Experts Have Failed To Prepare Americans For Devastation Of Climate Change

The rapidly worsening climate system, destabilized by billions of tons of fossil fuel pollution, is ripping apart the security of the American people, one “freak” storm, drought, flood, fire at a time. In a piece inspired by the October snow storm, the New York Times describes how a broad swath of middle-class America — the millions of suburban and rural residents who rely on the above-ground electricity grid — is suffering from the new era of regular power outages from intense storms and floods that physically damage utility poles and lines:

Along with the now-familiar candles, downed trees across the driveway and the thawing hamburger meat taken from the freezer and tossed in the trash, the region’s latest freak storm, which left three million people without electricity, has left something else in its wake: increasing unease about just what is going on and what it means for the vast majority outside the relative stability of an underground urban power grid.

No one can know for sure if this is just the eternally unpredictable chaos of weather on earth or it is something more ominous; call it the new abnormal. But in recent years, suburban and rural residents have found themselves facing multiple disruptions like Mr. Frohne’s. Experts say the violent weather of the past few years in the Northeast is stressing the 20th century above-ground utility grid as never before, along with the people who depend on it.

Although the New York Times writer Peter Applebome pleaded ignorance about the “eternally unpredictable chaos of weather,” he at least quoted one suffering American who offered a cogent rebuke to his avoidance of climate reality.

“It’s global warming,” Sue Gress of New Canaan, Connecticut, told the Times. “No one wants to believe it, but things are changing. There’s much more violent weather, and we’re not prepared to deal with it.”

Gress has the science right. The existing increase in extreme precipitation events in the United States is unequivocal, and strongly linked to greenhouse pollution. The future — driven by the hyperexponential increase in greenhouse concentrations in recent decades — is guaranteed to bring even more devastating weather. The only uncertainty is in how quickly weather will become more extreme, and wherethe storms, floods, droughts, and heat waves of unprecedented ferocity will strike.

At the GreenGov conference in Washington on Wednesday, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) official David Kaufman agreed with that sentiment. He explained climate change is a significant driver of disaster vulnerability, but the real threat comes from the combination of climate change with other risk factors: migration into vulnerable areas, an aging population, and a overtaxed and declining infrastructure. Kaufman cautioned that too much disaster planning relies on a retrospective look at patterns of weather in the past, instead of recognizing the reality of changing climate risks.

Much of the suffering of the American families described in the New York Times story was avoidable. The fundamental responsibility lies at the feet of the fossil fuel industry that for decades has blocked the scientific urgency of reducing carbon pollution from becoming policy. The failure to address the consequences is similarly grave. “A report by the Edison Electric Institute updated at the end of 2010 said that over the past 10 years, at least 11 states studied putting utility lines underground — usually after devastating storms — only to find it too expensive,” Applebome writes. Of course, the report cautions that “underground is not completely immune to storm damage (e.g., flooding and damage to cables from uprooted trees).”

Economists who have attempted to assess the exposure of the American economy to climate change have generally delivered insane underestimates based on a naive presupposition that wealth insulates the nation against significant damage, ignoring the systemic risks from the rapidly growing, unprecedented global threat. Most climate scientists haven’t bothered to translate the data from their circulation models into information useful for policy makers. However, some scientists and economists are beginning to work together to provide a more realistic assessment of our nation’s unavoidable exposure to severe climate damages.

The next challenge is for the essential disciplines and industries involved in climate resilience, such as civil engineering, urban planning, journalism, and insurance, to throw out risk management tools based on the now-false assumption of a stable climate, and to work collectively to protect our society from the coming onslaught of the “angry beast” of a superheated climate.

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