Friday, November 2, 2012

Climate Change

A scene from the 2001 movie, A.I. Artificial Intelligence

 Climate change is suddenly on everyone's mind here in New York after the wallop packed by Sandy.

 Wen Stephenson recently wrote an angry and polemical article taking journalists to task for their silence on climate change.  It is bad enough that politicians are silent on what may well be historically the most important issue of our day.  It is far worse that journalists do not even ask them about it.

This issue has been around for a long time, at least since Bill McKibben's book The End of Nature first appeared in the The New Yorker in 1989.  As Stephenson points out, scientists have known about the warming effects of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere since the 19th century.  They've always known that the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere has multiplied exponentially since the Industrial Revolution.  The consensus of scientists is that climate change is happening, and that it has at least in part a human cause. 

Mountain glaciers around the world have been in retreat since 1850, and may disappear entirely by the middle of this century.  Polar ice caps are shrinking at an alarming rate.  Sea levels are rising, and the supply of drinking water around the world may soon be affected.

Environmental issues and social justice issues are more closely bound together than we might assume.  It is no accident that the county with the highest rates of asthma in the USA, the Bronx in New York, is among the poorest.  It is no coincidence that the Bronx has a very high level of pollution.  Like many poor counties, the Bronx is a place to dump toxic refuse because the residents are in no position to do anything about it.
Climate change will only heighten the widening contrast between those who may and those who must in coming decades.

Despite a shrinking group of shrill deniers, these are realities that governments are already having to face.  Rising sea levels are a clear and present issue for port cities around the world, including New York City.  How to go about protecting cities and port facilities from ever higher tides and storm surges?  Some island nations like the Maldives and Kiribati are in danger of disappearing beneath the waves altogether.  The resource that people may well be killing each other over in future decades is not oil, but potable drinking water.

The increasing frequency and severity of "storms of the century" should give us pause to consider that the writing is on the wall for the internal combustion engine, fossil fuels, and the culture built around them.  We may be at one of those turning points where the Dutch beat out the Spanish navy in the 17th century with superior and more mobile ship technology; where the Dutch in turn were beat out by the British and steam technology.  The internal combustion engine may soon become as quaint as the windmill.

As was so forcefully demonstrated this past week, technology always has a trade off.  The price for greater ability is usually greater vulnerability.


It's remarkable how large a roll weather plays in the history of cities.  For example, the aftermath of the great blizzard of 1888 in New York...

Downed power lines

Stalled trolleys and trains

These structural failures under the stress of 40 to 50 inches of snow with 40 mile an hour wind gusts paralyzed the city for days.  After this disaster, city planners made two momentous decisions:  to put all the electrical cables underground, and to put the trains underground as well.  New York's famous subterranean utility grid, and its subways, came out of the 1888 blizzard, the "White Hurricane."

Sandy is arguably just such a city-altering weather event.  We shall see what changes to the city emerge.  People are already talking about sea barricades like the Thames Barrier in London, or similar barriers in Rotterdam and Japan.

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