State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Earth Observation Science, Public Policymaking, and the Trump Administration

Steven Cohen, August 11, 2015 Photo by Bruce Gilbert
Read more from Executive Director Steven Cohen at the Huffington Post.

Now that President-elect Trump has left the rhetoric of the campaign trail, it is time to face the facts that confront the American government. Elements of economic and demographic life provide great challenges to our governments and leaders here in America and around the world. There are over seven billion people on the planet, and if economic growth continues along with better health care and birth control, human population will probably peak at 9 or 10 billion. Without immigration, population growth would have already stopped in wealthy urban nations; Japan, which resists immigration, is starting to lose population.

Whatever number human population peaks at, the planet’s economic output and use of natural resources is advancing at a ferocious rate. India and China, two nations of over a billion people each, are chewing up the planet faster than ever. The political pressure for rapid economic development is constant and deeply felt by the governing elites in the developing world. It is fed by the seductive images of wealthier lifestyles communicated for free over the ever-spreading World Wide Web. A world of economic growth is a fact, and we need to learn how to manage and maintain that world. The political stability we enjoy in the United States, Japan and Europe is built on economic growth.

Another fact of life is that it is too late to live at one with nature and go back to the land. There are simply too many people and there is too little land. And so we need to live in cities that provide what people seek while having the least possible impact on the food, water and air that our species requires to live. We need to decouple economic growth from the growth of the consumption of finite resources. Technology and lifestyle changes such as the sharing economy could make that possible.

All of this seems obvious, but the problem is that we know too little about the impact of humans on earth systems. We are learning, but the learning process can be quite difficult. This is seen dramatically in the battle between climate deniers and climate scientists. While some deny the fact of climate change, the more profound conflict is over the impacts of climate change, and what to do about those impacts. Some climate impacts are difficult to model and measure. Unlike air, water and land pollution, the impacts of climate change are often subtle and take longer to gestate. So climate scientists model climate as a partial cause of a complex event, such as sea level rise, drought or extreme weather. Some also try to connect climate to changes in human behavior, such as the price of real estate or the possibility of war. While this work is worthy of pursuit, it tends to be exploratory. The impact of lead in a child’s drinking water, for example, is clear; the impact of climate change on human conflict is less clear.

It is true that environmental issues can lead to scarcity of water and food that exacerbate conflict and may push opposing forces over the edge from conflict to war. But wars have many causes, and it is difficult to assign weights to the causes of conflict. A war could be a result of balance of power politics or leaders who are homicidal maniacs. Some of my colleagues trace the war in Syria to Middle Eastern drought that may have been made worse by climate change. That probably was the case. But sometimes nations and communities come together and respond positively to crises; they don’t always descend into civil war.

In America, we had a horrible drought-induced ecological crisis in the Midwest from 1934-1937. Climate change caused immigration, but not large-scale civil unrest, during the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The U.S. had an ecological disaster where poor cultivation methods destroyed the productivity of farm soil and led to a mass migration and a decline in farm production. Fortunately, America in the 1930s only had a deep economic depression, not the Middle Eastern culture of conflict. We had a great leader in FDR, a new institution called the Soil Conservation Service, and a new economy in the west (especially California) to absorb climate refugees. About 2.5 million people fled from the states hit by this catastrophe, but after real struggle, they found employment and hope in other parts of the United States. These examples demonstrate the complexity of predicting the impact of climate change.

The language of warnings of possible earth system impacts is the language of probability, not the language of certainty. No one knows the future. We do know, however, that the economic production and consumption of seven billion people is having a far from trivial impact on our planet. We also know that humans still need our ecological systems to provide the food, air and water that keep us alive. We need to learn more about those impacts, not to stop the economic production that we benefit from, but to steer it and sustainably manage it so we can continue benefiting from the technological marvel that we live in. Earth system science is woefully underfunded by our federal government, and we need more of it, not less of it.

When the impact of economic production is a toxic release that has a demonstrated impact, we have had some success in regulating those releases. When the impact is projected to happen in the future, we have had less success. This has led to a search for the current impacts of climate change, which are not always well-founded.

For example, this weekend, we saw Ian Urbina of the New York Times report that real estate values in coastal areas are not rising as quickly as elsewhere. Urbina observed that: “Nationally, median home prices in areas at high risk for flooding are still 4.4 percent below what they were 10 years ago, while home prices in low-risk areas are up 29.7 percent over the same period, according to the housing data.” His story noted that about 40 percent of the nation’s population lived by the coasts and that people in beach communities were reluctant to move. His point is that fear of climate change is depressing housing prices by the shore. In a response, columnist Holman W. Jenkins Jr. of the Wall Street Journal assigned that drop not to climate impacts, but to the declining federal subsidy for flood insurance and the dramatic increase in flood insurance rates. Jenkins argued that:

“When Teddy Roosevelt built his Sagamore Hill on Long Island, he did so a quarter mile from shore at an elevation of 115 feet not because he disdained proximity to the beach or was precociously worried about climate change. The federal government did not stand ready with taxpayer money to defray his risk. Estimates vary, but sea levels may have risen at two millimeters a year over the past century. … On top of this, a “notable surge event” can produce a storm surge of seven to 23 feet, according to a federal list of 10 hurricanes over the past 70 years. … But, to state the obvious, normal tidal variation plus storm surge is the danger to coastal property. Background sea-level rise is a non-factor. A FEMA study from several years ago found that fully a quarter of coastal dwellings are liable to be destroyed over a 50-year period.”

