Can We Handle Nature’s New Norm? Part 1: Angry Weather

by Bill Becker

The term “perfect storm” is overused now, but it is the perfect metaphor for the violent relationship between people and the environment today.  We are experiencing a  convergence of factors that are putting us at great risk. For example:

  • Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe.
  • The big public works projects we built to protect us from natural disasters over the past century may no longer be affordable or the best option.
  • The idea that we can bulldozer natural systems into submission and live wherever we wish has put millions of Americans in harms way.
  • Weather-related disasters are becoming a clear and present danger to security at home and abroad.
  • Our national leaders generally seem oblivious to this mounting danger, or in denial that it is real, allowing politics and flat-earth ideology to prevail over common sense.
  • Even if our politicians were willing to unify around a national response to extreme weather, budget problems have greatly diminished governments’ capacity to act.

In this three-part post, I’ll weave together data from a variety of sources and experts to explore whether we are ready to live in nature’s new norm.

The threshold question is whether the historic storms, drought, fires, floods and hurricanes we’re seeing today are aberrations, or the beginning of an epoch of angry weather?  Evidence suggests the latter. But the majority party in the House of Representatives and most of the politicians running for president subscribe to the aberration theory.

Shortly after he announced his candidacy for president in August, Texas Gov. Rick Perry was caught on tape commenting on the drought that is killing crops, cattle and family businesses in his state.  As he spoke, Texas was suffering from a period of drought that so far has lasted, off and on, for 15 years. Seventy-eight percent of Texas was suffering from “exceptional drought”. Farmers and ranchers were expecting to lose $10 billion this year waiting for rain.

That’s not all.  Texas has been on fire. Since the current fire season started last November, the Texas Forest Service and local fire departments have been called out to fight more than 20,000 fires that have burned more than 3.5 million acres.

“We’ll be fine,” Perry told folks at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 15. “As my dad says, it’ll rain. It always does.” That forecast was both insensitive and risky.  Regrettably, it’s not his father’s weather any more.

Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University, one of the 97 percent of climate scientists who conclude a big change in climate is underway, sees the drought differently. “It’s a new normal and I really do think that global weirding is the best way to describe what we’re seeing“, she says.

At a campaign event in Florida, Michelle Bachmann implied that Hurricane Irene and the recent earthquakes in Colorado and on the East Coast were a message from God that government is spending too much money. In her words

I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians. We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?’ Listen to the American people because the American people are roaring right now. They know government is on a morbid obesity diet and we’ve got to rein in the spending.

Bachmann said later that she meant the comment in a “humorous vein”. But natural disasters are not a laughing matter. In 2010, there were more than 370 natural disasters worldwide, killing nearly 300,000 people, affecting more than 200 million others and costing nearly $110 billion.

Some of the worst natural disasters last year, for example the earthquake in Haiti,  were not climate-related, but most were. Weather-related disasters are by far the most frequent type.

As Perry noted in other comments at the Iowa fair, we’ve always had bad weather years.   What’s new is that climate change apparently is adding adrenalin to other more traditional forces, and we’re seeing a trend. The International Research Institute for Climate and Society estimates that worldwide financial losses from climate-related disasters increased 50 percent from 2000 to 2009, from $50 billion to $72 billion annually.

The United Nations General Assembly has become concerned enough to conduct its first-ever debate on disaster risk reduction in February 2011. “Barely a day went by without lives devastated, homes demolished, people displaced, and carefully cultivated hopes destroyed,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said of 2010. “It was one of the deadliest years in more than a generation.”

The Secretary General’s Special Representative for Disaster Risk Reduction, Margareta Wahlström, warns that 2010 could have been just a sample of what’s in store.   Last year’s exceptional destruction “could be seen as benign in years to come.” she says. “Unless we act now, we will see more and more disasters due to unplanned urbanization and environmental degradation. And weather-related disasters are sure to rise in the future, due to factors that include climate change.”

In the United States so far this year, families and communities have been slammed with 10 weather disasters costing $1 billion or more.  Damages from floods, fires, tornadoes and drought totaled $35 billion as summer ended, not counting Hurricane Irene and whatever other destructive tantrums Mother Nature throws between now and Dec. 31.

These huge costs have big implications for local and national budgets, many of them disasters in their own right.  That should concern fiscal conservatives and taxpayers, as well as disaster victims who may find someday soon that the government does not have the capacity to help.

