SUMMARY: Can big cities like New York or Washington protect against storm surge and rising seas? Three interviews. Mike Tidwell, author of “The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities.” Professor J. Court Stevenson, University of Maryland, on city surge defenses around the world. Daphne Wysham interviews German Green Parliamentarian Hermann Ott: leading the way to renewables before climate collapse. Radio Ecoshock 121107 1 hour.
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As the American election plays out, we start out with this quote from famed NASA scientist James Hansen:
“Neither party wants to offend the fossil fuel industry. They want to win the election. And they know the power of the fossil fuel industry. You can’t turn on your television without seeing these advertisements about clean coal, clean tar sands, and the claim that there’s more jobs associated with fossil fuels than with other energies. That’s of course not true, but they’re hammering that into the voters heads.
And so if anyone challenges the fossil fuel industry, they know they’re going to lose the money that they get from the fossil fuel industry. And secondly, they’re going to have the fossil fuel industry against them in the election….
… The politicians are not willing to say that we cannot burn all the fossil fuels without guaranteeing a different planet — and cheating our children.“
That was NASA scientist James Hansen, speaking on the Young Turks on Current TV.
I’m Alex Smith. No matter who gets elected in the United States, the fossil fuel companies won. This year, big oil, coal and gas made more money than anyone in the history of money. A Supreme Court decision called “Citizens United” let big corporations spend hundreds of millions to fund politicians.
But there was another judgment made recently. In the court of nature, reality has spoken. Deny climate change all the way to the bank, but we will all pay billions, even pay with our lives, as Earth’s climate is destabilized. The residents of New York and New Jersey got an ugly taste of the “different planet” James Hansen has warned us about for the past 25 years.
Can we protect New York City from the next big surge of the rising seas? What about Washington and Baltimore? What happens to all that expensive real estate with ocean-front views? We’ll talk with a scientist about storm surge controls around the world. It will cost tens of billions, but as always, the cost of doing nothing is even more.
Of course, we can still prevent the worst by switching to renewable energy. Daphne Wysham brings us a key interview from Germany, where renewables are booming. Hermann Ott is a Member of the German Federal Parliament. But even he knows renewables can’t power our current over-amped civilization.
But first we’re going to hear from the man who wrote the book on New York, predicting the whole mess we’ve just seen in a book published six years ago, Mike Tidwell.
Ah New York. Let’s warm up with Billy Joel’s “Miami 2017” – rewritten for New York after Sandy, and performed live at the NBC Red Cross fundraiser November 2nd.
MIKE TIDWELL, author and activist.
Who could have foreseen the amount of damage Hurricane Sandy caused in New York City and New Jersey? Mike Tidwell sure did. A half dozen years ago Tidwell published his book titled “The Ravaging Tide: Strange Weather, Future Katrinas, and the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities“.
Mike is the founder and director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, a grassroots nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness about the impacts and solutions for global warming in Maryland, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. He’s also a film-maker and award-winning environmentalist. According to his web site bio: “In 2003, Tidwell received the Audubon Naturalist Society’s prestigious Conservation Award. Two years later he received an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, Louisiana.“
We began by talking about Tidwell’s predictions for New York City attacked by a storm surge – 6 years before it happened. It was dead on. You can check for yourself, by reading for free the online version of “The Ravaging Tide” at the Chesapeake Climate Action Network web site. Tidwell tells me the paperback edition even had an illustration of flooded New York City. Simple geography shows what could happen, and it did.
Mike used the same techniques to study and write about the impacts of a hurricane on New Orleans. That was published in 2003 – two years before Katrina struck – in his book “Bayou Farewell, The Rich Life and Tragic Death of Louisiana’s Cajun Coast“.
As so often happens in human affairs, people just weren’t ready for those books, until the worst happened.
On behalf of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Mike Tidwell held a national press briefing about what could have happened if Sandy had turned further South, into the Washington, Baltimore, and general area of Maryland and Virginia.
He was backed by two scientists from the University of Maryland. Dr. William Boicourt, Professor of oceanography, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences spoke about the unique possibilities for storm damage both in New York and New Jersey, but also further south in Maryland and D.C.
