Man’s Power Versus Nature’s Power: the Wrong Distinction

I wrote this blog on Wednesday: immediately following the election, a full week after Sandy (I live in NYC – we’ve been trying to fix some of the damage) and in the middle of a new Northeaster that was dumping snow all around me. In the most recent iteration of the battle between “old white men” and the “world,” the “world” won – but just barely. The “world” here specifically includes both the majority of countries outside the United States, which have overwhelmingly supported President Obama (with two notable exceptions: Israel and Pakistan), and the non- “old white men” in the USA (for details see NYT front page November 8). I am an “old white man.” I voted for Obama, but I still don’t break the stereotype – I speak with a foreign accent.

The coincidence of timing between Sandy and the election might have helped Obama, but the most popular reaction that I have heard was focused on the contrast in human power: how powerless we are when confronting Mother Nature, and in contrast, how powerful we are when deciding who will lead us and “solve” some of the most pressing issues on our collective (perhaps global) mind.

Questions were raised as to the insignificance of the issues that we are being called to vote on, when compared to the fury and misery that nature can and does inflict.

Such a contrast in the scope of issues was on my mind in another important occasion. In my younger days I was a soldier on active duty, fighting in a real war; one we viewed as an existential war, especially before the fighting actually started. At that time there was a break in the activities that was used by families for a field visit. My wife came and we started to chat about what was happening in our circles back home. I still remember the disconnect that I felt at the time: how could we worry about these “trivialities” compared to the life and death situations that we were all facing. It didn’t take me long to remind myself that the two coexisting scales of concern were equally real, and that I had better pay attention to both of them, or risk losing both. The visit ended smoothly. I am sure that many veterans that are now, or have recently returned, from a war zone, have experienced a similar disconnect, followed by a similar return to equilibrium.

I can think of three main ways to correlate policy initiatives with mitigation and/or adaptation to extreme weather conditions such as hurricanes:

1. I had a class on Election Day and we were discussing some of these issues. One student showed me a newspaper article with two keywords: “Bill Gates” and “Hurricane.” It caught his attention because Bill Gates was trying to patent a way for humans to fight hurricanes. I had never heard of this attempt but I was curious about this new suggestion to geo-engineer the planet.

Simplified models of the working of hurricanes present them as heat engines that operate between the warm temperature of tropical oceans and the much cooler temperature of the upper atmosphere. They derive their energy from the latent heat of condensation of water. The remedy proposed by Gates et al was to simply pump the deeper cooler water to the surface. This would reduce the surface temperature and thus mitigate the storm. Sounds fine. It makes sense that if hurricanes operate as heat engines between the warm ocean water and a cooler upper atmosphere, the temperature of the water becomes an important factor in its magnitude. Indeed, usually when the hurricane reaches land or moves to cooler water it loses much of its intensity. The problem is that a quick calculation reveals that the energy that a major hurricane stores approaches 200 times the global electric generating capacity. This, in addition to the uncertainty of predicting the storm’s track, would make such an effort challenging.

2. One major impact that has come out in all the recent computer models is the increasing frequency of extreme storms. Since it has also been agreed upon that extreme storms have been around since before human influence on the chemistry of the atmosphere was noticed, it is very difficult, and probably impossible, to determine how much direct human influence can account for in any given weather event. People are trying to do that, and they will probably try even harder in the aftermath of Sandy. They might even come out with some numbers (these might be important for future lawsuits that request compensation from oil companies). Statistical techniques such as the one that was recently published by James Hansen et al show that the frequency of extreme events, whatever their cause, is on the rise. Once Sandy was on the move, an intense debate surfaced over all the communication channels – could Sandy be blamed on climate change, or was it “natural?” One can follow some of this debate in a condensed series of blogs by Andrew Revkin, the New York Times blogger of Dot Earth, which took place over the week between Sandy and Election Day. One of these blogs hit the mark. The title was “On Sandy and Humanity’s ‘Blah, Blah, Blah Bang’ Disaster Plans” and the first two paragraphs state the following:

For millions of people in the New York metropolitan region and adjacent areas flooded, scorched, and pummeled by the extraordinary hybrid storm once known as Sandy, arguments about how much of the storm’s ferocity was human-created are secondary.

Arguments about how to discuss such extreme events in the context of climate policy — while important — are down the list, as well, even with a presidential election days away. After all, that debate is perennial. (Go here for a valuable 2009 discussion of this question in relation to climate change and African megadroughts; plug in hurricanes where you see drought and the pattern will feel familiar.)

Whether “natural” or man-made, adaptation needs to accommodate the increasing frequency of these occurrences. The main issue, as I mentioned in a previous blog (September 24), is that without an effective mitigation policy, the average weather will become extreme— unfit for human habitation.

3. Adaptation: as was mentioned by Mario Cuomo, the Governor of New York, when what should be a hundred-year storm shows up every two or three years – we need to be prepared. We have examples to follow from places that are more vulnerable than New York City: The Netherlands, Post Katrina New Orleans, etc. It is expensive!!

My undergraduate class at Brooklyn College has a class research project to evaluate what New York City can actually do to implement an adaptation policy for climate change that was drafted and published more than two years ago. I will keep you posted on their results.

All three responses are expensive and will require rethinking of policy priorities. Some of them are more practical than others. Doing nothing is also an option, however, as Sandy is showing (so far estimated at 50 billion dollars), this option has its own costs.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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