Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Climate Change and Natural Disasters

      Deniers to the contrary, there is no rational doubt that the globe is getting warmer. Dramatic pictures of cracking and shrinking polar ice caps at both poles, the poleward migration of warm water animal and vegetable species, and the gradual submersion of islands testify to the fact. Already natives of Papua New Guinea's Carteret island are being moved to Bougainville island as their homeland disappears under rising seas.
      No one can say for sure how long the seas will continue to rise, but it is estimated that a rise of 50 centimeters, about 19 inches, would overflow the heavily populated coasts of countries such as Bangladesh, and cause low-lying island states like the Indian Ocean's Maldives and South Pacific's Kiribati and Tuvalu to disappear. Two uninhabited Kiribati islands, Tebua Tarawa and Abanuea, were engulfed in 1999, according to the South Pacific Regional Environment Programme, and the island of Tepuka Savilivili no longer has any coconut trees due to salination. Some communities in low-lying areas of the United States may eventually be forced to move inland if the rising seas continue at the current rate.
      Many people are convinced that the phenomenon is caused by man-made concentrations of certain “greenhouse” gases, notably carbon dioxide, given off by the burning of fossil fuel. Others feel that it is due to an act of nature or God. If this is the case, there is little we can do to reverse it. And if warming is due to acts of man, assuming we decide to do something tangible about it (which is doubtful), it is already too late to reverse it before a vast amount of damage ensues. In either case public debate should shift from questioning the basic science of global warming to getting on with reducing the impact that climate change will have on the safety and security of our economy and society
      So what should we do? If people living in hurricane areas hear of a big one coming, do they sit on the front porch to watch it? Upon learning of an approaching tornado, do Kansans stand in front of the house so they don’t miss the action? Or do they board up the windows and head for higher ground or the storm cellar in advance of the storm?
      Whether an act of man or an act of God, we are in that position with regard to global warming. The following list of preparations was originally suggested in a paper by Bracken Hendricks in a 2006 paper:

1.) Map vulnerabilities via a National Global Warming Community Impact Assessment. The federal government should invest in a solid foundation of information for decision-makers and establish a national program to assist states and localities in undertaking formal assessment and disclosure of climate risk and potential regional impacts.

2.) Develop state-level global warming preparedness plans. Using the information assembled through the National Community Impact Assessment, state and regional planning agencies, in conjunction with FEMA, should develop improved management plans for emergency preparedness in the event of natural disasters, such as hurricanes, exacerbated by global warming.

3.) Set financial disclosure requirements for documented threats. Global warming hazards should be incorporated into public disclosure requirements for property owners and managers of publicly traded companies on environmental risks and liabilities, similar to requirements governing flood plains and earthquake zones.

4.) Establish a national fund for critical infrastructure investment. Building on the example of the National Highway Trust Fund, a dedicated resource should be established to meet new and growing threats to homeland security at both the national and community level from climate change.

5.) Build smart micro-grids for emergency energy security. To reduce costs and improve system reliability and reaction times in the event of blackouts and service disruptions from natural disasters, it is essential to invest in smart and secure micro-grids. These would include on-site generation of renewable electricity sources that can withstand interruptions in flows of natural gas and electricity, while continuing to ensure critical services like traffic signals, pumping stations, emergency response services, and other critical energy needs.

      In the event that the whole climate change scenario should turn out to be overblown, implementation of these procedures would be helpful in the event of any natural emergencies. If they had been in place when Hurricane Katrina occurred, much of the human and economic damage would have been mitigated.

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