We need to look at insurance, zoning, locations of critical infrastructure and more to understand what kind of risk we are creating.
Super Typhoon Mangkhut is thrashing the Philippines and Hurricane Florence is churning the East Coast of the United States. Pundit after pundit is declaring them predictors of an apocalyptic climate change future.
These sorts of warnings have become numbingly frequent. And, in the US, blaming an event like Florence on climate change alone can be politically divisive.
There are two main aspects of the claim that can raise hackles and paralyse comprehensive responses.
The first aspect is the scything off of climate change from other forms of environmental change.
As was seen during Hurricane Katrina (2005), some of the disaster was caused by the way the US Army Corps of Engineers had been used to reengineer physical environments to make them more profitable—for example, building dykes to hold back the water so developers could build on what had previously been flood plains. This made a region already prone to flooding even more vulnerable, especially if the dykes are less than stable.
And, even without the reengineering, city planners are often under pressure to ease zoning regulations and allow development in areas that are known to flood. Even under the best of circumstances, often zoning only looks at whether a site is currently at risk, not whether it is likely to flood in the future decades (well within the lifetime of most infrastructure) under current environmental/climate change projections.
With all this infrastructure in obviously bad locations, why do Americans keep living and working in obviously dangerous areas?
In the US, a big reason is the federally funded National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP). The NFIP can step in when private insurers refuse to insure because the location is obviously a bad bet. Some of the beachfront properties that are currently being pummelled by Florence have been destroyed by hurricanes multiple times and rebuilt each time with NFIP money.
By providing subsidised, and detached from reality, flood insurance, the government hides the real risk of living in vulnerable areas. That imperils people and businesses and shifts the economic cost to the rest of the US population.
As of April 2018, the NFIP was $20.5 billion in debt. We’ll see what it is after Florence. The costs are likely to be in the billions, with countless lives destroyed because they were given an inaccurate sense of their risk.
Just these three factors, the NFIP, the way the US Army Corps of Engineers was sometimes used, and politically and economically motivated zoning laws have combined to put millions of Americans and billions of dollars in assets at risk. Even without climate change.
Which leads to the second reason there can be push-back on the “climate change apocalypse” framing. They are often a preamble to a specific, narrow set of remedial measures, usually associated with greenhouse gases.
There are lots of good, important reasons to accelerate the take-up of renewable energy, reforestation, etc. However, given the complexity of the environmental change challenge, as seen from the examples above, it is not a complete pathway to environmental security. If a solar farm is installed in a flood plain for political reasons, and then the economic and social cost of it being flooded is offloaded onto taxpayers, we aren’t that much further ahead. We need more comprehensive solutions.
There are places such as parts of coastal India, small island states (including the Maldives) and the Arctic where a changing climate is a unique destabiliser. Globally, the problem is even broader and more complex, and delivering real security will take a larger suite of solutions than those who talk “simply” about climate change.
This large-scale geo-physical vulnerability is because humans have been great at building into, and maximising the use of, our physical environment. If there is a coastal hill overlooking the entrance to a deep-water bay or major river system, and near a fertile plain, chances are good that someone has built a defensive fortification on top of it in order to protect the almost inevitable resulting economic activity down below. Such as Vasai Fort near Mumbai, Chapora Fort in Goa and Bekal Fort in Kerala.
The implicit assumption is that the environment that was there when the site was chosen will not change. The coast won’t flood, the river won’t run dry, the plains won’t parch with drought. But the environment is always changing, now faster than in recent history due to population growth and movement, extreme climate shifts and more.
Through technological advances—better flood defences, water desalination, more efficient farming—we can try to keep pace, but increasingly our physical infrastructure ends up so out of sync with the changed physical environment that cradled it that we get hit by “natural” disaster after natural disaster.
The modern equivalent of the fort on the hill is the military base (sometimes positioned on those same hills). A January 2018 United States Department of Defense report looked at “Climate-Related Risk to DoD Infrastructure”. The assessment concluded that up to half of US Department of Defense installations were already being affected by climate change.
There have been several high profile cases of US bases that were supposed to help during a crisis themselves becoming security sinks that had to be evacuated. For example Keesler Air Force Base suffered large-scale damage during Katrina. However, for political reasons, many of these vulnerable bases are simply rebuilt in the same location. No Congressperson likes to lose an economically valuable base in their region. With increasing climate extremes already in the system, solving this is a political and economic issue as much as a climate one.
We see this pattern all over the world. On the civilian side, there are systemic problems with some airports. Airports need to be in a certain sort of location. They require a lot of flat land, ideally close to, but not too close to, large populations. Large populations need a lot of water, which is why most major cities are near rivers, lakes or coasts.
This means some airports are built on reclaimed coastal land (examples: LaGuardia, Hong Kong, Doha, Kansai, Macau) or in areas that weren’t already developed, in some cases because they were environmentally vulnerable, like flood plains. Airports have a long life. Construction on LaGuardia began in 1937. The environment can change a lot in 80 years. It, along with many other airports, is flooding more and more often. As we saw recently during the Kerala floods.
Yes, climate change is a serious challenge. And it is combining with other aspects of environmental change, as well as politics and economics, to trigger increasingly disruptive events. All three must be understood and addressed together if we are going to achieve anything close to security, let alone prosperity.
We need to look at insurance, zoning, locations of critical infrastructure and more, and over a much longer time frame, to understand what kind of risk we are creating. Otherwise, our world will be filled with many more Florences.
Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian North America Special Correspondent.