In the spirit of Donald Rumsfeld we might distinguish between natural inevitabilities and unnatural inevitabilities. Someday, for example, the precarious flank of the massive Cumbre Vieja volcano on La Palma in the Canary Islands will collapse and send a mega-tsunami across the Atlantic. The damage from Boston to New York City will dwarf last year’s disaster in Japan. It’s inevitable, but volcanologists don’t know whether the destabilising eruption will occur tomorrow or in five thousand years. So for now, it’s merely a titillating topic for NOVA or the National Geographic Channel.
Another, much more frequent example of natural inevitability is the pre-global-warming hurricane cycle. Two or three times each century a perfect storm has crashed into the US Atlantic seaboard and wreaked havoc as far as the Great Lakes. But a $20 billion disaster every few decades is why we have an insurance industry. And even the loss, now and then, of an entire city to nature (San Francisco in 1906 or New Orleans in 2005) is an affordable tragedy.
But the construction since 1960 of several trillion dollars’ worth of prime real estate on barrier islands, bay fill, recycled swamps and coastal lowlands has radically transformed the calculus of loss. Subtract every carbon dioxide molecule added to the atmosphere in the last thirty years and ‘ordinary’ storms would still collect ever larger tolls from certifiably insane coastal overdevelopment.
Carbon, however, has never been more prosperous. Global emissions, by the most optimistic estimate, conform to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s ‘worst case’ scenario. The World Bank, for its part, now accepts the inevitability of a global temperature increase of at least 2 degrees Celsius – near the famous ‘red line’ of the last decade’s climate Cassandras. The Bank, moreover, is refocusing developmental aid from mitigation to adaptation.
This is the true meaning of Hurricane Sandy: the repo girl is at the door. Climate change adaptation is a synonym for a multi-trillion-dollar reconstruction of urban coastal infrastructure and land-use patterns. Imitate the Dutch or live in Waterworld.
How long will it take for this realisation to percolate through the tumoured brain of American politics? Until 2006, American public opinion was broadly in step with European concerns about global warming. Following Climategate, however, the energy-industry-subsidised right went on the offensive and polls recorded a dramatic decline in public perception of climate change as a scientific fact.
Even more surprisingly, opinion surveys tracking public reactions to extreme climate events, like the recent epic drought in the Great Plains, have failed to detect significant change in opinion. The presidential race, meanwhile, has largely been a contest about which candidate stoops lowest to administer oral sex to fossil fuel producers.
The business press exults in the brilliant future of shale gas and non-traditional oil. The USA, for the first time in 63 years, is a net exporter of oil products. And we are locked into fossil fuel dependence for another generation or two.
Alternatives are dissolving. Creating green jobs, the major industrial strategy of the Obama administration, has been a complete bust thanks to the shale gas revolution and China’s dumping of cheap solar energy cells on the world market. The meltdown of Europe’s carbon trading system, moreover, has hardly bolstered the credibility of ‘cap and trade’ in an American recession.
Hard rains and rising tides on the Jersey shore, alas, do not automatically translate into enthusiasm about renewable energy or an urgency to build dykes. Eventually, however, the change must come and Washington will start to pay the compound interest for failing to mitigate warming or reform land use.
But this isn’t the truly bad news. The grimmest reckoning is the inverse relationship between the costs of climate change adaptation in rich countries and the amount of aid available to poorer countries. The tropical and semi-tropical poor countries that are least responsible for creating a greenhouse planet will bear the greatest burden of coastal inundation, extreme weather, and agricultural water shortages. Not that it was ever likely that the emitters would ride to the rescue of the poor people downstream, but Sandy is the beginning of the race for the lifeboats on the Titanic.