Lessons from an Angry Planet

[Bill Becker has a good follow-up on my post, “Global warming causes deluges and flooding, just like the Midwest is seeing (again)“.]

From the standpoint of global climate change, nature’s incredible assault on the American heartland this year can be interpreted in one of two ways. Both offer lessons about the challenges of adapting to the climate we have created.

As of June 13, 1,577 tornadoes had been reported in the United States, with 118 fatalities. The season started in January, unusually early, with more than 130 reported tornadoes in the upper Midwest. As if to send voters a reminder to ask the presidential candidates about their positions on climate change, 84 tornadoes broke out the week of Super Tuesday in Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee.

As I write this post, record floods are inundating communities in the Mississippi River Valley at a level of intensity that may make the Great Flood of 1993 seem like an “ankle tickler,” as riverside residents like to call minor flood events.

On June 9 in Wisconsin, a breach in its dam emptied Lake Delton, a 245-acre man-made lake, into the Wisconsin River. My old stomping grounds in Wisconsin’s Kickapoo River Valley suffered record flooding for the second time in a year. Among the inundated communities was Gays Mills, now threatened with extinction due to its repeated damages.

By June 15, nine rivers in Iowa were at or above historic flood levels and 83 of the state’s 99 counties had been declared in a state of emergency. In Cedar Rapids, the Cedar River crested at 32 feet, 12 feet higher than the previous record set in 1929, causing an estimated $730 million in property damage and forcing 24,000 people to abandon their homes and businesses. If the usual post-disaster pattern holds true, many of the smaller businesses will never reopen.

The damage is far from over.

Floodwaters are making their way down the Mississippi River, headed for St. Louis where construction in the floodplain has been booming since 1993. Meantime, a heat wave has been baking the East Coast from North Carolina to New Hampshire, wildfires have been destroying homes in California and, as if to reassure us that nature is not picking on America, 1.3 million people were fleeing flooding in China.

Food and tornado victims are not the only people who will feel the effects of this extreme weather. The flooding of some of the nation’s prime cropland in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota is destroying soy bean and corn crops, pushing up the price of both grains. That will further increase the price of food and ethanol and could aggravate the global food crisis. As the New York Times reported:

Last week, the price of corn rose above $7 a bushel on the commodities market for the first time, and soybeans rose sharply, too, reacting to the harsh weather hampering crop production across the Midwest… At a moment when corn should be almost waist-high here in Iowa, the country’s top-producing corn state, more than a million acres have been washed out and destroyed. Beyond that, agriculture experts estimate that 2 million acres of soy beans have been lost to water, putting the state’s total grain loss at 20 percent so far, with the threat of more rain to come.

As I said, two conclusions come to mind. The first is that the tornados and floods battering the country with almost unimaginable severity are the early tantrums of an angry planet. Under this reading, this season of natural disasters shows that climate change has arrived ahead of schedule, much to the disappointment of those who hoped that fire, drought, violent weather and the other predicted impacts of global warming were a problem only for future generations.

The second and more conservative interpretation is that this season and other recent disaster years are an aberration, that the disasters are not the result of climate change and that weather will return to “normal”. Even if that were true, the natural disasters underway today are consistent with the predicted consequences of global warming and are very likely a taste of things to come.

What lessons can we take away from all of this to better prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change? Here are just a few:

1. To state the obvious, we need to put unprecedented pressure on our national leaders to get serious about mitigation and adaptation. While lives were being lost and families were losing their homes and possessions this month, Congress was busy avoiding a debate on cap-and-trade legislation. The inability of our national leaders to deal frontally and forcefully with greenhouse gas emissions is not only an abdication of their responsibility; it’s morally and fiscally indefensible. On the fiscal front, the federal flood and crop insurance programs already are a huge liability for American taxpayers. States, localities and families dealing with a housing crisis, record fuel prices and a weak economy can hardly afford the financial trauma of weather-related disasters. On the moral front, a vote in Congress won’t do anything to prevent the perfect storms hitting the American people right now, but we are seeing the future and it is not pretty. National leadership today can help prevent climate impacts from getting immeasurably worse. The people who should be suffering a forced evacuation are the members of Congress who are blocking action on global warming.

2. It’s past time to rethink national flood control and water management strategy. As flood control structures are being broken and breached across the Midwest today, we are seeing the harsh lesson of New Orleans repeated on grand scale. Dams and levees encourage people to build in natural floodplains. When they fail — and they too often do — the loss of life and property can be worse than if no structure had been built at all.

