Scaling up from the Hamptons to the World

Michael Schwartz’s New York Times article entitled “Dispute in the Hamptons Set Off by Effort to Hold Back Ocean” (NYT, April 18, 2013) starts with the following:

Soon after Hurricane Sandy hit last fall, Joshua Harris, a billionaire hedge fund founder and an owner of the Philadelphia 76ers, began to fear that his $25 million home on the water here might fall victim to the next major storm. So he installed a costly defense against incoming waves: a shield of large metal plates on the beach, camouflaged by sand.

His neighbor, Mark Rachesky, another billionaire hedge fund founder, put up similar fortifications between his home and the surf. Chris Shumway, who closed his $8 billion hedge fund two years ago, trucked in boulders the size of Volkswagens.

Across a section of this wealthy town, some residents, accustomed to having their way in the business world, are now trying to hold back the ocean.

But the flurry of construction on beachfront residences since the hurricane is touching off bitter disputes over the environment, real estate and class.

A White House Office of Science and Technology Policy blog summarizes the conclusions of a report that was recently submitted to the President, regarding the steps that the United States needs to take to confront climate change:

Today the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST) released a letter to the President describing six key components the advisory group believes should be central to the Administration’s strategy for addressing climate change…

The six key components are:

  • Focus on national preparedness for climate change, which can help decrease damage from extreme weather events now and speed recovery from future damage;
  • Continue efforts to decarbonize the economy, with emphasis on the electricity sector;
  • Level the playing field for clean-energy and energy-efficiency technologies by removing regulatory obstacles, addressing market failures, adjusting tax policies, and providing time-limited subsidies for clean energy when appropriate;
  • Sustain research on next-generation clean-energy technologies and remove obstacles for their eventual deployment;
  • Take additional steps to establish U.S. leadership on climate change internationally; and
  • Conduct an initial Quadrennial Energy Review.

The PCAST’s first recommendation addresses adaptation. The other five recommendations involve mitigation. To various degrees, all six recommendations require the spending of money now, to prevent future disasters. In today’s fiscal environment, spending public money is not a popular activity. Adaptation and mitigation, however, are funded in different ways.

We all share a common atmosphere, so not only do mitigation efforts need to be globally coordinated, they must also involve a universal transition to more sustainable energy sources. Mitigation’s goal, after all, is to minimize the anthropogenic (human-caused) changes that result from using fossil fuels as our dominant energy sources.

Adaptation, on the other hand, is mainly a local activity, and therefore funded locally- it also comes with the open ended question – adaptation to what? The IPCC’s projection for a business as usual scenario estimates a 6oC global temperature rise (a change of 10.8oF) toward the end of the century, while an environmentally friendly scenario estimates the global temperature rise as only 2.5oC (4.5oF) over the same time period (September 24 and December 10 blogs). The two projections portray very different worlds. The 2.5oC scenario depicts a world where adaptation is not only possible, but has clear, fixed results; the 6oC scenario describes a world where open-ended adaptation has reached its limits, and the global population is at the mercy of drastic climate change.

The Hampton billionaires can build sea gates in front of their multi million dollar houses and, for a while, prevent damage to their estates. Physics will still come into effect, however, and the rising sea will only take a small detour from the sea gates to hit surrounding, less protected, structures. This is what has resulted from efforts to re-protect New Orleans after hurricane Katrina, and in every other place that has tried to implement similar local protection from sea-level or lake-level rise.

The Hamptons case can be extended globally: rich countries on a GDP scale, will be able, if they so choose, to temporarily protect themselves and shift the impact to poorer countries that do not have the resources to do so. The majority of the world’s population is, and increasingly continues to be, made up of citizens of what we consider developing countries. If they feel, as the “regular” citizens of the Hamptons do, that they are being ignored and taken advantage of, global mitigation efforts will never work and the recommendations by the PCAST will turn out to be internally contradictory. There needs to be some level of democracy and equality in adaptation for mitigation to function properly- we are all part of an inter-connected system, and will therefore be affected by the overall changes that occur in years to come.

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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6 Responses to Scaling up from the Hamptons to the World

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  6. Micha,
    I agree; any attempts to hold back the ocean are temporary at best. New Orleans will flood again and the Hamptons will receive more storms. Coastal communities across the globe will have to adapt. Such is the fate of those who choose to live by the sea. It is not a good use of public resources (or private funds) to repair storm damage unless there is a reasonable economic return before the next weather event – annual hurricanes in New Orleans’ case, once a decade or so in the Hamptons.
    As a geologist, I am well aware of the global ebb and flow of the seas across the continents through time. It is that movement that has helped create the sediments and the structures that hold our petroleum endowment. The forces involved are relentless and we will be forced to adapt, as we have for the past 10,000 years or more of modern human presence.
    Ultimately, we will have to close the loop on our hydrocarbon use, likely using plant life in some manufacturing process. Energy use globally is not decreasing, but increasing. Even if all our energy could be gathered directly from the sun, we would have to adapt, because of the heat load that would be added to the atmosphere from solar-collected electricity transformed into heat, the driver of our weather.
    Adapt we must and adapt we will, i.e. move to higher ground and don’t spend too much on coastal homes.

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