No one – Republican, Democrat or Independent – and no part of the country – East, South, North or West — is exempt from the effects of climate change, whether the impacts are destructive in seconds or slow-moving erosions of our economic vitality and quality of life.

The American Security Project has compiled state-by-state projections of the costs of unmitigated climate change, the states represented by some of Congress’s most adamant climate deniers:

  • In Michigan, represented in part by Rep. Fred Upton, chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, declining water levels in Lake Michigan and Lake Huron will threaten a shipping industry that contributes more than $3 billion in regional business and personal income.  Warmer temperatures and drought are likely to adversely affect the state’s $64 billion agriculture industry. Overall, the failure to mitigate climate change could cost Michigan’s economy more than $18 billion and more than 100,000 jobs.
  • In Kentucky, home of U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield, a member of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, climate change could alter or destroy 25 percent of the state’s forests, harming a wood-products industry that employs 37,500 Kentuckians and adds $64 billion to the state’s economy. Changes in the state’s water supply are expected to harm fishing, hunting and wildlife viewing and a tourism industry that provides nearly 42,000 jobs.
  • In Oklahoma, represented by Sen. James “It’s a Hoax” Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Environment, wheat yields may decline by nearly 40 percent as temperatures exceed that crop’s tolerance for heat. The failure to mitigate climate change could cost the Oklahoma economy nearly $40 billion and 312,000 jobs over the next 40 years.

Politicians who support big oil, one of the fossil fuels responsible for anthropogenic climate change, will find themselves at odds with other big industries vulnerable to climate instability, among them property and casualty insurers.  According to Thomas Loster of Munich Re – one of the big companies that insures insurers:

The number of really big weather disasters has increased four-fold if we compare the last decade to the 1960s. The economic losses have leaped seven- fold and the insured losses are 11 times greater.

The CEO of America’s largest publicly traded home insurer, Thomas Wilson of Allstate, told investors earlier this year that his company now assumes frequent extreme weather events are here to stay.  “There is a lot more severe weather,” he said. “We are running our homeowners business as if this is a permanent change as opposed to an anomaly.”

Whatever their politics, world-view or vested interests, elected officials have a responsibility to help the American people manage the risk that extreme weather and other climate-related traumas will continue.  Skepticism about climate science is no excuse. Paradoxically, the more uncertain the deniers are about climate change, the greater their responsibility to act.  As researchers at Sandia National Laboratory have put it:

Policy makers will most likely need to make decisions about climate policy before climate scientists have resolved all relevant uncertainties about the impacts of climate change….  Compelling risk derives from uncertainty, not certainty. The greater the uncertainty, the greater the risk. It is the uncertainty associated with climate change that validates the need to act protectively and proactively.

As I’ll explain in Parts 2 and 3, reducing our climate risks will require some profound changes in the way we think and do business. The willingness to lead and facilitate those changes ought to be a perquisite for public office today. Indeed, the 2012 election season should go down in history as the Great Climate Campaign. Anything less will literally invite disaster.

Bill Becker is a senior associate at the London-based sustainability think tank E3G and at Natural Capitalism Solutions in Colorado. This post is excerpted from articles in the current issue of the Crisis Response Journal and next January’s issue of the journal Solutions. For more information on how to assess and manage climate risks, see the E3G study “Degrees of Risk”.

23 Responses to Can We Handle Nature’s New Norm? Part 1: Angry Weather

  1. Leif says:

    I would like to point out that EXXON et al., Kochs and the other exploiters of the commons often pay little or no taxes so their profits earn ~25% more, compared to us working stiffs, than the astronomical earnings numbers show. Why change a winning strategy?

  2. cervantes says:

    It seems to me that the reality of increasingly extreme weather is already at the point where it is simply impossible to ignore. Even though the corporate media continues to resolutely avoid attributing these events to any common cause, people can’t help noticing. In fact, a very high percentage of the population has experienced great hardship in just the past few years, and it seems to be increasing. Here in New England we’ve just been clobbered by a horrifically snowy winter followed now by the elimination of electricity, for periods of a day to a week and half, from the entire region. Now the Gulf coast appears about to get a world historical soaking, and I just can’t imagine what it has been like to live in the lower Midwest this summer. We can’t outrun reality — people just know something is going on and it’s going to get through to the concrete brains of reporters and editors soon enough. Then there will be politicians who start to get the idea that this can be a winning issue. When the wolf bites you, you have to believe.

