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Hedging Climate Bets: Hurricane Sandy and Climate Adaptation

With environmental issues, crisis often spurs action.  Nuclear safety was ramped up after Three Mile Island.  Hazardous waste laws were strengthened after Love Canal.  And oil transport laws were refined after the Exxon Valdez spill.

Along the same lines, Hurricane Sandy has generated renewed attention to the potential effects of climate change and the issue of climate adaptation.  Hurricane Sandy impacted numerous lives and the costs to New York State alone are estimated at over $40 billion.  New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s statement in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy illustrates the impact it had on those who experienced the hurricane or observed its effects:

Extreme weather is the new normal.  In the past two years, we have had two storms, each with the odds of a 100-year occurrence.  Debating why does not lead to solutions — it leads to gridlock.  The denial and deliberation from extremists on both sides about the causes of climate change are distracting us from addressing its inarguable effects.  Recent events demand that we get serious once and for all.  . . .  We need to act, not simply react. (New York Daily News, November 15, 2012.)

On the other side of the country, California has been looking at climate change impacts and adaptation strategies for several years.  As part of these efforts, California released a report earlier this year titled: “Our Changing Climate 2012: Vulnerability and Adaptation to the Increasing Risks from Climate Change in California.”  The report predicts that “[t]emperatures in California will rise significantly during this century . . . regardless of the climate model used to predict future warming.”  The report also estimates that sea level along California’s coast could rise as much as 10 to 18 inches by 2050.  According to the report, such arise would substantially increase the frequency of coastal storms with the potential to harm people and damage property.  The potential financial implications are substantial: California currently has $50 billion worth of property and at least 260,000 people located in areas vulnerable to the 100-year coastal flood.

The situations in New York and California indicate that 2013 may be the year that governments begin to take action to prepare for the potential effects of climate change.

Climate Change in Context

When evaluating whether to move forward with climate adaptation strategies, it is appropriate to consider the larger context of climate change.

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One thought on “Hedging Climate Bets: Hurricane Sandy and Climate Adaptation

  1. Nothing in science is definitive.

    The balance of evidence overwhelmingly and increasingly explains the anthropogenic causes of recent climate change. It is really quite simple. The Earth system is a finely balanced cycle of carbon, among other things. Extracting stored carbon from geological stocks and injecting it into the atmosphere where it joins the active cycling of carbon between various subsystems of the Earth system alters the balance of exchange and the effects thereof.

    The two degrees threshold for dangerous climate change is looking increasingly weak. Hansen (2010) and Andersen and Bows (2010) using different methodologies have presented evidence which strongly suggests one degree is the threshold for dangerous climate change and two degrees the threshold for very dangerous climate change. Those changes are of course already programmed because of the lag effects of existing anthropogenic contributions to the atmospheric carbon stock. Meanwhile emissions continue to rise. Not only would emissions have to cease but means would be required to sharply reduce anthropogenic contributions rapidly at a cost less than or equal to that of leaving stocks as they are. A revolutionary breakthrough cannot be discounted but the odds are not promising.

    If the science seems abstract or hard to accept we only need look to the Arctic and Greenland where melting is occurring at a scale and speed that was considered unlikely a decade ago.

    Nevertheless, the author is correct to draw attention the necessity to adapt and adapt in good time. Moreover, given the general trend of science to identify greater risks and worse impacts it may be helpful to plan for tighter carbon austerity than is currently discussed in public fora. Unless of course Nations fail in their promise to reach an agreement in 2015 on decarbonisation ( a robust and stark report from the IPCC in 2013-2014 might help).

    The foregoing suggests two adaptation scenarios. One, adaptation to the mitigation requirements of decarbonisation and the programmed consequences of existing anthropogenic atmospheric carbon disturbance. Two, adaptation to the consequences of delayed and insufficient, if any, decarbonisation which is a world four or five degrees warmer and seas a metre or more higher by 2100, as the recent roundups of science from the World Bank and PwC have shown. Either way there are opportunities for firms which adapt early and which can develop and deliver the products and services required for living on a warmer and more extreme planet.

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