Climatologist Heidi Cullen includes seven major examples in her fine book The Weather of the Future: The Sahel in Africa, coral reefs, California’s Central Valley, Nunavut in Canada’s Arctic, Greenland, Bangladesh – and New York city. She uses the examples to explore the changes in weather that lie ahead, and the opportunities and the catastrophes that will occur.
With her focus on New York City, she looks at the damage a large Level 3 hurricane will have on the City as we know it now. Irene could easily have been that storm, had it not weakened and then dumped most of its remaining rain on the New England states. NYC prepared responsibly for a more direct hit with evacuations and highway and transit closures – but of course was not able to protect itself from the immense damage serious flooding would have wrought.
More intense storms, like Irene, are predicted by the many models of climate change. Cullen imagines that NYC, hit and flooded by a Level 3 hurricane, responds by building dikes and walls and protecting itself not just from rising sea levels but from the full impact of future similar storms.
Will NYC actually now do this? The cost of doing so is considerable. The cost of not doing so is immense. Irene was a warning, and NYC was very lucky – despite Anderson Cooper’s plaintive ‘where’s the beef’ attitude when he wasn’t blown off the streets.
Cullen also presents a clear summary of the evidence for global warming and climate change, and her reference list is impressively up-to-date and peer reviewed, for anyone looking for the details. As she emphasizes, even if carbon emissions were now suddenly reduced to the levels of a few decades ago, we still have a long time to wait for atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide global and global temperatures to begin to drop again. The best case scenario will still us challenge us to adapt, and then adapt some more..
The current scenario, though, is ‘business-as-usual’, essentially taking no action even though we know more or less what lies ahead over the next century. Cullen has written her book with that attitude in mind, asking what does it take to get us to act to mitigate what we can, and prepare for the rest. As she and others have pointed out, if we wait until there really in nothing left to do but act, it will be too late: the planet will be irreversibly on the way to a ‘hot-house’.
And so she imagines what lies ahead, looking as far as 2050, if CO2 emissions remain at current levels. That’s not long from now. In some places, survival through planning and adaptation is possible – NYC, the Arctic, the Sahel. In others there will just be loss, with environmental refugees fleeing Bangladesh and all low lying cities that are not rich and prepared, and vulnerable ecosystems like coral reefs dissolving and bleaching to oblivion.
One of my daughters lives in Connecticut, and felt the recent earthquake and coped with the stress of Irene, while some of her cousins live in Texas where endless hot days and drought have now morphed into a state of fires. And her comment is: so this is what it is now going to be like.
It doesn’t need to be. Let’s once again raise the question of reducing carbon emissions. The ‘business-as-usual’ scenario is what we would expect from an ignorant and foolish species, and surely we are not that.