  3. Lynden says:

    This is from the official state climatologist who also happens to work for Texas A & M. I think the June, July, August weather for Texas was 2.7 standard deviations from the norm.
    August in Houston was 3.7 standard deviations. All but one day in August hit 100. Prior to 2000 only 1/2 of years would even have a 100 degree day.

  4. Lewis Cleverdon says:

    Bill – this overview of rising US impacts is very timely. Allstate’s acknowledgement of more severe weather is surely quite a coup, for all it fails to reflect the fact that this is not “the new norm”, this is just a point on the curve of intensifying climate destabilization.

    You wrote:
    “Indeed, the 2012 election season should go down in history as the Great Climate Campaign. Anything less will literally invite disaster.”

    Given that the threat of progressives witholding their votes, funds and active support from Obama’s campaign to push him to end the moratorium on official climate action seems more than likely to result in his moving further right to court more of the centre gound votes,
    can you suggest any better way to make 2012 “the Great Climate Campaign” than mounting a successful primary challenge to Obama by a person who will lead on climate front and centre ?

    Of course no option offers a garantee of success, but which offers the best chance in your view ?



  5. George Ennis says:

    “…extreme weather is already at the point where it is simply impossible to ignore.”

    I only wish that were so. If you turn to most US media you have either no connecting of the dots for these extreme weather events or worse no coverage. It becomes a variation on that old quote, if an extreme weather event happens but no one reports on the possible links to climate change does it make any difference?

  6. catman306 says:

    Name him/her and I will vote, with a write-in if necessary.

  7. Peter Mizla says:

    The ‘Storms’ Hansen speaks of in his book are just beginning-

    will be be able to handle them? in the short term (this decade) yes- beyond that probably becoming dicey.

    It will all fall apart by the end of the 2020’s.

  8. Peter Mizla says:

    just a question– why are all my posts ‘awaiting moderation’?

    [JR: Sorry. Just random, I think, that some of your posts are going into moderation. This upgraded system takes a little bit of getting used to.]

  9. It is highly unlikely that the wood-products industry contributes more than a million $/worker to the Kentucky economy.

    Since the total gross state product for 2006 was US$146 billion (Wikipedia), the $64 billion alleged contribution of the Kentucky wood-products industry is also highly suspect.

  10. Michael Tucker says:

    “Whatever their politics, world-view or vested interests, elected officials have a responsibility to help the American people manage the risk that extreme weather and other climate-related traumas will continue.”

    Yet Republicans and the radical conservatives deny that responsibility. They ignore that responsibility with the smug self-satisfaction of feeling like they are teaching the country a lesson. So politics, world-view and most importantly vested interests are the most important factor with that bunch. It will not change until the country gets tired of eating the s@#t sandwich the Republicans have to offer.

  11. dbmetzger says:

    As far as fighting against famine…
    Ethiopia Prepares for Future Famines
    The Ethiopian organization Ethio-Organic Seed Action is working to promote sustainable farming, supporting communal seed banks which encourage biodiversity in planting and strengthen local seed strains.

  12. Pangolin says:

    We’re totally hosed.

    Face facts, the people who make the decisions are not voters they are politicians and media executives. They are largely protected by their wealth from losses due to climate change effects and their wealth is increased by continued delay and denial.

    Losing a few weeks or even a years income to bad weather losses is simply not part of their world-view. The worst thing that happens to them is they get a delayed flight and somebody else picks up that additional hotel and restaurant tab.

  13. Pangolin says:

    The best seeds in the world are useless if it doesn’t rain at all or if flooding rains wash away your topsoil.

  14. kermit says:

    The wealthy will pay also, Pangolin. But it gives me little satisfaction, knowing that they will take my grandchildren – and theirs – with them.

    What is this madness that infests humankind, especially here in my home country, the US? I can describe it, I was raised immersed in it, but it has always baffled me.

    What is so infuriating is that it could have been dealt with pretty much painlessly had we started ten years ago.

  15. Dr.A.Jagadeesh says:

    Man is helpless at Nature’s fury. Whether it is agreed or not Climate Change has certainly a role in the natural diasters we have been witnessing in the near past.

    Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP),India

  16. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    How to handle the new norm:

    Put hands over eyes and shout “Not happening, not happening”.

    Preparatory adaption, will never happen. Reactive adaptation will require multiple events. How many? No idea, the stupidity of man is unlimited.

  17. Merrelyn Emery says:

    There is a real danger in referring to this escalating pattern of extremes as the ‘new normal’. Given the propensity of the human mind to adapt to its immediate environment, this new term is encouraging adaptation and, therefore, acceptance.

    It is a self-defeating strategy, encouraging those who have vested interests in the claim that “disaters have always hapened – we’re only experiencing a rough patch”. Or those who claim it is out of our hands.

    We should be continually pointing that these patterns are extremely ABnormal, expensive, dangerous and caused by us. We need to be continually reminding people that we must concentrate all our efforts on restoring, as much as possible, the stable weather patterns of the past.

    I am sure that it is not the intention to encourage acceptance when we are in the fight of our lives, but unfortunately, this will be the effect of using ‘new normal’. We definitely do not want people to get used to this, ME

  18. Paul magnus says:

    No! If fact the insurance industry is effectively toast now.

    We are on, at this rate, for collapse by before 2020.
    There is no way modern society can cope with the escalating climate extremes and peak oil over the next ten years.

  19. Raul M. says:

    Just looking,
    How to turn your in-ground swimming pool into a rec. room.
    doesn’t seem to have the activist tags on it and probably would pass building codes easily.
    It could probably save someone the unexpected evacuation time and with solar power on its domed roof it could be used for a real rec. room even in a pinch.
    Just thinking.

  20. Bill Becker says:

    Lewis, short of enlisting James Lee Witt to run for “Master of Disaster” in 2012, I’m not sure what our strategy should be. As you can see in this post, I’m emphasizing risk management as the approach to persuading politicians to deal with climate. The idea in this frame is this: Whether or not you believe in climate change, you must accept the possibility the science is correct. And if it’s possible, then it’s irresponsible not to manage to risk and prepare for the worst case. In Part 3 of the post, I’ll suggest some federal policy reforms that will help, as well as local actions. But the elements of this perfect storm — unmitigated climate change, government budget problems, aging infrastructure, etc. — make this a very difficult problem. My feeling at this point in the election cycle is that 1) there will come a point the new norm is undeniable, and 2) Barack Obama is still more teachable, and more likely to reach an aha moment about this issue, than any of the other people in the race.

  21. Bill Becker says:

    A good point, Merrelyn. My intention was to use “new normal” to make the point that these weather events are not aberrations, but the consequences of our actions. The danger won’t be reduced until we change those actions.

    I don’t think it’s possible to prevent more of what we’re seeing — and in those cases, we will have to adapt — but it may still be possible to prevent what we’re seeing from getting even worse.

    But to your point: Yes, if we call these disasters “the new normal”, we have to qualify that description. It’s certainly not the new desirable. And it isn’t unchangeable. Please keep thinking about this. I would welcome your suggestions on what language we should use to avoid the traps you mention.

  22. Merrelyn Emery says:

    Hi Bill, my personal preference is:

    “Wecome to the new ABnormal – as predicted by climate scientists”.
    [This plays on the observation that 1/100 is now more like 1/5 but I am probably being too smart for my own good here.]

    There are others such:
    Our days of disaster – as predicted…
    The era of extremes – as predicted…

    I’m sure there are others but whatever your choice, the critical point is “as predicted”. Now is the time to cash in on our capital. Even the most unobservant nong in the USA must have started to get the feeling that something has gone wrong. If they start hearing “as predicted” all over the place, it is inevitable that links will be made and it will start seeping in through that layer of previously impervious belief and/or denial.

    Seeing first hand is still the bedrock of human belief systems so we reinforce that and add our little rider.

    As soon as that impervious layer is breached, half the battle is over as no effort of conscious thought can overcome the now deep suspicion that the scientists were right all along and we are causing it – and now it’s happening!

    I reckon it’s worth a bit of a campaign, ME

  23. Aaron Lewis says:

    Re # 3
    Relatively, Houston has not warmed as much as the Arctic or parts of Antarctica. Just that we do not have the same kind of data records for those places.