The second speaker is our second guest in this show, Dr. Court Stevenson, Professor of coastal ecology and sea-level rise, University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences.
In the press conference Tidwell explained a new concept that everyone needs to grasp, after Hurricane Sandy. I’m talking about the continual line in scientific circles, echoed by the press, saying “You can never blame a single storm like Sandy on climate change”. Mike explains the new way of looking at such events, as proposed by George Lakoff, the well-known professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. Lakoff just wrote a piece in the Huffington Post, saying Sandy was “systemically caused” by climate change. Read that here. It’s important, because it helps us get through the insanity of seeing event after event so obviously driven by climate change, but cautious scientists have not found a way to say so.
We need to get the concept of “systemic causation” out to more scientists, and the public, fast enough to stem the rising tide of climate disasters.
Mike Tidwell goes on to explain several climatic factors which lined up to make Sandy into something worse than seen before. Key is the ocean heat. Sandy tracked north following a Gulf Stream that was about 3 degrees C hotter than normal for this time of year. That allowed Sandy to gain power, even at the end of October, quite late for a storm to go that far north. In fact, the interior low pressure of Sandy was lower than any storm ever measured north of Virginia.
Maybe Fox News and Mitt Romney don’t believe in climate change, at least not this week for Mitt – but insurance companies sure do. Mike Tidwell tells us that in 2006, All State insurance stopped issuing new policies within 20 miles of the Atlantic coast, due to the higher risk of storm damage. They specifically talk about climate change.
Likewise, Tidwell received a notice from his own insurance, Travelers Insurance. They said rates for coverage near the coast must go up, due to higher risks associated with climate change. Travelers included a brochure showing the typical American house, with a tornado and dark storm clouds all around. They cited information from the re-insurance giant Swiss Re, about climate change.
Mike notes that this message did not come from Obama or Al Gore. It comes from businesses that are neither Republican nor Democrats, but firms with their own money at risk.
However, the insurance companies are caught in a difficult bind. They don’t say too much against the fossil fuel companies as the cause of this developing destruction. That is because insurance corporations make money not on your premium, but on investing that premium in the stock market, among other places. Where can you make good money on stocks? By investing in oil, gas, and coal companies. So the insurance industry ends up investing in the very businesses that could put them out of business. Tidwell hopes that industry will wake up, and begin to criticize the fossil fuel companies for destabilizing the climate.
I suggested to Mike that talking about “the Coming Death of America’s Coastal Cities” is pretty provocative. Is there really a possibility we’ll have to abandon some coastal cities?
Although Tidwell suggested that attention-getting subtitle came from his publishers, he hopes that humans can turn things around before the climate goes that far astray. But “yes” if we burn all the fossil fuels we can get, as currently, the sea will rise more than 10 meters by about 2020, or 30 feet, if the ice on Greenland melts. At that point, most of the cities on the eastern and western seaboards would have to be abandoned. There is no surge gate possible to protect against that kind of sea level rise.
Sea level has already gone up one foot in one hundred years, and that rate is accelerating. That is one reason Sandy hit New York City and the Jersey Shore so badly. Even with the emissions we have now, scientists expect the sea level will go up three feet, or one meter, by 2100. That means our current high tide becomes a permanent high tide. The next “normal” will be far above what we have experienced now, even in Sandy.
Our listeners will get some information about building defenses for major cities from Professor J. Court Stevenson. But it seems to me, now that we’ve failed to control carbon emissions for so long, now we have to fight a war on two fronts. We’ve got to try to protect the big cities, at a huge cost, at the same time as we re-tool our entire energy system and transportation too. In a time when governments are already going broke, should we just concentrate on one or the other, adaptation or mitigation, like switching to renewables?
Mike says due to the warming we have already created in the oceans, some adaptation will be required, no matter what. New York city will require flood gates, as London has, to survive the coming decades.
Outside the cities, wealthy people, and some ordinary retirees, have been building more and more housing with ocean views. Maybe the wakeup call by Hurricane Sandy could be another blow to the American real estate market, as these ocean front properties become a liability instead of million-dollar investments. That’s a blow to the fragile economy nobody is talking about yet.
