We Are All From New Orleans Now: Climate Change, Hurricanes And The Fate Of America’s Coastal Cities

by Mike Tidwell, via The Nation

The presidential candidates decided not to speak about climate change, but climate change has decided to speak to them. And what is a thousand-mile-wide storm pushing eleven feet of water toward our country’s biggest population center saying just days before the election? It is this: We are all from New Orleans now. Climate change—through the measurable rise of sea levels and a documented increase in the intensity of Atlantic storms—has made 100 million Americans virtually as vulnerable to catastrophe as the victims of Hurricane Katrina were seven years ago.

Arriving atop fantastically warm water and aided by a full foot of sea-level rise during the last century, Hurricane Sandy is just the latest example of climate change’s impact on human society. Unless we rapidly phase out our use of fossil fuels, most Americans within shouting distance of an ocean will—in coming years—live behind the sort of massive levees and floodgates that mark Louisiana today.

The New York Academy Sciences has already begun examining the viability of three massive floodgates near the mouth of New York Harbor, not unlike the Thames River floodgate that protects London today. Another floodgate has been proposed for the Potomac River just south of Washington, fending against tsunami-like surge tides from future mega storms. Plus there will be levees—everywhere. Imagine the National Mall, Reagan National Airport and the Virginia suburbs—all well below sea level—at the mercy of “trust-us-they’ll-hold” levees maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers.

Oceans worldwide are projected to rise as much as three more feet this century—much higher if the Greenland ice sheet melts away. Intense storms are already becoming much more common. These two factors together will in essence export the plight of New Orleans, bringing the Big Easy “bowl” effect here to New York City and Washington, as well as to Charleston, Miami, New York and other coastal cities. Assuming we want to keep living in these cities, we’ll have to build dikes and learn to exist beneath the surface of surrounding tidal bays, rivers and open seas—just like New Orleans.

Meanwhile, it’s not our imagination that hurricanes have grown more ferocious than in the past. Multiple scientific studies in the past few years have found that rising sea-surface temperatures linked to global warming are causing an increase in the number of stronger hurricanes. Sandy, right now, is approaching the East Coast atop Atlantic sea-surface temperatures a full five degrees Fahrenheit above normal. One study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology concluded that hurricane wind speeds have doubled in the past thirty years. This may account for the fact that among the six most powerful hurricanes recorded in the Atlantic Basin—going back 150 years—three occurred over fifty-two days in 2005: Katrina, Rita and Wilma. And Sandy, as measured by its area of influence, is now the biggest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic.

Higher sea levels create other conditions that will only enhance hurricanes. In 1985, Hurricane Gloria made landfall north of New York Harbor. As a Category 2 storm, it could have had a serious surge tide. But it was a relative dud, causing only minor flooding. New York got lucky because the storm struck at maximum low tide. But with three feet of sea-level rise, we will be creating what amounts to permanent high-tide conditions in the New York region and everywhere else, guaranteeing that future storms like Sandy will become surge-tide heavyweights.

What can we do? Three major options: (1) abandon our coastal cities and retreat inland, (2) stay put and try to adapt to the menacing new conditions or (3) stop burning planet-warming fossil fuels as fast as possible.

Retreat, of course, is no one’s first choice. But adapting means committing fully to the New Orleans model. It means potentially thousands of miles of levees and floodwalls across much of the East Coast. And that’s just to handle the rising sea. For hurricane surge tides, the only solution might be to build those major floodgates across New York Harbor, the Potomac Rivers and elsewhere. But are we truly ready to become New Orleanians, casting our lot behind ever-higher, unsustainable walls? Once we commit to fortified levees and massive floodgates, there’s no turning back. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition, as New Orleans has graphically demonstrated.

In truth, we must combine some level of adaptation with the third option: switching away from fossil fuels and onto clean energy. Clean energy is less expensive, less risky and overall much better for us. It’s the option that treats the disease of global warming, not just the symptoms. Only by dramatically reducing greenhouse gas pollution—by putting a price on carbon fuels and ushering in real gains in wind and solar power and efficiency—can we slow the sea-level rise and potentially calm the growth in hurricane intensity.