At the risk of telling this story too many times, I must bring up the example of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, once again. While Gays Mills, its neighbor on the Kickapoo River, is being destroyed by a breached levee and flooding, Soldiers Grove remains intact because it chose 30 years ago to move to higher ground rather than to rely on a “flood control” structure proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Kickapoo reached record levels last week in Soldiers Grove, too, (check out this video), but its relocated homes and businesses were spared.

In every plausible case, our national policy should not be to protect floodplains but to evacuate them, while restoring wetlands, river meander, watershed vegetation and other natural features that reduce the severity of flooding. Our policy in communities destroyed by tornadoes and hurricanes, where evacuation is not an option, should be to rebuild to standards that can withstand future disasters.

3. When we repair and rebuild disaster-damaged buildings and infrastructure, we should do so with cutting-edge mitigation and adaptation in mind. That’s what the city of Greensburg, Kansas, is doing as it recovers from the Category 5 tornado that leveled the community last year. It has resolved to turn “tragedy to triumph” by rebuilding to minimize its energy use and carbon emissions, and to maximize its use of renewable energy technologies.

As a former resident of a disaster-prone community, I witnessed what I called “floodplain amnesia.” It’s the assumption that a natural disaster will not occur. Then, once it has, it’s the assumption that it won’t happen again. The bad memories of the last disaster eventually are replaced by memories of how people pulled together and experienced an intense sense of community.

Our sense of community now must come not from sharing disaster, but from the common effort to evolve past the carbon era. We need to pay attention to what scientists tell us we can expect from climate change, including extreme weather events. It should be obvious by now that we ignore their warnings at our own peril.

14 Responses to Lessons from an Angry Planet

  1. paulm says:

    ….National leadership today can help prevent climate impacts from getting immeasurably worse….

    In the long term – 200+ yrs. For the short term it is going to worse no matter what we implement today. Something that is going to have to sink in after everyone accepts that we need to do something about CC now. We are going to have big adaptation implications.

  2. Nylo says:

    “The first is that the tornados and floods battering the country with almost unimaginable severity are the early tantrums of an angry planet. Under this reading, this season of natural disasters shows that climate change has arrived ahead of schedule, much to the disappointment of those who hoped that fire, drought, violent weather and the other predicted impacts of global warming were a problem only for future generations”.

    And this is only with an angry planet. Imagine if the sun got angry as well. Millenia of warming to make life in Earth possible, and this is how we pay back. If I was the sun, I would be furious. Not to mention the galaxy.

  3. john says:

    While Congress has proven feckless on this issue, I think it’s important to note that it was Republicans blocking action on global warming.

    I say this not to be partisan (although I am) but rather to highlight the problem, so that we might see the solution more clearly.

    And the solution is get the current crop of Republican deniers out of Congress.

  4. Lou Grinzo says:

    paulm: Yes, it’s true that a lot of warming is already “in the pipeline”, thanks to CO2’s longevity and the rate at which we’re still spewing it into the atmosphere. But smarter policies that significantly reduce CO2 emissions now will certainly have an effect over the next few decades, if only to slow the rate at which things get worse. The only way that such policies won’t help is if we’re already beyond a tipping point and feedbacks will completely take over, regardless of how much additional CO2 we add to the mix.

    To me, that’s the $64 trillion question: How close are we to that global tipping point? I don’t think anyone knows (even if we all have guesses), which is why I keep saying not only are we playing Russian roulette, but we don’t even know how many bullets are in the gun.

  5. hapa says:

    what are we looking at for la niña in future? i vaguely remember seeing a couple people’s slides somewhere about the little girl possibly lengthening and strengthening by virtue of ocean temp changes. shudder.

    anyway this is my third choice for the tantrum/coincidence duality: a higher severity of a periodic event. maybe there will be a respite, the droughts and storms will relax, or maybe we’ll find out that el niño 2.0 sux worse.

  6. John McCormick says:

    Lou, you said:

    [How close are we to that global tipping point? I don’t think anyone knows (even if we all have guesses), which is why I keep saying not only are we playing Russian roulette, but we don’t even know how many bullets are in the gun.]

    At atmosphere’s CO2 concentration of 388 ppm plus the CO2 eq. gases (about 12% of CO2), climate forcing is about 434 ppm CO2 eq.

    We are playing Russian roulette and we do know how many bullets are in the gun; bullets in all chambers.

    John McCormick

  7. Pangolin says:

    I believe the game we are playing is Siberian permafrost roulette and judging by the data the bullets have already left the gun and are in route to the ecosystem control chamber. The permafrost is melting and releasing far more methane than any of the models show.

    Accelerated feedback is here.

  8. Earl Killian says:

    Lou Grinzo said, “How close are we to that global tipping point?