The whole world economy is built on sea-side city ports. The great metropolises of the world, from London to New York, Shanghai, Los Angeles, and Bombay – they are all built right on the sea. To be honest, I’m wondering if that one-two combination of steadily rising sea levels adding to more extreme storms will just deal our civilization some kind of knock-out punch. What do you think?
PROFESSOR J COURT STEVENSON
Could New York have been saved from the storm surge of Hurricane Sandy? Can we protect other cities, like Washington D.C. or Baltimore? What about the rest of near-coastal residents?
Dr. J. Court Stevenson is a Professor of coastal ecology and sea-level rise, at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Sciences. Because Stevenson has traveled the world looking at storm surge and defenses against sea level rise, he brings a unique and informed perspective.
The devastation in New York State and New Jersey from Hurricane Sandy was shocking, but was it predictable? Professor Stevenson admits he knew professionally this could happen – but the violence and damage wrought by Sandy caught many professional off guard. Nobody expected so much, so soon.
In the audio interview, we go into a discussion about what New York City could do to protect itself against this happening again – which could even be next year for all we know. It’s complicated by the three entrances to New York Harbor. One main channel is used by most shipping – so this would need more flexibility and speed in opening and closing.
Although it’s expensive, Stevenson seems to prefer the option just being installed to protect the city of Venice. Venice has had flood problems from tide surge for about 30 years. Often the famous medieval plazas are flooded, along with palaces and shops. The city is raising some plazas, and some buildings have installed a way to insert board thresholds to deter lesser flooding.
But the main defense of the city will be huge flood gates which lie on the bottom until they are filled with air. They rise quite quickly to block an incoming storm surge. Such a device for the main channel for New York City could cost as much at ten billion dollars, Stevenson suggests. But that would be repaid by stopping the damage from a single storm like Hurricane Sandy, which may cost much more. There is always a problem of finding political and popular will to spend large amounts of money, and keep building for years and years all the levees and protection required, but what choice is there?
In Britain, the City of London built their flood control gates on the Thames River. Known as the Thames Barrier, it was built following deadly floods – which is often the case: cities don’t spend big money to build defenses until after a disaster. And sometimes not even then. Construction on the Thames Barrier began in 1974, and was mostly finished by 1982. Find the Wikipedia entry on it here.
However, due to rising seas and more violent storms, the rotating cylinders in the Thames Barrier may not be able to handle coming surges of sea water. The British are actively looking at ways to boost the current system, or replace it, to protect London.
The Dutch have the greatest system of flood control. They have worked on it for many decades – otherwise large parts of the Netherlands would be under water. Studying the Dutch system is very time consuming. Professor Stevenson has been over there, but it’s hard to take it all in. The city of Rotterdam has a flood surge gate, but Stevenson doesn’t think that design would be as good in America.
The whole river delta of Bangladesh is prone to flooding from tropical cyclones. In the Northern Hemisphere we call these great storms “hurricanes” while in the South they are called “cyclones”.
Bangladesh does what it can to prepare for such flooding, but building large surge control gates seems far beyond their national budget. So the poor people living there will suffer most from the rising seas we in the West have caused by burning so much fossil fuel.
One application Stevenson described caught my ear. In Bangladesh, they built storm shelters that are about 24 feet above ground level, and strong enough to withstand cyclone winds. People can go there during the storm, and have a platform for the week or more it takes for the water to recede. The shelter doesn’t protect anything below, it just saves lives.
At first glance, that sounds like something the residents of the New Jersey shoreline could have used. Of course we know most people should have evacuated to higher ground. They had four days of serious warnings. Then we wonder, if the government builds storm shelters, would that safety net just encourage more people to stay and “ride it out” instead of evacuating? In my opinion, the whole phrase “ride it out” should go out of use, as it’s a dangerous phrase meaning “risking death”. It’s sad to think the American culture of distrusting government (as valid as that might often be) and individualism means people can’t get out of the way of a major hurricane.
Getting back to the interview with Court Stevenson, he tells us about the risk if such a super-storm turns further south. The main part of Washington D.C. is high enough to avoid flooding, but the famous plazas at the shoreline, with many historical buildings, would be submerged if the surge was 14 feet as it was in New York. Even the basement of the National Archives, holding many treasures, could be flooded.
