Lessons From the World’s Most Successful Climate Change Agreement
What has the world learned from recent extreme weather events that can limit damage and human suffering?
Every new extreme weather event brings new lessons about climate change, be it to better understand the science behind it or equally important how to respond effectively. The likelihood of more frequent cold snaps of the sort that left Texans without power this winter is still being debated by climate scientists, while the western wildfires this summer showed us that illness-inducing air pollution is yet another consequence of drought and heat.
The most recent weather disaster, Hurricane Ida, provides multiple insights into both climate science and how to better protect ourselves.
There is a lot about climate change that we don’t fully understand, consequently can’t predict, and which therefore limits our ability to prepare. While most hurricane forecasts focus on the storm’s expected path and expected wind speed, Ida hit land at a much higher maximum wind speed (150 mph versus 125) but covered a much smaller area (140 miles from its center versus 230). In contrast, the larger area impacted by Katrina was a major source of the 28-foot storm surge and associated death and destruction. Charting expected paths and timing of hurricanes remains a challenge for climatologists; hurricanes seem to be getting wetter and more intense but not necessarily more frequent. Ida resulted in the first-ever flash flood warning in New York and caused much greater death and destruction there than in New Orleans. On the other hand, New Orleans was protected from flooding by $14.5 billion in federally funded improvements to levees but was not prepared for widespread power outages just as extreme heat made the absence of power life-threatening.
The poor are most vulnerable to natural disasters and suffer the most. Most of those who died of flooding in NYC were immigrants in cellar and basement apartments unable to escape. According to the NYC Department of Planning, “currently, 1.3 million New York City residents live within or directly adjacent to the floodplain. By 2100, this number could rise to 2.2 million.” Upwards of half of this floodplain or floodplain-adjacent population is considered low income. Large cities with a substantial tax base and political clout can pay for expensive protective measures like seawalls; small rural communities lack similar opportunities and may, as some already have, simply disappear. More affluent consumers can respond to power outages with the purchase of a small propane or diesel generator, an option not available to the poor.
Insurance premiums for natural disasters must be raised significantly in order to cover future losses and may become unaffordable for many. Federal flood insurance costs may need to rise 4-fold in the near term and 7-fold by 2050. Insurance payouts for natural catastrophes in the US have been rising rapidly, to almost $300 billion in 2017/18, and threaten the finances of even the largest firms. As Howard Kunreuther, a Wharton professor noted in an NPR interview, hurricane events comparable to Ida “might be as frequent as 1 in 50. Now, if it happens to be a 1-in-50-year hurricane and it doesn’t actually cause any more damage than it did right now, you would have 10 times the premium because the chances of that event occurring would be 10 times as likely as it had been in the past.”
Traditional metrics for extreme weather events are inadequate and will need to be greatly enhanced. For warnings of approaching disasters to be effective, the public needs to know the expected path, strength, wind and rain intensity, and the timing of impact. None can be confidently and consistently predicted today. One example: given limits of highway capacity, New Orleans needs to issue evacuation orders 72 hours in advance of a storm, while Hurricane Ida evolved from a Category 3 to a much more dangerous Category 4 event in only about 60 hours. Four Category 5 hurricanes have made landfall in the US; all were tropical storms 72 hours earlier.
There are limits to our ability to enhance infrastructure and otherwise adapt to extreme weather events. In Louisiana, levees enhanced by massive federal investment held this time but there is no guarantee they will in the future. As one expert noted, “It does not mean that the lesson of Hurricane Ida is that metropolitan New Orleans has adequate hurricane protection. It means it had adequate protection against this storm surge.” The inability to anticipate what’s coming is also a challenge; New York City had invested in measures to protect against storm surges, a source of flooding after Superstorm Sandy, but having never had a flash flood did not prepare for more widespread flooding. Moreover, the “build back better” approach advocated by President Biden implies enormous federal investments and risks creating incentives for remaining in locations likely to be flooded or burned again — a phenomenon that has already cost taxpayers billions through federal flood insurance payouts. While not likely to be politically popular, relocating individuals and eventually communities — “managed retreat” in climate policy discussions — is likely to be increasingly unavoidable.
The need to learn from natural disasters has been a topic for think tanks and scholars for years. Hurricane Ida shows us that the need to learn from and prepare for the increasingly inevitable natural disasters that await us is long overdue. The alternative, as former White House Science Advisor John Holdren observed more than a decade ago, is a world with increasingly greater human suffering.
Alan Miller is a former climate change officer in the International Finance Corporation (2003–13) and climate change team leader, Global Environment Facility (1997–2003)