U.S. preparation for climate impacts will be in vain without mitigating its causes

• February 22, 2013
Levee in New Orleans, Creative Commons: Jeff Marks, 2010

Levee in New Orleans, Creative Commons: Jeff Marks, 2010

In Washington D.C., a new levee is being built to protect government buildings from storm surges, standing 12.5 feet tall and stretching from the iconic Washington monument to the World War II memorial.  The levee may be a surprising development, especially to the 35,000 protesters that gathered nearby at the Forward on Climate rally this past Sunday.  Yet it speaks to the U.S. government’s piecemeal efforts to confront climate change: it may recognize the threats of climate change, yet it lacks coordinated action to cut greenhouse gas emissions, the source of climate change.  Effectively confronting climate change requires that we not only prepare for what risks are already inevitable, but that we simultaneously  work to curb future impacts by reducing emissions.

In the wake of devastating hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy, public demand for greater climate adaptation measures is finally coming to fruition, prompting cities from coast to coast to build levees and floodgates.  In New Orleans, the finishing touches are being put on extensive upgrades to the sea levees and floodgates that were so quickly overcome during Hurricane Katrina seven years ago.  In moving forward from Hurricane Sandy, New York City is looking to rebuild their infrastructure to handle the surges of similar storms in the future, including building sea levees and floodgates on the harbor.  In San Francisco, the non-profit SPUR is working to implement policies to protect Ocean Beach and the city’s coastal infrastructure.  Highways need to be re-routed away from the beach as sea levels slowly encroach inland, and the city has already trucked 73,000 cubic yards of sand to protect the severely eroded south end of Ocean Beach.

These adaptation measures are absolutely essential to coping with the inevitable changes in weather patterns and storm intensity.  There is a concreteness to the need to adapt that is appealing to government and the public.  This tangibility is lacking, however, when discussing the equally important complement to adaptation: climate mitigation, or reduction of the very greenhouse gases causing sea level rise and superstorms in the first place.

When Hurricane Sandy devastated the iconic cultural hub of New York City, a great deal of energy was spent wondering why leaders didn’t implement structural changes to protect the city years ago.  It was a debate identical to the media coverage following the havoc wreaked upon New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina in 2005: why weren’t better levees built to protect this low-lying coastal city?

This same perspective granted by hindsight should be applied to mitigation measures.  As long as business-as-usual in the U.S. continues to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, our society remains vulnerable.  Communities attempting to rebuild and adapt will be on the losing side of a game of catch-up to keep pace with runaway climate change.

Evidence of the game of catch-up can already be seen.  In New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers touts that the upgraded levee system protects the city from the kind of storms that, historically, are likely to occur once every 186 years.  New data on climate impacts, however, undermines that statistic, given that several such ‘once-in-a-century’ storms have been seen in the past decade.  And in Washington, D.C., the limited funding for the levee on the Mall only allowed for protection from the surges expected in Category 1 and 2 hurricanes – but climate change exacerbates storms, increasing storm surges and enabling them to carry more precipitation, making hurricanes of higher categories more likely.  It may be that current adaptation measures are already out of date.

The only way to ensure the safety of our cities and communities is to work on climate change holistically, looking at both its immediate and future impacts.  A climate-adaptive infrastructure will not only shield cities from storms, but work to build a clean energy economy that minimizes the emissions that make these storms inevitable.  Raising sea levees and floodgates must be accompanied by raising wind turbines and solar panels.  Attending to one without the other is self-defeating.


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About the Author

Emily is a graduate of St. Mary's College of Maryland with a B.A. in psychology. While in school, she spent her time leading environmental and social justice campaigns. She recently worked for the Chesapeake Climate Action Network as a grassroots organizer for a moratorium on natural gas fracking in Maryland.

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