From the standpoint of global climate change, nature’s incredible assault on the American heartland this year can be interpreted in one of two ways. Both offer lessons about the challenges of adapting to the climate we have created.
As of June 13, 1,577 tornadoes had been reported in the United States, with 118 fatalities. The season started in January, unusually early, with more than 130 reported tornadoes in the upper Midwest. As if to send voters a reminder to ask the presidential candidates about their positions on climate change, 84 tornadoes broke out the week of Super Tuesday in Missouri, Illinois, Arkansas, Alabama and Tennessee.
As I write this post, record floods are inundating communities in the Mississippi River Valley at a level of intensity that may make the Great Flood of 1993 seem like an “ankle tickler,” as riverside residents like to call minor flood events.
On June 9 in Wisconsin, a breach in its dam emptied Lake Delton, a 245-acre man-made lake, into the Wisconsin River. My old stomping grounds in Wisconsin’s Kickapoo River Valley suffered record flooding for the second time in a year. Among the inundated communities was Gays Mills, now threatened with extinction due to its repeated damages.
By June 15, nine rivers in Iowa were at or above historic flood levels and 83 of the state’s 99 counties had been declared in a state of emergency. In Cedar Rapids, the Cedar River crested at 32 feet — 12 feet higher than the previous record set in 1929 — causing an estimated $730 million in property damage and forcing 24,000 people to abandon their homes and businesses. If the usual post-disaster pattern holds true, many of the smaller businesses will never reopen.
The damage is far from over.
Floodwaters are making their way down the Mississippi River, headed for St. Louis where construction in the floodplain has been booming since 1993. Meantime, a heat wave has been baking the East Coast from North Carolina to New Hampshire, wildfires have been destroying homes in California, and, as if to reassure us that nature is not only picking on America, 1.3 million people were fleeing flooding in China.
Food and tornado victims are not the only people who will feel the effects of this extreme weather. The flooding of some of the nation’s prime cropland in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota is destroying soy bean and corn crops, pushing up the price of both grains. That will further increase the price of food and ethanol and could aggravate the global food crisis. As The New York Times reported:
Last week, the price of corn rose above $7 a bushel on the commodities market for the first time, and soybeans rose sharply, too, reacting to the harsh weather hampering crop production across the Midwest … At a moment when corn should be almost waist-high here in Iowa, the country’s top-producing corn state, more than a million acres have been washed out and destroyed. Beyond that, agriculture experts estimate that 2 million acres of soy beans have been lost to water, putting the state’s total grain loss at 20 percent so far, with the threat of more rain to come.
As I said, two conclusions come to mind. The first is that the tornados and floods battering the country with almost unimaginable severity are the early tantrums of an angry planet. Under this reading, this season of natural disasters shows that climate change has arrived ahead of schedule, much to the disappointment of those who hoped that fire, drought, violent weather and the other predicted impacts of global warming were a problem only for future generations.
The second and more conservative interpretation is that this season and other recent disaster years are an aberration, that the disasters are not the result of climate change and that weather will return to “normal.” Even if that were true, the natural disasters underway today are consistent with the predicted consequences of global warming and are very likely a taste of things to come.
What lessons can we take away from all of this to better prepare for and adapt to the impacts of climate change? Here are just a few:
1. To state the obvious, we need to put unprecedented pressure on our national leaders to get serious about mitigation and adaptation. While lives were being lost and families were losing their homes and possessions this month, Congress was busy avoiding a debate on cap-and-trade legislation. The inability of our national leaders to deal frontally and forcefully with greenhouse-gas emissions is not only an abdication of their responsibility; it’s morally and fiscally indefensible. On the fiscal front, the federal flood and crop insurance programs already are a huge liability for American taxpayers. States, localities and families dealing with a housing crisis, record fuel prices and a weak economy can hardly afford the financial trauma of weather-related disasters. On the moral front, a vote in Congress won’t do anything to prevent the perfect storms hitting the American people right now, but we are seeing the future and it is not pretty. National leadership today can help prevent climate impacts from getting immeasurably worse. The people who should be suffering a forced evacuation are the members of Congress who are blocking action on global warming.
2. It’s past time to rethink national flood control and water management strategy. As flood control structures are being broken and breached across the Midwest today, we are seeing the harsh lesson of New Orleans repeated on grand scale. Dams and levees encourage people to build in natural floodplains. When they fail — and they too often do — the loss of life and property can be worse than if no structure had been built at all.
At the risk of telling this story too many times, I must bring up the example of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin, once again. While Gays Mills, its neighbor on the Kickapoo River, is being destroyed by a breached levee and flooding, Soldiers Grove remains intact because it chose 30 years ago to move to higher ground rather than to rely on a “flood control” structure proposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Kickapoo reached record levels last week in Soldiers Grove, too, (check out this video), but its relocated homes and businesses were spared.
In every plausible case, our national policy should not be to protect floodplains but to evacuate them, while restoring wetlands, river meander, watershed vegetation and other natural features that reduce the severity of flooding. Our policy in communities destroyed by tornadoes and hurricanes — where evacuation is not an option — should be to rebuild to standards that can withstand future disasters.
3. When we repair and rebuild disaster-damaged buildings and infrastructure, we should do so with cutting-edge mitigation and adaptation in mind. That’s what the city of Greensburg, Kan., is doing as it recovers from the Category 5 tornado that leveled the community last year. It has resolved to turn “tragedy to triumph” by rebuilding to minimize its energy use and carbon emissions, and to maximize its use of renewable energy technologies.
As a former resident of a disaster-prone community, I witnessed what I called “floodplain amnesia.” It’s the assumption that a natural disaster will not occur. Then, once it has, it’s the assumption that it won’t happen again. The bad memories of the last disaster eventually are replaced by memories of how people pulled together and experienced an intense sense of community.
Our sense of community now must come not from sharing disaster, but from the common effort to evolve past the carbon era. We need to pay attention to what scientists tell us we can expect from climate change, including extreme weather events. It should be obvious by now that we ignore their warnings at our own peril.