December 01, 2012

Article at Cosmos Magazine

OPINION | You Have Been Warned

A simulation of what New York City could one day look like as oceans rise and storms get worse

Hurricane Sandy did more than cripple New York and kill hundreds – it brought climate change out of the political closet, where some had thought it safely hidden away.

By Wilson da Silva 

YOU’VE PROBABLY HEARD the ‘boiling frog’ anecdote, based on 19th-century experiments: if a cold-blooded frog is dropped in boiling water, it will jump out; but if it is placed in cold water that’s slowly heated, it won’t perceive the danger and will, ultimately, be stewed to death.

It’s often used as a metaphor for our inability to react to momentous changes that occur gradually. But we now know, thanks to modern biologists, that it isn’t true: frogs detect the danger and escape before it’s too late.

Another version of this experiment is under way, but on a much larger scale, and on a different species: humans. And the medium isn’t a saucepan of water, but the oceans, the lands and the atmosphere of our entire planet: it’s global warming. And the question is: are we as clever as frogs?

In July 2005, the Australian Government released a CSIRO report entitled Climate Change Risk and Vulnerability.

It outlined a disturbing future for Australia, with more frequent and more severe droughts and floods; more severe storms and cyclones along the eastern seaboard, with storm surges amplified by rising sea levels; remote northern communities facing depopulation, and even some towns “at risk” of being unlivable. These changes would occur “over the next 30 to 50 years irrespective of global or local efforts to reduce greenhouse emissions,” it said.

In my foreword to a themed issue on climate change in September 2005, I concluded: “Climate change is no longer a topic of debate, it’s something you prepare for – like your retirement, or paying off a house, or planning a big overseas trip.”

Our special issue was based on the best science available at the time, but the future it forecast seemed strange and unbelievable. I added a comment from environmentalist Tim Flannery that I felt was justified by the evidence, although I feared it would be seen as exaggerated, that there’s “a real possibility that within a century, some cities in Australia will fail and be abandoned. It’s likely that large numbers of people will perish the world over as the changing climate plays havoc with crops, rainfall and sea levels, or as freakish weather intensifies and natural disasters like cyclones become more common and more ferocious.”

On the day that issue hit newsstands, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. The world watched in horror as bodies floated along flooded streets, people fought each other for food and shelter in cramped stadiums, overwhelmed police abandoned their posts, and buildings were smashed as if made of matchsticks. 

Within three days, New Orleans – one of the world’s unique cities and the birthplace of jazz – fell to its knees, and officials called for residents to leave. The toll: 1,833 dead and US$100 billion in damage.

In October 2005, I wrote: “The fall of New Orleans is a warning: it shows us how quickly our proud cities – seemingly powerful and resilient – can buckle in the face of Nature’s onslaught. How quickly our technologies fail and our intricate networks and vast resources can nevertheless be overwhelmed.”

Seven years later, Hurricane Sandy struck numerous U.S. states and several Caribbean countries; it hit New York on October 29. At dawn the day after, one of the world’s wealthiest and best known cities was crippled: streets flooded, half of Manhattan was without power, and the subway – relied on by more than five million people every day – was under water. 

All of this in the last week of a hard- fought national U.S. election where climate change was hardly, if at all, mentioned by political parties.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, broke the political silence: “Anyone who says there is not a change in weather patterns is denying reality ... part of learning from this is the recognition that climate change is a reality, extreme weather is a reality, it is a reality that we are vulnerable.” 

He added, “It is not prudent to sit here ... and say it’s not going to happen again.”

Did global warming cause Sandy? No: climate change does not create storms; but it was likely a performance enhancer, turning Sandy from appalling to horrific. 

Did global warming make Sandy worse? Yes: the storm flung the sea onto the northeast U.S. coast, and because of warming, there’s 15-20 cm more ocean there to fling.

If such instant destruction can happen to a rich and iconic city in a powerful nation, what of the hundreds of cities that may be battered – again and again – as freakish weather becomes commonplace and storms more violent? 

Scientists have been warning us that this is the kind of world we can expect by 2030 or 2040; but what if it’s already here?