But could such a storm surge happen in the smaller space of Chesapeake Bay? Both Stevenson and Maryland oceanographer Dr. William Boicourt agreed it is possible. The Bay has certain characteristics that can create a tidal “resonance” that could reverse the flow of the river all the way up to Baltimore, which could also flood.
Once again, it should be possible to build flood protection for D.C. and Baltimore, but at a cost of billions. That needs to be seriously studied, now that we are committed to sea level rise and hotter oceans that power big storms. There is less to anchor the flood gates – and we need to be very careful about the rich marine life in Chesapeake Bay, and the Potomac River. Stopping or changing water flows might be damaging to the natural system around there.
Stevenson tells us the U.S. Navy, which has a big base at Norfolk Virginia, is very aware of sea level rise and the threat it poses.
When the federal disaster preparedness agency, FEMA, looked into protecting D.C., they wanted to reclassify some areas as flood prone. Local business owners were against that, as they feared their insurance rates would go up.
North Carolina proposed a law that would permit planning agencies from using future projections of sea level rise. Only the past could be considered. This is a bit like the legendary British King Canute standing at the sea, forbidding the waves to come in. He got wet. Stevenson says that law died in the house, but it’s a tragic example of the resistance to facing climate reality.
The Maryland coast flooded badly in 1933. It’s interesting to note that storms were not given official names until the end of the Second World War.
Virginia is doing somewhat better in its preparation for rising seas, but nowhere near enough.
Similarly, when the issue of where to build along the low coast comes up, States often call on a panel which has some scientists, but generally more real estate developers. It’s no surprise their judgments are generally to build, build, build. Will that be reconsidered now? Should all other tax payers be hit with the costs of bailing out those who recklessly build in flood zones along the Atlantic? In some areas, it might be cheaper for the government to buy out property owners who cannot sustain their location. It’s called “managed retreat”. Learn those words of the future. But should we all pay for that?
I ask Professor Stevenson if this flood “hardening” is just a stop-gap measure, considering the high sea levels coming, as we fail to restrain our greenhouse gas emissions. He agrees, we must combine things like flood gates with drastic cuts in emissions. There is no mechanical way to stop a big rise in sea level, other than abandoning parts of coastal cities.
HERMANN OTT, THE GERMAN GREENS AND RENEWABLE SUCCESS
On the other side of the Atlantic, it seems like a different planet. Politicians, the media, and the broad public long ago accepted the science of climate change. Under the stress of depending on imported energy, Germany and Denmark decided to make the switch to renewables.
But in Germany, progressive parties like the Greens were elected. They didn’t want to rely on big corporate power either. So Germany set a severe target: to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions to just 40 percent of their 1990 levels by 2020. Germany is ahead of schedule. In a period during the summer of 2012, they were able to power their entire electrical needs from renewables alone – in the most highly industrialized nation in Europe.
Daphne Wysham, long-time host of Earthbeat Radio, is now with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C. She travelled to Germany and Denmark last summer to discover how this renewable energy renaissance happened. Here Daphne speaks with Hermann Ott. He’s a lawyer with the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy – but on leave, while he sits as a Member of the German Federal Parliament for the Green Party.
Find the Hermann Ott interview transcript here.
HELP RADIO ECOSHOCK KEEP GOING!
In the radio show, we go out as we came in, with more from Bill Joel at the Hurricane Sandy benefit concert live in New York November 2nd, hosted by NBC for the Red Cross. The song is “Miami 2017” and I found it on You tube. The whole concert was supposed to be available online at the ABC site, but it seemed stuck when I tried to view it. Maybe there were just so many people trying to watch it?
By the way, downloads of our programs doubled in October, going over 50,000 shows downloaded in one month. My thanks to everyone who listened and shared our programs.
The bandwidth costs are going up. If you can help keep this ball rolling, getting some sanity out there, please hit the new “donate” button on our blog, or at the web site, www.ecoshock.org
I’m Alex Smith. Thanks for listening, and caring about our world.