Climate

Hurricane Katrina and the Myth of Global Warming Adaptation

katrina-aftermath.jpgG. Gordon Liddy’s daughter repeated a standard denyer line in our debate: Humans are very adaptable — we’ve adapted to climate changes in the past and will do so in the future.

I think Hurricane Katrina gives the lie to that myth. No, I’m not saying humans are not adaptable. Nor am I saying global warming caused Hurricane Katrina, although warming probably did make it a more intense. But on the two-year anniversary of Katrina — and the one year anniversary of Climate Progress’s initial launch — I’m saying Katrina showed the limitations of adaptation as a response to climate change, for several reasons.

First, the citizens of New Orleans “adapted” to Hurricane Katrina, but I’m certain that every last one of them wishes we had prevented the disaster with stronger levees. The multiple catastrophes — extreme drought, extreme flooding, extreme weather, extreme temperatures — that global warming will bring can be suffered through, but I wouldn’t call it adaptation.

Second, a classic adaptation strategy to deal with rising sea levels is levees. Yet even though we knew that New Orleans would be flooded if the levees were overtopped and breached, even though New Orleans has been sinking for decades, we refused to spend the money to “adapt” New Orleans to the threat. We didn’t make the levees able to withstand a category 4 or 5 hurricane (Katrina was weaker at landfall than that, but the storm surge was that of a category 4).

Third, even now, after witnessing the devastation of the city, we still refuse to spend the money needed to strengthen the levees to withstand a category 5 hurricane. We refuse to spend money on adaptation to preserve one of our greatest cities, ensuring its destruction, probably sometime this century.

If we won’t adapt to the realities of having one city below sea level in hurricane alley, what are the chances we are going to adapt to the realities of having all our great Gulf and Atlantic Coast cities at risk for the same fate as New Orleans — since sea level from climate change will ultimately put many cities, like Miami, below sea level? And just how do you adapt to sea levels rising 6 to 12 inches a decade for centuries, which well may be our fate by 2100 if we don’t reverse greenhouse gas emissions trends soon. Climate change driven by humans GHGs is already happening much faster than past climate change from natural causes — and it is accelerating.

The fact is, the Denyers don’t believe climate change is happening, so they don’t believe in spending money on adaptation. The Center for American Progress has written an important paper on hurricane preparedness, which is a good starting point for those who are serious about adaptation.

But don’t be taken in by heartfelt expressions of faith in human adaptability. If Katrina shows us anything, it is that preventing disaster would be considerably less expensive — and more humane — than forcing future generations to adapt to an unending stream of disasters.

9 Responses to Hurricane Katrina and the Myth of Global Warming Adaptation

  1. Ron says:

    Katrina’s lessons –

    1) Avoid locating cities below sea level. But if you do, don’t be surprised at floods.

    2) Don’t depend on government to save you.

  2. raj says:

    All you have to do is bring Jarod Diamond’s book Collapse into the picture and whole notion goes out the window.

    Other thing I would say to these deniers is that there was certain level of c02 in the atmosphere. All that was buried to form coal and oil. Now if you release this what happens to the atmosphere.

    Your using their level of language and fear to shut them up. Debating like adults is not possible with this crowd. Stop making the same mistake over and over.

  3. David M. says:

    I think maybe New Orleans has always had a bit of a hurricane/flood problem. Even before ‘global warming’.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hurricane_preparedness_for_New_Orleans

  4. Joe says:

    Katrina’s lessons revised

    1) Sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions or else every major coastal city will be below sea level and subject to flooding like New Orleans.

    2) Don’t depend on government to save you when that government is run by people who say they don’t believe in government and who appoint cronies to manage important federal agencies.

