Thursday, January 10, 2013

Genuine adaptation means preparing for the inevitable deluge

Eric Klinenberg is a professor of sociology at New York University.  His books include Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (which I am currently reading) and Going Solo.  Klinenberg has a fascinating article in the January 7, 2013 issue of The New Yorker that I would recommend to the engineering community - - Adaptation: How can cities be "climate-proofed"?

From the article:

"For the past decade and a half, governments around the world have been investing in elaborate plans to "climate-proof" their cities - protecting people, businesses, and critical infrastructure against weather-related calamites.  Much of this work involves upgrading what engineers cal "lifeline systems": the network infrastructure for power, transit, and communications, which is critical in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  Some of the solutions are capital-intensive and high-tech; some are low-or no-tech approaches, such as organizing communities so that residents know which of their neighbors are vulnerable and how to assist them.  The fundamental threat to the human species is, or course, our collective inability to reduce our carbon emissions and slow the pace of climate change.  Yet, even if we managed to stop increasing global carbon emissions tomorrow, we would probably experience several centuries of additional warming, rising sea levels, and more frequent dangerous weather events.  If our cities are to survive, we have no choice but to adapt."

This is just a small sample of the material in the article:

"Think about all the projects we conceived more than a decade ago, before we knew about rising sea levels, in the name of waterfront revitalization.  They've been quite successful, but they've also placed a lot of people at risk."

"After Sandy, there was a five-day blackout in lower Manhattan, because the walls protecting Con Ed's substation along the East River, at twelve and a half feet above the ground, were eighteen inches too low to stop the storm surge and prevent the consequent explosions."

"America's mobile-phone networks have always been less reliable than those in Europe."

"Barriers are at best an intermediate solution.  They will require at least twenty years to build, because we'd need environmental-impact reports, and buy-in form the federal government, the state governments of New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and probably also about three hundred municipalities.  If all that happens, we'd get protection for perhaps a few decades.  Walls will keep out storm surges, but not the rising ocean, and they could cause a sense of false security that prevents us from finding real solutions."

"Sometimes engineers don't see things holistically."

"Sandy revealed serious flaws in all forms of infrastructure in New York and New Jersey.  But it also turned up surprising reserves of strength."

"Thousands of people whose homes were damaged by Sandy live in neighborhoods that lack strong support networks or community organizations capable of mounting a large relief effort."

"Whether they come from governments or from civil society, the best techniques for safeguarding cities don't just mitigate disaster damage; they also strengthen the networks that promote health and prosperity during ordinary times."

"Effective climate-proofing demands more intelligent design.  It should provide benefits not just when disaster strikes but day to day."

"It's a cause for regret that we're not responding to the challenges of climate change with the same resources we've devoted to the war on terror.  As long as the threat from global warming seemed remote and abstract, it was easier to ignore.  Now climate change is coming to mean somethings specific and scary,"

"We are entering an age of extremes."

"We can't just rebuild after every disaster.  We need to pro-build, with a future of climate change in mind."

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