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The Readiness Is All

Federal Policy Can't Stop Hurricanes, But It Can Be Prepared for Them

Flooding from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans SOURCE: NOAA We desperately need to adapt our coastal infrastructure to climate change. Above, flooding from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

In my column from last week, I upbraided the Bush administration for its fumbling and sometimes scandalous behavior with respect to climate change risks to the U.S. Gulf Coast. But if we had a responsible government, how might it seek to prepare this vulnerable region for a troubling future? Luckily, an emerging body of high quality information lays out, in considerable detail, what we ought to be doing.

In particular, a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences, and a closely related study from the federal Climate Change Science Program (the same study I complained about the administration trying to deep-six), together present a kind of case study of what one kind of targeted adaptation might look like. Both studies focus on the transportation sector in particular: the NAS study on a nationwide basis and the CCSP study exclusively for the Gulf region. They broadly agree that at present, we’re ignoring considerable global warming-related risks to our transportation infrastructure. Climate change will be a huge burden on an already taxed national transportation system, and in this respect, the Gulf Coast region is perhaps the most vulnerable of all.

At minimum, the transportation community must wake up to climate risks.

To understand that vulnerability, consider a few facts laid out in the CCSP report: Over the next fifty to 100 years, global warming could inundate a “vast portion” of the Gulf Coast with a sea level rise in the range of 2 to 4 feet. That’s terrifying, because “27 percent of the major roads, 9 percent of the rail lines, and 72 percent of the ports are at or below 122 cm (4 feet) in elevation.” And of course, that’s just the risk posed by sea level rise. But as we all know, this region is also very vulnerable to hurricanes–which, surfing atop higher seas in the future, will prove even more devastating than they’ve been thus far. To once again quote from the CCSP report: “With storm surge at 7 m (23 ft), more than half of the area’s major highways (64 percent of Interstates; 57 percent of arterials), almost half of the rail miles, 29 airports, and virtually all of the ports are subject to flooding.”

Clearly, the U.S. Gulf Coast features transportation disasters just waiting to happen, a predicament that will only worsen in the future. So what should we be doing?

The answer seems to be that we should start by educating transportation professionals themselves. As anyone who’s ever had a flight delayed because of severe thunderstorms knows, transportation is highly dependent upon weather. Yet at present, there’s a culture in the field of transportation management–as in many other areas–that tends to ignore or overlook the implications of long-term climate change (which means, among other things, systematic weather changes). Both the NAS and CCSP reports highlight the inadequate communication practices that currently persist between transportation professionals and climate experts, leading to a situation in which long-term transportation plans (including the design of infrastructure) often go forward without taking the changing climate into account.

So at minimum, the transportation community must wake up to climate risks, start shoring up its infrastructure, and begin planning new infrastructure accordingly. That’s unlikely to happen, though, without concerted government involvement. Not only must specific government agencies, like the Department of Transportation and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, facilitate better communication between the climate and transportation communities; and not only should research continue, in the vein of the recent CCSP report, to provide better information about the nature of climate risks. No–we must go much farther still to create an entire government apparatus to facilitate local adaptation to climate change in the transportation sector.

Clearly, to right this wrong, the next administration will have to do something unprecedented.

It will be a massive task. We’ll need to ensure that the federal government requires higher standards of resiliency in the future for transportation infrastructure. We’ll have to ensure that states and localities get adequate federal funding to help them keep up with a changing climate; and that the relevant federal agencies, especially the Department of Transportation, get enough money in their own budgets to do the requisite climate-related adaptation work. We’ll need to immediately start rebuilding some of our most vulnerable infrastructure. And all of this activity will have to be coordinated, not willy-nilly.

And if that sounds like a lot, don’t forget: the transportation sector represents just one targeted area in which we’ll have to adapt to climate change, and the Gulf Coast just one specific region. To address all sectors and all regions…well, that’s a staggering task, and one that has been entirely neglected thus far by the Bush administration.

Clearly, to right this wrong, the next administration will have to do something unprecedented. There’s no other way but to set up a whole branch of government dedicated to climate change adaptation in its myriad respects, headed by a leader who, if not in the president’s cabinet, should be in close contact with decision-makers at the highest level. Such a move would be unprecedented, but it simply underscores the importance of one of the least discussed aspects of our necessary response to global warming–preparedness.

Yeah, we have to cut emissions; yeah, we have to negotiate internationally; and yeah, we have to invest in green energy technology. But at the same time, we also have to staff an entire government with professionals and experts who can manage not only these programs, but also take the lead on climate change adaptation in its many facets–one of the knottiest areas of all.

And it’s never been done before.

Chris Mooney is a Contributing Editor for Science Progress and the author of two books, The Republican War on Science and Storm World: Hurricanes, Politics, and the Battle Over Global Warming. He blogs on The Intersection with Sheril Kirshenbaum.

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