been disappearing at an alarming rate
because of imprudent levee building and oil-and-gas development.

Van Heerden calls his three-layered plan “defense in depth”: “For your
inner layer of defense, you put hardened levees or flood walls in
front of major population centers or other high-value assets. You
protect that inner layer with a middle layer comprised of as large an
expanse of wetlands or swamp as possible. Finally, you protect that
middle layer with a third layer—barrier islands out in the ocean
proper, which also act to absorb and weaken storm surges.”

The Army Corps of Engineers and the government of Louisiana are each
preparing plans for flood defense and coastal restoration. But after
the Corps‘s disastrous performance during Katrina, many locals
distrust it. The state worries that the Corps, despite reassurances
from the director of its civil-works division, will shortchange
wetlands protection in favor of its traditional preference for large
levees. “We‘re not going to let them go down that road,” says Robert
Twilley, chief scientific adviser to the state‘s planners. “If we
don‘t restore our wetlands, the levees won‘t last and neither will our
economy.”

In Louisiana, as elsewhere, smart adaptation requires more than good
infrastructure and ecosystem management. Economic viability is also
important, and that is not possible without insurance. In Louisiana
and Florida, insurance companies responded to the burst of hurricanes
in 2004 and 2005 by raising rates significantly, even canceling
policies outright. How can hurricane-prone states retain coverage?
“The only solution is to get the Federal Government to do what it did
after September 11 and recognize that some risks are too large and
costly for the private-insurance market to absorb on its own,” says
James Donelon, the state insurance commissioner of Louisiana. The
Terrorism Re-Insurance Act of 2002 made $100 billion in federal money
available as a backstop for buildings vulnerable to terrorism. Donelon
advocates a similar fund for cities threatened by climate change.

The U.S. has a long way to go before it is climate proof, but so does
most of the world. Japan has an impressive, long-standing system of
flood control, including the so-called G-Cans project, a massive
underground system in Tokyo that can pump 200 tons of water per second
out of rivers and into the harbor before the city‘s streets flood. But
former city officials acknowledge that Tokyo‘s system has reached its
capacity. Since global warming is expected to bring Japan more
frequent torrential rains, Tokyo will have to upgrade its drainage and
sewage systems.

The latest science makes it clear that we will be living with global
warming for the rest of our lives. That‘s not a happy thought, but
it‘s not necessarily a death sentence either. The key is to follow
the new rules of life under global warming. Think ahead, adapt as
necessary and make sure to cut greenhouse gas emissions in time.
Adaptation to global warming won‘t be cheap. It won‘t be optional
either.


Mark Hertsgaard (www.markhertsgaard.com) is the author of many books,
including Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth (Houghton-Mifflin, forthcoming). A version of this article appeared
in Time
magazine‘s April 2007 special issue on climate change
.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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