Roger Cohen, The Quest to Belong
Next year’s Thanksgiving grace.
Julie Cart, New Mexico is the driest of the dry
Across the West, changes in the climate are taking a toll. Almost 87% of the region is in a drought.
Nevada is removing wild horses and stocks of cattle from federal rangelands, Wyoming is seeding clouds as part of a long-term “weather modification program,” officials in Colorado say the state’s southeastern plains are experiencing Dust Bowl conditions, and the entire western U.S. has been beset by more frequent and ferocious wildfires across an ever-more combustible landscape.
But nowhere is it worse than in New Mexico. In this parched state, the question is no longer how much worse it can get but whether it will ever get better — and, ominously, whether collapsing ecosystems can recover even if it does.
The statistics are sobering: All of New Mexico is officially in a drought, and three-quarters of it is categorized as severe or exceptional. Reservoir storage statewide is 17% of normal, lowest in the West. Residents of some towns subsist on trucked-in water, and others are drilling deep wells costing $100,000 or more to sink and still more to operate.
Federal scientists are grimly watching a rare ecological phenomenon unfold here, a catastrophic alteration known as “state change” — the collapse of the vast Chihuahuan Desert grasslands ecosystem and its transformation into a sandy, scrub desert affording little forage for wildlife or livestock.
Carpeting the landscape in lush waves, Black Grama grass had long been the signature of the 140,000-square-mile Chihuahuan Desert. But overgrazing and persistent drought have hit hard here, reducing the grass to small, stiff tufts, sparsely spaced.
The 10,000-year-old desert is changing, scientists say. Grasses are in a cycle of collapse, overwhelmed by hardy and long-lived shrubs such as mesquite and creosote.
As vegetation dies off and the process of desertification accelerates, [Brandon] Bestelmeyer [of the Department of Agriculture] said, the Chihuahuan Desert will expand. As Western cities continue their march into wildlands, the growing desert and the sprawling suburbs are on a collision course.
Bestelmeyer, a landscape ecologist, describes what’s at stake: “If we lose the grasslands, grazing is over, and the generations of people who depend on grazing will lose their livelihoods.”
Biodiversity will decline as wildlife and bird species move away or die off. Moreover, a denuded landscape loses its ability to transport water to recharge aquifers, a crucial resource in the desert.
Finally, he said, without vegetation to hold soils in place, dust and sand will be on the move and encroach onto roads, crops, homes and businesses.
"You don’t want a Sahara here," Bestelmeyer said.
Get ready, though, it’s coming. And long before that, people will have to leave. The climate is not going to spring back, and once the state change has happened — once the animals are gone, and the aquifers are drained — it might take thousands of years to undo, even if the rains return.
Farmers in Brazil are more likely to invade each others’ land in years that are particularly wet or unusually dry. Americans honk their horns more at other cars when it’s hot outside. Countries in the tropics are more likely to have civil wars in years that are especially hot or dry.
They may seem random, but actually, these events are all connected. New research from Princeton University and UC Berkeley published today in Science reveals a link between big shifts in climate and precipitation and a rise in interpersonal violence, institutional breakdown, and especially inter-group violence, such as war. Not only does the paper shed light on past bouts of global conflict, it also offers a warning about the future. The world is expected to warm by at least 2 degrees Celsius over the next few decades, unless governments do something drastic, and the researchers say that increased bloodshed could be a serious side-effect of that trend.
Read more. [Image: Wikimedia Commons]
In 2004, [Rep. Earl] Blumenauer [D-Oregon] did push through a major overhaul of the insurance program, including incentives to raise or buy out houses that had been damaged multiple times. But it took hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and a more deficit-minded Congress, to pass another flood insurance reform bill last year that finally limited subsidies for second homes and for properties that were damaged repeatedly.
Under that 2012 reform, such homes will see premiums rise dramatically over the next five years, eventually bringing 400,000 of the most heavily subsidized properties up to market rates. The new law also lets FEMA buy homes that are considered “severe repetitive losses” at their full pre-disaster price, rather than the 75 percent it offered before.
But perhaps the most significant change in the reform involved maps—specifically, FEMA’s floodplain maps, which determine who must buy flood insurance. Those maps can now for the first time include “future changes in sea levels, precipitation, and intensity of hurricanes.” But there’s a catch: Those changes don’t affect the new flood maps FEMA is currently releasing, the first in 30 years. Floodplain maps issued for New York City and coastal New Jersey in late 2012 and early 2013, for example, don’t account for sea level rise. Maps for the rest of the country are rolling out slowly, and it’s unclear when they will start including sea level projections.
Back during the Bush administration, in 2007, FEMA began a major assessment of how climate change would affect the flood insurance program, with a projected completion date of 2010. When FEMA finally released the report in June 2013, it included a number of alarming findings. Rising seas and severe weather are expected to increase the area of the United States at risk of floods by up to 45 percent by 2100, doubling the number of people insured by an already insolvent program.
It will take another cluster of major storms before the US moves people off the coasts (see this on tail risk).
Paul Krugman, Invest, Divest and Prosper
Krugman boils down the GOP argument against President Obama’s EPA plans: they have no deep-seated philosophic beliefs other than the powerful should be unfettered by considerations of what is good for the people as a whole. To that end, they wield their ‘conservative’ ideology as a blunt instrument, with no intention of conserving anything aside from the spoils they have stolen from us.
MSNBC: 41 seconds
Oh, great. As if we needed proof of the energy cartel’s stranglehold on American media.
The American cult of individualism, the doctrine of private property, and human short-sightedness are combining to set the stage for a vast, wholesale tragedy in New York Harbor:
Thomas Kaplan, New York’s Storm Recovery Plan Gets Federal Approval
A proposal to buy the damaged homes of New Yorkers who want to relocate after Hurricane Sandy is finding few takers, as most residents opt to rebuild, state officials said on Friday.
