Climate Extremes: the Time to Respond is Now

Written by Frank Lowenstein on . Posted in Act, Extreme weather, Learn

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its new report looking at the relationship of climate change to extreme weather and outlining strategies for addressing these impacts.

The report confirms the fact that climate change is like steroids for many extreme weather-related events like drought, floods, wildfire, heat waves and rain. Think of many of the events we’ve seen in this intense and wacky year of weather as a trailer for the climate change feature film. This is not a movie we want to see.

Responding to and preparing for these impacts is not a matter of politics, it’s a matter of dollars and common sense. It’s a matter of protecting communities and saving lives.

For example, in the wake of the Northeast’s strongest October snowstorm since 1804, which knocked out power to three million U.S. residents, the media is full of discussion as to whether we should bury powerlines, how much it would cost to do so, and whether those costs are worth it to ensure functional heating, lighting, and refrigeration in times of severe weather.

Several thousand miles south, October deluges brought 60 inches of rain to El Salvador in less than 10 days, wiping out 70 percent of that country’s agricultural harvest, the first lady of El Salvador has been touring Washington and New York seeking help with the estimated $1.5 billion cost of recovering and adapting so that future storms have less impact.

These two events illustrate two vitally important trends. First, extreme weather events are likely to be one of the earliest signs of long-term climate change that people notice in their everyday lives.

Just this year in the U.S. alone, we saw the most Presidential-declared disasters (84 as of October) ever! We had extreme and crippling tornadoes and floods throughout the Midwest in the spring; record-setting heat all over the country this summer, with drought and wildfires ravaging the southwest; Hurricane Irene storming up as far north as Vermont, where the state experienced extreme flooding that has devastated local economies this fall; and most recently the “superstorm” in Alaska that has crippled communities, cut off power and disrupted business.

Everyone in nearly every part of the U.S. was victim to at least one of the harsh impacts resulting from the extreme weather of 2011. Check out our page on capturing some of the impacts we’ve written and talked about this year.

The second point is that there’s a window for action in the wake of these extreme events, and there are great efforts already underway around the country and the world that can help us take advantage of our opportunity—if we don’t get in our own way.

For example, the Obama administration has ordered all federal agencies to prepare climate change adaptation plans by June 2012. These may not be implemented right away, but having the planning done helps to identify which problems are crucial to correct before an extreme event hits. If we’re ready with the background information and proposed policy changes then there’s more of an opportunity to get them implemented.

And, around the world, countries are preparing national plans of action in response to UN guidance, and common sense.

At the state and municipal level in the U.S. more and more government officials are recognizing that their constituents’ safety is at stake and preparing plans for actions within their control. New York City’s Republican Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has just produced one of the best such documents at the municipal level. And the state of Massachusetts has just issued an excellent plan at the state level. These efforts need to be reinforced to minimize the impact of future extreme events and to place us in a position of readiness for future opportunities to improve the resilience of our society and the environment.

But, the U.S. should still be doing more. In too many cases, misplaced political disputes continue to block the way. Last week a proposal was under consideration in Congress that would have blocked the US Department of Agriculture from spending any funds to adapt to climate change. This would have prevented the Department from considering needed shifts in geographies of production, or varieties of crops—threatening our future food security. Had it passed (it didn’t) this wouldn’t just have been politics getting in the way of science, it would have been politics getting in the way of common-sense measures to protect America’s economy and security.

Regardless of where we stand on climate change as a country and global community, doing nothing is the single most reckless and risky choice we have.

For The Nature Conservancy’s part, list us amongst the rabid “doers.”  We’re taking a leadership role in working on on-the-ground demonstrations for how natural infrastructure solutions – strategies that turn to nature for increasing our climate resilience – are a practical, cost-effective, and flexible way of helping protect people and communities from extreme climate impacts.

In the Southwest U.S., in states like New Mexico, we are working on forest management and fire regime strategies that will better protect us from and reduce the impact of wildfires, and help ensure sufficient freshwater supplies to major cities.

In the Gulf of Mexico, we are working to restore coastal marsh ecosystems to protect cities like New Orleans from storm damage and sea level rise; and these coastal restoration strategies can help protect the Northeast as well.

We’re also working with government agencies to incorporate this type of climate change planning into their regular activities.

And, we’re working in different parts of the world as well. In Brazil, The Nature Conservancy has been working to restore the Atlantic Forest ecosystem, concentrating on frequently degraded watersheds that serve “megacities” such as Rio de Janiero and Sao Paolo. By restoring forests in these watersheds, we will help ensure a steady flow of clean drinking water, and simultaneously slow floodwaters and reduce erosion and mudslides.

In the Magdalena River Basin of Colombia, we are increasing investment in “water funds,” through which major downstream users pay for better land management in important upland headwaters to reduce flooding and sedimentation. These adaptation measures, combined with floodplain restoration and river basin management, will help protect Colombian citizens from flooding while helping ensure clean water to communities in the basin.

Here in the U.S, we’ve often relied on our engineers – government or industrial – to help us plan and prepare for disasters, hazards and possible extreme events. We’ve built levies, bridges, seawalls and other finely-calibrated infrastructure to help protect our communities from disaster.

Well, now we need society’s engineers to recognize and add to their toolbox the power of natural infrastructure in responding to and preparing for these extreme impacts.

When it comes to thinking about preparedness and response to our changing planet, we’re urging the world to follow our lead.

Frank Lowenstein is Adaptation Strategy Lead for The Nature Conservancy’s Global Climate Change Team.

Photo by: Lars Gange & Mansfield Heliflight (Charlotte, Vermont man in his Suburban on US Route 2 during 2011 floods caused by Hurricane Irene)

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About Planet Change

Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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