What is really happening here? Real estate prices are subject to many factors. Waterfront homes may have been overpriced. There may be a fear of flooding. The cost of insurance may well be one factor. I don’t think that Teddy Roosevelt’s building decisions had much to do with insurance (let’s think of TR and risk for a moment). Essentially, we live differently today than we did 75 and 100 years ago. When Americans back then built homes by the ocean, they did not value constant views of the water and built their homes away from the shore and behind dunes. I would argue this had little to do with federal flood insurance, but a more prudent and less arrogant attitude about the power of nature. There were also fewer people and the beaches were less crowded.

Take, for example, the case of my summer home in Long Beach, New York (flooded by Hurricane Sandy). No one built on the waterfront in the early 20th century. The small number of fancy houses on Long Beach from that time are blocks from the ocean and on the widest part of the island. The people who built my bungalow used wood (not dry wall) in the interior and had very little (if any) electricity. We live differently today. When Sandy hit, all our appliances, dry wall, ceiling, furniture and first floor were ruined. Contrast that to the day in 1938 when the Long Island Express hurricane came through: The water flowed into the house, the tide receded and the water flowed out. No TV or internet was ruined. No drywall presented risk of mold. The place dried for a few weeks in the breeze and the costs of repair were minimal. They probably had to buy a new sofa and easy chair. In our case after Sandy, it cost about $80,000 in federally subsidized flood insurance to put the place back together.

As Jenkins indicates, we should have a debate about how to insure against the risks of natural disasters. My view is that climate change, development patterns and lifestyle changes have increased risk. Long Beach, like many northeastern beach communities, is not filled with million-dollar ocean-front homes, but bungalows converted to year-round homes by firefighters, factory workers, teachers and NYPD officers. My neighbors in Long Beach are not the “shoreline gentry” of Jenkins’ essay. The Midwestern homes flooded this year were not built by rich people either. My view is that we need to pay more into a national disaster relief insurance program, and the payments should be set by risk, home values and ability to pay. Increases should be phased in slowly. We need this debate, but ideology makes reasoned discussion impossible.

But debate is crucial. Not only are our lifestyles different and our technology more vulnerable, but there are more of us. We need earth systems science to do a better job of predicting short-term and long-term threats. The science of climate change has been politicized. That is tragic. It has been manipulated by cynical politicians who see a way to build opposition to government playing a role in funding science. That danger has been exacerbated by the current presidential transition as climate deniers are dominating both the real and fake new sites. My scientific colleagues see their laboratories and critical earth science research projects under threat of de-funding, and we get further and further from where we need to be.

We do not know enough about our planet and the impact of human technology on its basic systems. It is beyond idiotic to think we can grow our population and consumption this much, this quickly, and have no impact. But it is also foolish to overstate what we know and ask policymakers to invest trillions of dollars on impacts we have not yet seen. Scientists need to be encouraged and funded to present facts, projections and options.

The case against fossil fuels does not require global warming to be compelling. Pumping and digging fossil fuels out of the earth typically damages the planet. Burning fossil fuels typically causes air pollution. Shipping the stuff costs money and all of this can be reduced with renewable energy, smart grid technology and energy efficiency. The fact that these steps will reduce the price of energy and its short-term environmental impact makes greenhouse gas reduction icing on the cake.

But climate change is not the only environmental danger we face. We have unleashed a number of toxic chemicals on our ecosystems that we do not understand. We are building human settlements in the pathways of seismic and weather danger where people never lived before. I am quite confident that better-funded environmental research could identify other basic earth processes we experience but do not understand. While the right wing worries about science and journalism disguised as propaganda, climate scientists see growing danger and fear that no one is paying attention to the science. I would like to see more science, more conversation, and more reasoned debate. Earth systems science is not cheap. It requires monitoring, fieldwork, analysis, model building and communication. It is an input to the policymaking process, and policy requires consideration of multiple objectives and the balance of costs and benefits. It’s time to listen and learn from each other. It’s hard to imagine a Trump administration facilitating this conversation, but that makes it no less necessary.

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Nicki Alexander
Nicki Alexander
7 years ago

The lack of understanding of the Earth’s ecological systems is highly disconcerting in the climate change context. I feel that this is a reality that the Trump administration will completely refuse to acknowledge. You are spot on that we can’t possibly know how human communities will react to the more frequent natural disasters, and this is one of the most terrifying aspects of climate change. I like your idea of risk insurance for climate change, but what about shifting from an instrumental to an inter-subjective approach as well? Even if we can’t exactly go back to “living on the land,” how can we use the land we do have to mitigate the effects of natural disasters? I’m referring to restoring wetlands, riparian buffers, etc. to prevent flooding, and switching to more sustainable agricultural methods to prevent dust storms like the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. It seems like working with nature to find solutions could be a sort of risk insurance of its own, while also providing more space for native species of flora and fauna to flourish. Unfortunately, I doubt any such changes will come about within the next four years.

Stephen soumerai
Stephen soumerai
7 years ago

I find it difficult to comprehend your argument as a climate scientist that an insurance program should fix your LI beach home at a time of rising sea levels. Why? Isn’t it time for change and movement inland? The same is true of the NJ barrier islands. It smells of hypocrisy. Resources are limited and the threats are too great. Stephen Soumerai, Harvard Medical School