  5. Earl Killian says:

    Joseph Tainter wrote a book about the collapse of civilizations (long before Jared Diamond). His hypothesis is that collapse occurs when civilizations reach the point of declining marginal return from complexity. The above thread reminded me think of his thesis (especially Joe’s sentence “If we won’t adapt to the realities of having one city below sea level…”). I think climate change has the potential to be the shove that pushes the world into collapse. Here are some quotes from Tainter’s book that give an idea of his hypothesis:

    There are two general factors that combine to yield a declining marginal return. First, stress and perturbation are a constant feature of any complex society, always occurring somewhere in its territory. Such a society will have a developed an operating regulatory apparatus that is designed to deal with such things as localized agricultural failures, border conflicts, and unrest. Since such continuous, localized stress can be expected to recur with regularity it can, to a degree, be anticipated and prepared for. Major, unexpected stress surges, however, will also occur given enough time, as such things as major climatic fluctuations and foreign incursions take place. To meet these major stresses the society must have some kind of net reserve. This can take the form of excess productive capacities in agriculture, energy, or minerals, or hoarded surpluses from past production. Stress surges of great magnitude cannot be accommodated without such a reserve.

    Yet a society experiencing declining marginal returns is investing ever more heavily in a strategy that is yielding proportionately less. Excess productive capacity will at some point be used up, and accumulated surpluses allocated to current operating needs. There is, then, little or no surplus with which to counter major adversities. Unexpected stress surges must be dealt with out of the current operating budget, often ineffectually, and always to the detriment of the system as a whole. Even if the stress is successfully met, the society is weakened in the process, and made even more vulnerable to the next crisis. Once a complex society develops the vulnerabilities of declining marginal returns, collapse may merely require sufficient passage of time to render probable the occurrence of an insurmountable calamity.

    It is not that R&D cannot potentially solve the problems of industrialism. The difficulty is that to do so will require an increasing share of GNP. The principle of infinite substitutability depends on energy and technology. With diminishing returns to investment in scientific research, how can economic growth be sustained? The answer is that to sustain growth resources will have to be allocated from other sectors of the economy into science and engineering. … The allocation of greater resources to science of course is nothing new, merely the continuation of a two centuries-old trend. Such investment, unfortunately, can never yield a permanent solution, merely a respite from diminishing returns.

    Will we find, as have some past societies, that the cost of overcoming our problems is too high relative to the benefits conferred, and that not solving problems is the economical option?

    In fact, there are major differences between the current and the ancient worlds that have important implications for collapse. On of these is that the world today is full. That is to say, it is filled by complex societies; these occupy every sector of the globe, except the most desolate. This is a new factor in human history. Complex societies as a whole are a recent and unusual aspect of human life. The current situation, where all societies are so oddly constituted, is unique. It was shown earlier in this chapter that ancient collapses occurred, and could only occur, in a power vacuum, where a complex society (of cluster of peer polities) was surrounded by less complex neighbors. There are no power vacuums left today. Every nation is linked to, and influenced by, the major powers, and most are strongly linked with one power bloc or the other.

    Peer polities then then tend to undergo long periods of upwardly-spiraling competitive costs, and downward marginal returns. This is terminated finally by domination of one and acquisition of a new energy subsidy (as in Republican Rome and Warring States China), or by mutual collapse (as among the Mycenaeans and the Maya). Collapse, if and when it comes again, will this time be global. No longer can any individual nation collapse. World civilization will disintegrate as a whole. Competitors who evolve as peers collapse in like manner.

  6. Joel D. says:

    David M., I’ll save everyone some effort. This isn’t claiming, nor is it claimed elsewhere on the site, that Hurricane Katrina was the result of climate change. The point is, that the response gives an indication of the fact that adaptation to climate change is not a possibility, that we must instead try to prevent it from occurring. Secondly, Katrina is an example of the more frequent and more dangerous weather that is an effect of climate change.

  7. Estetik says:

    To maintain a clean and purify the body it is best to consume adequate amounts in water and foods rich in fiber such as whole grains, legumes, fresh fruits and vegetables.

  8. medyum says:

    All you have to do is bring Jarod Diamond’s book Collapse into the picture and whole notion goes out the window.

    Other thing I would say to these deniers is that there was certain level of c02 in the atmosphere. All that was buried to form coal and oil. Now if you release this what happens to the atmosphere.
    Medyum

  9. Ankara Parke says:

    Will we find, as have some past societies, that the cost of overcoming our problems is too high relative to the benefits conferred, and that not solving problems is the economical option?