Sunday, August 07, 2016

Climate change begins now (even if we are unprepared)

As record floods swept away whole villages in China and India in the month just past, I was reminded that climate change activist Bill McKibben likes to say, there is Earth and then there is Eaarth.

The first planet is the one most of us grew up on. It had a stable climate, generally friendly to bumper harvests; it was usually safe because of reasonable precautions against floods and droughts; and it was conducive to persistent economic growth that was supposed to lead to material prosperity for all.

Then there is Eaarth, a forbidding planet with a climate in chaos, one shifting constantly in ways that threaten life and property with too much rain or not enough--with drought that makes Western forests mere tinder and rainfall that makes Chinese and Indian farms and cities into lakes.

Climate change used to be about the future. Its bad effects were going to be visited upon those who come after us. But we have consistently underestimated the pace and impact of human-caused climate change from the day in 1896 when Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius first theorized about the effects of carbon dioxide emissions.

Now, climate change has arrived. Some like to call it climate chaos because it changes the climate in different places in different ways and at different rates. One thing we do know. The climate we grew up with is no longer.

That implies that our entire infrastructure of roads, rails, cities, farms, dams, in fact, nearly everything may be inadequate to the challenges posed by climate change. Our first priority ought to be securing the food we will need. That will mean developing better drought and flood resistant crops. In fact, it will mean rethinking all of agriculture which is now based on an industrial model implemented during a period of exceptional climate stability from the end of World War II through the end the last century.

This one task is daunting all by itself. And yet, we must also now think anew about rivers and levees; seawalls and relocation of cities; the viability of water sources including the sea itself (through desalinization).

We imagine wrongly that this rethinking is a mere engineering problem. We believe we will simply find technology that overcomes the problems created by climate change. But even if we do--and that is by no means certain since those problems aren't presenting themselves in an orderly and timely fashion--technology is not free. We will find it very, very expensive simply to protect our current ways of doing things rather than change them to accommodate climate change.

Let's look at some examples:

Las Vegas gets 90 percent of its water from one source, Lake Mead, the lake formed by Hoover Dam on the Colorado River at the Nevada-Arizona border. Because of an ongoing drought in the southwestern United States, one that began 15 years ago, the Southern Nevada Water Authority came to fear that Lake Mead would fall below the authority's current two intakes leaving Las Vegas largely without water.

The cost of a now-completed third intake tunnel was $817 million. A companion pumping station scheduled for completion in 2020 will cost an additional $650 million. That's $1.47 billion for one additional intake for one city.

Despite this, water may be rationed starting next year if lake levels don't stabilize.

Oh, but wait, there's more. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the operators of Hoover Dam, are replacing turbines that generate much of Las Vegas's electricity because the current ones might not work as the lake level continues to decline. No cost estimate was provided.

When it comes to taking the train, you may decide not to if a climate change enhanced heat wave is in progress and likely to cause "sun kinks" in the tracks. These are deformations or bucklings resulting from exceptionally high heat. Derailments from this cause are already on the rise. What would it cost to make existing railroad tracks kinkproof? We don't know, but it's bound to be a lot. (By the way, taking the car won't be a solution as similar suddenly appearing buckling in roads can send cars flying. Not all kinks are as benign as the one I've linked to.)

Of course, sea level rise will be an enormously costly problem for the more than 2 billion people who live within 60 miles of a coastline. The Dutch have been holding the sea at back for centuries and have the most advanced and nuanced plan for addressing ongoing sea level rise. It isn't one that just holds the water back, but rather, in part, works with nature to provide for the natural ebb and flow of water.

The Dutch are good at engineering, too. They invested $3 billion in the so-called Europoort (sic) barrier that protects Rotterdam. That was 20 years ago, and so costs would be much higher today.

All these costs are in addition to mere maintenance of existing infrastructure for which the United States, for example, has already gotten a D+ grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). The ASCE estimated that just restoring the existing U.S. infrastructure to acceptable working order would cost $3.6 trillion by 2020. Many other countries have done a better job. But it's hard to see how the world's poor countries could both keep up with necessary maintenance AND build additional or enhanced infrastructure to meet the rigors of climate change.

Understandably, it's hard to plan when you have a wall of water coming at you as villagers in China and India experienced in recent floods. Both countries are faced with huge bills for an emergency response to what are turning out to be historic floods.

Right now humanity is like a patient without medical insurance or a doctor, one who visits the emergency room every time something serious goes wrong. That's a costly practice as is merely reacting to the inevitable catastrophes that climate change is now inflicting and will inflict upon us in the future. That said, it may be just as costly, though wiser, to prepare for climate change.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He is a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and author of the peak-oil-themed novel Prelude. In addition, he has written columns for the Paris-based science news site Scitizen, and his work has been featured on Energy Bulletin (now, The Oil Drum,, Econ Matters, Peak Oil Review, 321energy, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique and many other sites. He maintains a blog called Resource Insights and can be contacted at

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