by James A. Bacon
The key to building a strong resiliency movement — making communities more adaptable in the face of natural and man-made disasters — is finding common ground. So argued Steven McNulty, director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Southeast Regional Climate Hub, in addressing the launch event of Resilient Virginia this morning.
Fear of rising temperatures, droughts and sea-level rise is a major impetus behind the increasing emphasis that all levels of government are placing on resiliency. But political views about climate change are highly polarized, McNulty said. “Are you a fear monger, or are you a denier? We need to get beyond that.”
Most climate scientists believe that man-made climate change is a cause for concern. But the forestry land managers McNulty deals with do not. In a recent survey, he said, “only 10% of Southeast foresters thought that climate change is man-made and real. The agricultural community is almost as disbelieving.” As it happens, their perceptions are not without basis, he added. Rising temperatures in the Southeastern U.S. have been far less pronounced than anywhere else in the country.
It’s hard to mobilize people who don’t believe in catastrophic man-made global warming to change the way they do business. “Don’t talk climate change; you’ll lose a lot of folks,” said McNulty. But flip the issue to climate variability, and the conversation takes on a different tone. Everyone acknowledges that temperatures and precipitation fluctuate, and everyone would like to protect themselves from those fluctuations. “You don’t need global warming to have big disasters.”
McNulty was one of several speakers Thursday morning who made the case for resiliency planning. The resiliency issue hasn’t made big inroads in Virginia but Resiliency Virginia, a non-profit group of state and local government officials, environmentalists and private companies, hopes to change that. The group has a mission of educating the public, sharing best practices and encouraging people to take action.
In Virginia, the most pressing resiliency issues are in the low-lying Tidewater region, especially the Hampton Roads metropolitan area where thousands of people and millions of dollars in private buildings and public infrastructure are exposed to flooding. As Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security, told the gathering, a one-and-a-half foot sea level rise would inundate 82 square miles of dry land in Virginia, 15 miles of interstate highway, miles of railroad track and significant port acreage.
While there is plenty of controversy over how rapidly the sea level is rising in Hampton Roads — not everyone accepts the prediction that the sea level will rise 18 inches by 2050 — few would deny that between subsidence (partly caused by the draw-down of aquifers, partly by the shift in tectonic plates) and the slow-but-steady sea level rise seen over the past century unrelated to man-made climate change, flooding will become increasingly severe.
Flooding in low-lying areas is not the only potential disruption to Virginia communities. Flash flooding is an issue in urban areas where the ground has been covered by asphalt and the ground has lost is capacity to absorb rain water. Ice storms, snow storms and drought are recurrent concerns. Some worry about the impact of massive solar flares that could overwhelm the electric grid. There are man-made issues as well, such as potential terrorist strikes against critical infrastructure, particularly the electric grid.
In Chicago urban flooding is a significant issue, said Cooper Martin, program director for the Sustainable Cities Institute. When city officials began mapping where the insurance claims were occurring, they expected them to cluster in the flood plains. The traditional response to flooding had been to bring in the engineers, build some levees and build some dams. But close analysis showed that many claims were occurring outside the flood plains. “All that concrete has created a new ecosystem, creating flash flood hazards,” said Martin. “The way we’ve built this community is fundamentally non-resilient. More concrete is not the answer. Taking out some of the pavement may be the most productive thing to do.”
Another problem is rampant developing in vulnerable coastal areas. An analysis of 77 counties along the Gulf Coast (not including Florida) showed $2 trillion in asset value. “Even without climate change,” said Martin, “the way we’re building our communities, we’re creating risks where we didn’t have them before.”
People have a lot of ideas of how to prepare for another Katrina-scale hurricane, said Martin. But which options offer the greatest protection for the least cost? Building up beaches offers a high payback, as do building codes mandating construction standards to withstand higher winds. (Sixty percent of Katrina’s damage came from winds, not flooding.) Mandating higher home elevations is on the borderline of being economically justified; other proposals offer a very low return. As long as coastal communities continue to permit development, they need to address these issues.
Bacon’s bottom line. As I’ve made clear repeatedly on this blog, I’m not convinced that human-caused climate change is a cause for alarm, much less an excuse to re-engineer the economy. But you don’t need to be an apocalyptic environmentalist to value resiliency. Disasters happen. They always have, always will. We don’t protect ourselves from disaster by burying our heads in the sand and pretending they can’t possibly happen. We protect ourselves by anticipating possibilities, weighing probabilities and setting priorities. That kind of thinking is making inroads in Virginia, but we have a long way to go. I applaud Resilient Virginia for highlighting the issue. Check out the Resilient Virginia blog here.