Sunday, September 10, 2017

The storms are only going to get worse

We are now used to hearing about once-in-a-1,000-year floods. The fact that we are used to hearing about them tells us that they will no longer be rare. In fact, since climate change is at the heart of these events and continues unabated, we can expect that storms practically everywhere will get worse.

That's because as average atmospheric temperatures continue to rise, the atmosphere will hold more and more water vapor. And, as more and more heat gets stored in the oceans, they will provide more and more energy to the storms which pass over them.

Of course, "once in a 1,000 years" only means that the chances are one in a thousand that such a storm will occur this year or the next. In fact, this phrase doesn't actually reflect weather records. As Vox points out, we don't have reliable records going back that far. We have only about 100 years of such records for the United States, and then not for every locale. Beyond 100 years we are guessing about flood severity based on indirect evidence.

Instead of planning based on such long intervals, we will be faced with a moving target—actually a moving target of probabilities—probabilities which are rising in unknown ways at unknown speeds. Even with all of our instruments, models and scientists we cannot keep up with the changing dynamics of an atmosphere continually perturbed by climate change.

But we know the general direction; and what should terrify us is that we cannot really calculate just how bad things will get.

There is a notion afoot that we will simply adapt to climate change. How does one "adapt" to hurricanes such as Harvey and Irma if they become frequent events? If large parts of the industrial plant are shut down for weeks at a time after such a storm—as refineries producing ethylene, the basis for most plastics will likely be after Harvey—how well will the industrial infrastructure function?

We could harden our industrial, commercial and public infrastructure against such storms, but a move like this would be tricky to execute: What exactly should each installation do? And, such a move would be tremendously costly. Besides, as climate change continues to worsen, to what set of conditions are we supposed to adapt our infrastructure assuming we would be willing to spend the money?

Even if we were to decide to spend the money, if the homes of those working in the industrial, commercial and public infrastructure are destroyed or rendered uninhabitable, who is going to show up to work to run those installations after destructive storms?

Adaptation is going to be much harder than simply using more air-conditioning during the increasingly hot weather. (And, of course, in most locations using more air-conditioning will simply lead to more fossil-fuel use at electric generating plants; that will only exacerbate the problem.)

What Harvey and Irma are making clear is that the infrastructure we have built was built for a different climate and is surprisingly fragile in the face of climate change. When some scientists say that our civilization is at risk, this is what they mean. The things we expect to work and work reliably won't. This will include agriculture as climate change turns increasingly negative for food production worldwide.

Without a coherent plan to address climate change, the world will simply lurch from one climate-induced crisis to another. A focus on the immediate disaster will only make things worse as we do little or nothing to adapt to or to mitigate the warming of the globe.

That's the trajectory that the do-nothing crowd has now put us on. Are we so politically hamstrung and propagandized that we will simply allow this? The aftermath of two of the worst hurricanes ever will provide some clues.

Kurt Cobb is an author, speaker, and columnist focusing on energy and the environment. He has been a regular contributor to the Energy Voices section of The Christian Science Monitor and is 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


dennis Mitchell said...

Yes we will allow it. Just like we allow war. Part of our species always seems to be cheering on our demise. I find myself cheering for the hurricane. I am very surprised we have not used our nulcear bombs. I guess Trump wants to build some small ones. Large enough to kills millions, but small enough to not trigger a full scale reaction.

Chris Kuykendall said...

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who at that time was CEO of ExxonMobil, advanced the adaptation thesis in a film by panelist Peter Sinclair, focusing initially on the increasing severity of weather events, that was shown on Friday, October 12, 2012, at a breakfast plenary of the Society of Environmental Journalists in Lubbock, Texas. The first link below describes that conference session and identifies the panelists, which included Texas Tech University atmopheric scientist Katharine Hayhoe. The second link below is an audio-only file relating to that film presentation. Preceding discussion, including comments by Hayhoe, starts at 33:10, and then the film starts at 40:20. Tillerson's initial comments, conceding that warming will happen, occur at 44:144-44:35 of the audio file. Then his adaptation thesis comments occur at 44;46-44:56, 45:21-45:26, and 45:34-45:37.

The next day at the conference, the local Congressman from Lubbock sided basically with Tillerson rather than with his hometown atmospheric scientist from Texas Tech.

The deniers seem to think climate change is crazy-enviro activist hocuspocus ("hoax" is the usual term) that's dangerous to our beloved modern economy. For some reason they're not attentive to the preponderance of reputable career scientists who say it's a developing phenomenon, inattentiveness to which is dangerous to our beloved modern economy. I don't get it, other than to say that the deniers in their schooling and ideology have absorbed an economic orthodoxy that trumps (no pun intended) the acceptance of any scientific empiricism or modeling.

I staffed a Texas legislative committee in 1990 when the lingo was still "greenhouse effect" as opposed to the since proffered "global warming." I've always thought the lingo change was a huge mistake. "Global warming" is obscure. "Greenhouse effect" is not. People know about greenhouses with glass or other heat-trapping material keeping plants warm and about vehicle glass, with the windows rolled up on a summer's day, being not a place it's wise to leave children or pets inside. I don't know why the lingo deserted what's familiar and intuitive to substitute what's not and mysterious. It's bad framing.

Tillerson's adaptation thesis is very abstract, being absent of content specifics. Kurt Cobb's article in contrast is more cogent, pointing out some of the nuts and bolts type of adaptation changes that would be be necessary but would slam into some walls of resistant realism.

Chris Kuykendall said...

I should perhaps mention, by way of favoring "greenhouse effect" terminology over "global warming" terminology, that I am in disagreement with many who say that comparisons of what happens in the atmosphere to what happens in a greenhouse (or in a vehicle with closed windows and neither the engine nor A/C running) is a faulty analogy. I consider the analogy less than perfect, but very good, and certainly not faulty.

Physics professor Rod Nave has a webpage I like, with only a smattering of disagreement.

A key part there reads: >>A major part of the efficiency of the heating of an actual greenhouse is the trapping of the air so that the energy is not lost by convection. Keeping the hot air from escaping out the top is part of the practical "greenhouse effect", but it is common usage to refer to the infrared trapping as the "greenhouse effect" in atmospheric applications where the air trapping is not applicable.<<

I only disagree with the last seven words. Of course (as I see it subject to possible re-education and correction), air trapping *is* applicable to the case of the atmosphere taken in aggregate. If there were heat loss from the atmosphere to space by convection, which Nave defines as "heat transfer by mass motion of a fluid such as air or water," then atmospheric gases carrying heat away would have to move fluid-like into space to accomplish convection. They don't. They're trapped. If they weren't trapped, we eventually would all asphyxiate. So I think my disagreement with the faulty-analogy thesis is mainly with the seeming thesis assumption that the issue of convection somehow presents a major difference. Elaborating further, lids trap things, and a greenhouse has a lid and so does a vehicle unless it has an open sun roof or open windows. There's also a gravity-induced atmospheric lid over the earth, including at the top of the atmosphere. The lid at its top is very thin in molecules, but even there the lid is not negligible, because if it were negligible, returning astronauts would not need heat shields. So I continue to not see what is the convection-related faultiness in the greenhouse/atmosphere (effect) analogy. Other analogy shortcomings are present (e.g. glass or polyethylene solids versus gases, and where they're located), but, absent some tutoring, I fail so far to see how the convection issue damages the analogy.