    How do you define “tipping point”?

    If you mean when does the feedback cause runaway warming, then we are very far from that point. The earth survived 1500±500 ppm CO2 approximately 50 million years ago without runaway warming (though the sun was slightly weaker then). It did of course get very very warm as a result, but without turning the Earth into Venus.

    If you define “tipping point” as simply leading to major damage to humanity and Earth’s ecosystems, then I opine that there may be multiple tipping points. The permafrost is one that is either imminent or we have already crossed (time will tell). Once the permafrost kicks in, it will accelerate warming until the carbon stored there is fully released. Then things slow down again, until the next tipping point is reached (unless it overlaps with the permafrost). When that next carbon store is used up, things slow down again, and so on. Similarly, there is a boost to warming when the temperature reaches a point at which polar ice melts. When that ice is gone, the rate falls back. The Earth’s sensitivity to CO2 is nonlinear.

    Hansen’s analysis suggests that there is a tipping point at 425±25 ppm based on the observation that as the Earth reduced from 1500±500ppm at 50 million years ago (Mya) down to 425±25 ppm at 35 Mya, the Antarctic ice sheet started to form. Returning CO2 back above the 425±25 ppm point should begin to reverse that process (though it might take a while). Given that the permafrost has 500-1000 Gt of carbon to release, which is sufficient to raise atmospheric CO2 well above 450 ppm, it looks like these two feedback mechanisms overlap. That is unfortunate for us.

    Hansen suggests that we eventually need to return CO2 to 350 ppm to keep things sane. We may temporarily exceed that (as we already have), but the longer we remain above 350 ppm, the worse the danger to us.

    Bill McKibben likens the 350 ppm limit to a medical threshold. It isn’t instantly fatal to have a high test result, but if you don’t do something to return to the safe range, you’re likely to suffer severe consequences before too long.

  9. exusian says:

    Or like venturing into the ‘death zone’ above 8000 meters. The longer you stay, the lower your chance of surviving.

  10. David B. Benson says:

    Also angry in China just now.

  11. llewelly says:

    Please note that ‘1577’ was the number of reported tornadoes (now the number of reports is up to 1631), not the number actual tornadoes. It is normal for almost a third of the reports to be eliminated as duplicates after further analysis has taken place. The current total of confirmed reports – that is, those which are not duplicates or errors – is 832 – but the process lags well behind the most recent tornado events. The estimate for the number of actual tornadoes is a little over 1000. This is still record-smashing tornado activity so far this year. NOAAs graph of tornadoes and tornado reports .

  12. John Johnson says:

    This is all hog wash. Wind, Geothermal, Hydro Thermal are all viable sources of energy especially at the current prices of oil. However this is all about exaggeration, and fraud. Global warming is not being caused by cars, or trucks. Volcanoes spew out more carbon dioxide that all the cars in the world combined. The sun is in a solar cycle, and is heating up. All the planets in the solar system have increases in temperature. The surface is heating not the atmosphere. This is all about money. How can we fool the people into accepting a new tax, and governance. The IEA (i.e. UN is pushing Global Warming along with a number of environmental groups on “computer models” that model whatever data you put in. This data is highly subjective – meaning you have to guess what you think the number should be, not what they actually are.

  13. John Johnson says:

    This discussion on Global Warming is crazy. It seems that you are offering “scientific data”, but in reality it is not accurate. The Earth is always changing there have been cycles of warmth, and cold throughout this planets history. Everything is not centered on the earth. The biggest generator of heat is the sun. The oceans if you can believe compromise 75% of the earth’s surface. It takes a significant amount of energy to raise, or lower the temperature of the earth’s oceans. Can you imagine heating water at a depth of 4000 feet or greater. This all has an impact on the atmosphere. The current “global warming movement” is really a political movement to control people. Look at the price of gas, food, and energy. For years the powers that be have been trying to convince people to move closer to the cities, and develop public transportation. Humm – looks like the mew tactic is working. The theme seems to center it self around live in an agrarian society, but let me keep my 30,000 sq ft mansion with all the amenities. Conservation for the masses, and affulence for the few.

  14. Hal Levin says:

    Living among the fires of California reinforces concern for climate change. I have heard Joe lecture on the contribution of climate change to increased frequency of wildfires. It has been a very dry spring here, and California is even more of a tinder box than usual, earlier than usual in our usually dry six month summer period. A fire here in Santa Cruz 2 weeks ago reached within four miles of my house, making all this far more real. The reports one reads on the news from a distance lack the force of the plume of smoke of that fire or the gray, smokey skies all over this region of the past five days.

    Thanks Joe for making me aware of wildfire connection to climate change.