Perhaps now, after seeing the full wrath of Sandy, the next president will move from total silence to real action.

Mike Tidwell is Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network. This piece was originally published in The Nation and was reprinted with permission from the author.

13 Responses to We Are All From New Orleans Now: Climate Change, Hurricanes And The Fate Of America’s Coastal Cities

  1. Steve Lounsbury says:

    We would be twelve years into a strategy working toward mitigating man’s negative impact on the global climate, if not for George W. Bush and the Republican Fundamentalist/Industrial Cabal’s coverup.

  2. Carol says:

    A must listen to: Democracy Now (
    Amy’s guest today is Paul Barrett, author of recent Bloomberg article–“It’s Global Warming, Stupid”.
    Excellent . . . . and dare I say . . hopeful?
    Thank you Amy Goodman.

  3. Mike Roddy says:

    Nice post, Mike. Again, I recommend Peter Ward’s The Flooded Earth. Excerpt: “The Great Depression and the world economic plunges of the early 21st century will be nothing compared to the slow motion calamity caused by warming skies and creeping seas”.

    As you pointed out, once we go down the road of levees and floodgates, it becomes throwing good money after bad. Ward talked about a recent period of sea level rise around 15,000 years ago, when seas rose by 15 feet a century for several hundred years. We won’t need nearly that much rise, in light of storm surges, to make abandonment the only reasonable option, and sooner than we think.

    That assumes, of course, that we will have failed to get off fossil fuels in the next decade or two. That is the obvious choice, and eventually our leaders would have to find the courage to stand up to the fossil fuel companies that are preventing this from happening. They will do it only if the people make them.

  4. Building sea walls is a losing proposition. How high do you make them?

    The 2007 IPCC report predicted a sea level rise of about 3 feet by the end of this century. It also predicted that the Arctic sea ice level would be where is now in about 2070, so at this point in time its predictions are looking quite conservative and out-of-date — the sea level rise could be be much higher than three feet.

    If Greenland were to loose half its ice by the century’s end — not by any means a far-fetched scenario — the sea will rise at least ten feet. Do we build for that?

    Tidwell is right on — what we need to do is address the underlying disease, not just the symptoms of climate change — wean ourselves off fossil fuels as quickly as possible……NO!……more quickly than possible.

  5. Paul Klinkman says:

    One major omission in this article: it’s not just three feet in one century.

    The big killer will be super-superstorms. If we crank up the ocean temperature by ten degrees Fahrenheit at 7% more water vapor per degree,we’re going to continue the current exponential hockey stick rise in hurricane formation and in hurricane power. If Sandy gets named “breezy” someday, that’s a problem with sea level storm surges, with winds knocking out every window pane in the skyscraper district for a sea of glass, with house construction….

    Second, a Mexico study showed a 30 foot rise in sea level within a 50 year geological period. We don’t know why. What if the ocean doesn’t bother to obey the world’s most conservative estimates. What if Miami becomes a little archipelago of tall windowless buildings halfway between Cuba and the U.S., with a few jellyfish fishermen living there?

    Next, we need to take into

  6. Paul Klinkman says:

    Oops, no edit button, and I avoid Facebook because I don’t like their snooping.

  7. Martin W says:

    Thirty-two years if it weren’t for …

  8. Ken Barrows says:

    Nation editor and climate change denier Alexander Cockburn must be rolling over in his grave. LOL.

  9. prokaryotes says:

    Moderate-strength Nor’easter may hit Sandy-devastated areas Wednesday

  10. prokaryotes says:

    Building higher levees will give us a bit time, but won’t prevent the flooding. For example in Europe the levee i read can only be raised another 1 meter and i guess it will be similar with the US coast and elsewhere.

  11. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I see some scientific worthy bemoaning the fact that Sandy caused a surge that they had predicted for 2080! Only out by 68 years! Those Gawddamned alarmists!

  12. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    The jellyfish are taking over in the waters of the Northern Territory of Australia, too. The ecological collapse is rapidly gathering pace.

  13. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    Cockburn was the only Leftist denialist that I knew of. He suspected some Rightwing conspiracy, if I remember ( I gave up reading his screeds after a while)correctly. Pity to sully his reputation, but there you go.