“It’s up to the homeowner, and the vast bulk of homeowners are deciding to stay right where they are and rebuild,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at a news conference in Albany.
Why is it up to the homeowner when it is the government spending billions of our money to stupidly rebuild provate homes in neighborhoods that will undoubtedly be swept by hurricanes again in the near future? Will Cuomo say the same, then? Of course, he may be out of the Governor’s mansion then, and off doing other things.
We are in the postnormal, and this is the sort of result we can expect. We’re confronted with an existential threat — the increasing violence and frequency of ocean storms, rising sea levels — and we respond as if this is still 1950, or 1850. We are unwilling to adopt new responses to new problems, and the first barrier is our understanding: we don’t realize we aren’t in Kansas anymore, but on the other side of the rainbow.
People are over Sandy now. We’re on to the next tragedy. Done. Forgotten.
Here’s the map of NYC with FEMA’s 1983 100 year and 500 year floods:
And here’s Sandy’s flooding:
So, we are having 1000 year storms how often these days? What if we have another storm, even larger than Sandy? One that causes a storm surge up Long Island Sound, which is generally considered the worst case?
Meanwhile, Hizzoner Bloomberg stated — in the same meeting where they showed these maps to the gasps of those that were there — that the city can’t afford to undertake Netherlands-style protection of the city.
What should be done? Retreat from the shore. However, that is still politically impossible. So, they will temporize, weatherize, and harden the coastlines. But this is just a disaster waiting to happen. Again.
What sort of changes in planning should we expect for New York City following Hurricane Sandy? Buildings with higher foundations, electrical systems moved from the basement to above the first floor, and watertight first floor doorways. But no retreat from the water’s edge is likely, in the near term.
New York Reassessing Building Code to Limit Storm Damage - Mireya Navarro
Some architects and building experts say the city should widen its efforts to plant more wetlands and parks that can serve as natural buffers to floods. “All the little blades of grass actually makes the flow of the water lower,” said Susannah C. Drake, associate director of the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design and the principal architect at dlandstudio.
What does not seem to be getting consideration, at least for now, is banning development altogether in the city’s flood zones, humble or affluent.
“This is not a viable policy option in New York City, and to be honest, nor is it in any other major coastal city I’ve been working,” said Jeroen Aerts, a water risk expert from the Free University in Amsterdam who has been hired by the mayor’s office to assess flood protections. “The stakes of developers and general economic activities in the waterfront are too high.”
In Mr. Aerts’s view, the most realistic options for New York are to build levees and surge barriers, and elevate and floodproof buildings.
Ms. Quinn, a likely candidate for mayor when Mr. Bloomberg’s term expires at the end of 2013, said changes in the building code were a far higher priority than rethinking zoning rules. But she said that nothing was off the table.
“I don’t think there’s anything that’s taboo to discuss at this point,” she said.
We’ll see what happens after the next storm leads to $30B in damages.
Mayor Bloomberg has gained a great deal of praise for his handling of the emergency aspect of hurricane Sandy, but he — and all of us — need to move past thinking about preparedness to emergencies that come and go. We are living in the postnormal, and we are not going to revert to some stable, predictable weather patterns. We are going to live in the eye of the storm for the rest of our lives.
Despite the potential hurdles Irwin Redlener, a public health professor, cautioned against complacency and argued that the United States shouldn’t wait any longer for meaningful policy.
"We keep on thinking about these big events like wake up calls," said Redlener. “But really they’re more like snooze alarms. I’m hoping that won’t be the case here".
To decide on and push through these reforms Cynthia Rosenzweig, a senior scientist at Columbia’s Nasa-Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said that cities were providing the best examples of leadership. Rosenzweig specifically lauded New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg who in 2008 created the New York City Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, which brought together all the managers of critical infrastructure in New York’s metropolitan region, including cell phone companies and utilities. Rosenzweig praised Bloomberg for his willingness to include scientists in the discussions and his ability to bring different groups together.
Redlener, however, stressed that leadership also meant getting tough with climate denial. “It’s more than just gathering people in groups to talk about what the issues are,” said Redlener. “This has to do with the real hardcore bully pulpit leadership where the president of the United States says: ‘I’m committed to taking this on.’”
The group was formed in 2008, but think of the things that went undone, like having no solution in place to stop the flooding of the subways. The storm led to widespread loss of power because of antiquated electrical systems and the almost universal practice of electric lines on poles, instead of buried lines. Leave aside the challenges of building on high risk areas near the shore.
So, while putting together a task force is praiseworthy, the fact is that nothing of the scale necessary to contend with storms like Sandy was done.
And now, I am betting that the snooze alarm is already being hit.
I wrote earlier today about Taleb’s new book, Antifragile. We need to shift our thinking toward making cities — regions — antifragile rather than working on disaster response. In this regard, we need to take what are going to be politically challenging actions, like
This is true in densely populated New York City, which will have to — over the next decades — depopulate.
Don’t fall in love with yourselves. We have a nice time here. But remember, carnivals come cheap. What matters is the day after, when we will have to return to normal lives. Will there be any changes then?
- Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek visited Occupy Wallstreet, and wondered if any lasting change was going to come from it.
Now that Sandy has resurfaced climate change into the American discourse after being disregarded for the election season, its time to ask: Will we actually do something about climate change after Sandy? And I am not just talking about better preparedness in the mid-Atlantic region for the inevitable hundred-year-storm next season.
Are we going to see any nation-wide action taken by our leaders? Or will ‘It’s Global Warming, Stupid.’ recede from our political and societal consciousness as the lights come back on and the water is pumped out of the tunnels, and the carnival atmosphere yields to everyday life?