What We Should Be Doing About Weather Disasters

By William S. Becker

After every devastating weather disaster, a reporter standing in the floodwaters or rubble tells us, “It may take months or even years, but the people here are determined to rebuild.” It is the promise of a happy-ever-after-ending, the way we like all our stories to end. It is the assurance that the human spirit will triumph.

But the real question after each disaster is whether its victims will demonstrate the triumph of human intelligence over stupidity. The long-time pattern of disaster recovery in this country has been families and entire communities rebuilding in the same disaster zones over and over again, hoping for different results. The federal government helps them do it.

It could be a homing instinct or the resistance to change or the dogged determination to prevail over nature or all of the above, but generations of disaster victims have rolled the dice to rebuild their homes and communities back in the floodplains and forestlands and on the same shorelines that destroyed them. Real estate developers have helped pressure city officials not to make disaster zones off limits for development.

What we have discovered the hard way is that past weather is no longer a reliable indicator of what we’ll get today or in the future.  Because of planet’s climate is changing, and climate changes cause weather changes, we can’t rely on history to define a disaster-prone area any more. Instead, have to rely on climate scientists to forecast what and where the impacts of climate change will be.

These are the same scientists whose work fossil energy executives and their political allies including Donald Trump have mocked and tried to discredit for years. Nevertheless, climate scientists are getting better and better at projecting the regional and local impacts of global warming.

We also hear the news media describe today’s weather extremes as the “new normal”.  That phrase correctly recognizes that we are experiencing something new and permanent. But the new normal is actually ongoing abnormality. In other words, the intensity of the weather we are experiencing now is not predictive of what we’ll experience in the future. The weather will continue changing for generations because of past fossil energy pollution and because of the carbon emissions human activities are still dumping into the atmosphere today. We can’t define with reasonable certainty today what a 100-year or 500-year or 1,000-year floodplain is, or how much geography is vulnerable to high winds, storm surges or coastal erosion.

What people and cities both must do is plan according to the worst-case scenarios that scientists anticipate for extreme weather events. Planning for the worst case is good risk management. Everything should be rebuilt according to the best available disaster-hardened designs, even where extreme weather events seem unlikely.

We need new national model residential and commercial building codes designed for managing climate risks. Vital infrastructure like city wells, septic treatment plants, hospitals, energy systems and the operating centers of first responders must all be well out of reach of the weather that scientists predict for the future.

Insofar as federal, state and local governments are involved in disaster recovery, they should encourage the triumph of intelligence by using science to adapt to anticipated climate changes. At the same time, we must keep from climate change so much worse that we can’t adapt. We must get to the roots of anthropogenic weather disasters by eliminating carbon pollution. We must transition rapidly to carbon-free energy. Period.

Digging even deeper, we must change how we think. We – and by “we”, I mean society as a whole — are oriented to near-term, reductionist and narrow-minded thinking. The survival skills for this century include long-term and holistic thinking, along with the willingness to check on the world outside our echo-chambers from time to time.

We must adapt our public policies. Our official energy policy in the United State today, thanks to Donald Trump, is not just to pretend that climate change does not exist: It’s also to make it much worse by becoming the planet’s most notorious carbon outlaw. Trump wants America to be the world’s top producer of oil coal and natural gas – the fuels most responsible for climate change.  If that policy prevails, we will lose the distinction of having the world’s largest economy, but we will be the most anachronistic.  The goal of national policy must be to put America far down the path to a zero-carbon energy economy by mid-century.

Finally, we have to adapt our voting values. We have been letting Trump, the rich fossil energy industry and its obedient carbon cabal in Congress get away for many years with pretending that climate change isn’t real. Shame on all of us eligible voters if we continue to let every election go by without kicking climate deniers out of office. Next month’s election and the one in 2020 ought finally to be our climate-action elections.

It seems harsh to say this while the victims of Florence, Michael, Harvey and Maria are trying to piece their lives back together, but if we don’t do these things and do them now, we will deserve all the weather disasters we get.

October 13th, 2018|home|