Exceeding the 1.5C degree limit on warming now seems inevitable
As the likelihood of such events increases, preparing for the future is critical
Every informed American was no doubt horrified by the images and consequences of Hurricane Ian. Media reports understandably focused on some of the gruesome details; exactly where the storm hit, the maximum wind speed (150 MPH), how much rain fell (over 15 inches in places), and the maximum height of the storm surge (up to 12 feet).
The consequences, too, were fertile sources for reporting: how many homes were destroyed (many thousands, still being counted), the likely total damage cost (insured losses over $50 billion, total losses on the order of $100 billion), and most dramatically, how many were killed (more than 100). Some scientific issues made it into the news as well, including the processes behind the extraordinarily rapid intensification and more broadly the role of global warming and climate change.
Coverage will continue as storm damage requires time to fully evaluate and to implement cleanup and recovery efforts. However, the daily news cycle now moves so rapidly that some lasting lessons of dramatic events fail to receive the attention they deserve.
Before the disaster recedes into yesterday’s news, here are some insights that need to be understood and digested as the likelihood of such events becomes increasingly frequent.
● Hurricane prediction is a source of considerable uncertainty and likely to remain so. Initial forecasts by the National Hurricane Center varied over a few days by hundreds of miles from south to north of Tampa as the storm moved over unusually warm ocean waters and gained energy. The “cone of uncertainty” for Hurricane Ian used to graphically illustrate expected impact covered hundreds of miles. While research continues and scientific understanding advances, key elements in hurricane formation including ocean temperatures and currents keep evolving due to climate change. As a result, timely and effective evacuation warnings have become increasingly difficult.
● The past is no longer prologue — historical experience is no longer a sufficient guide to future climate risks. While sea level rise and more extreme temperatures are certain, the details as to when and where are not. Yet investments in resilience — putting power lines underground, raising houses, adding air conditioning — are most often based on experience. A major hurricane had not hit the Tampa area for more than a century. The southwest region of Florida attracted new residents based in part on its reputation as quiet and safe. Canadian provinces along the Atlantic Ocean had no reason to prepare for a major tropical storm until hit by the remnants of Hurricane Fiona in September. Until late June and early July last year, Oregon had never had temperatures above 110 .
● Human decisions on where to live are among the greatest sources of vulnerability. Despite its vulnerability to coastal storms and hurricanes, Florida attracts 1,000 new residents a day, many in areas most vulnerable to flooding. Cape Coral, Florida, one of America’s fastest growing cities, is coastal and low-lying, leading one authority to call it “an unsustainable paradise.” Sure enough, Hurricane Ian caused an 11-foot storm surge inundating most of the city and ravaging its power supply and water systems. Yet, a resident and flood expert predicts based on long experience, “Once the debris gets cleared, people will keep flocking to Cape Coral, and to Florida.” And all Americans will end up paying billions for disaster relief.
● Stronger building codes and other investments in resilience can reduce impacts — up to a point. Homes built and renovated after a previous hurricane were much less damaged by Hurricane Ian. A smart growth solar-powered community inland from the devastated town of Cape Coral, designed with hurricanes in mind, came through virtually unscathed. But low-lying, exposed areas cannot survive a major storm surge and should be reserved for nature based protection like mangroves and wetlands. However, convincing people to relocate, even when subsidized, is almost always very difficult.
● Insurance will not be an effective source of resilience, at least as presently operated. Due to high costs, many Florida residents had limited or no coverage for flooding; private property insurance policies are typically limited to wind damage. Moreover, due to rising damage payments many insurers in Florida have gone out of business and premium costs are rising rapidly. Consequently, more than 400,000 residents have lost coverage this year. A state-run non-profit insurance program operates as a last resort operate but without state funding; following a major disaster it assesses fees up to 45 percent. As an insurance expert recently noted, policy costs are reaching a level likely to impact the real estate market. “You buy a home. You can’t close on the home because you can’t find affordable insurance.”
● Restoring power and water is often a great challenge and limit on economic recovery; nearly 850,000 residents were left without power five days after the hurricane made landfall. Flooded roadways and washed-out bridges to barrier islands left thousands isolated amid limited cellphone service and a lack of basic amenities such as water, electricity and the internet. Restoring these services can often take weeks or even months and become a significant burden on recovery. One positive: homes and communities with solar panels proved to be much less vulnerable.
● Community and local response is a critical component of disaster recovery, particularly for islands and locations losing roads, power, water, and basic infrastructure and outside formal help for days. Neighbors helping neighbors, sometimes rescuing the disabled and elderly, is among the few positives in the Hurricane’s aftermath. Volunteer organizations are much nimbler than government programs can be. The World Central Kitchen founded by celebrity chef Jose Andres, for example, arrived post-disaster to offer assistance much more quickly than government programs.
Hurricane Ian is both a current disaster and a harbinger of an even more disastrous future. Sadly, it is a story likely to be retold many times as climate change increases the likelihood and intensity of such events. In the short-term, political leaders from both parties have united around the need to assist the many victims, a rare instance of bi-partisanship. As more such events are now not only likely but unavoidable, learning lasting lessons from the hurricane is urgently needed.
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). Besides other engagements, Alan is an active editor for Climate Conscious submissions on Medium.