Our warming planet is increasing the number and severity of floods, forest fires, hurricanes, and a wide variety of extreme weather events. In late May, the Biden administration doubled the size of a fund that provides local governments with the resources to reduce disaster vulnerability. The funding grew from about $500 million to $1 billion, although the legislative formula that sets funding levels would have allowed an allocation of $3.7 billion. Administration officials did not believe that local governments had the capacity to do more than twice as much as they did last year. It is not clear that the scale of the effort will meet the challenge, but the increased funding is at least an acknowledgment of the threat.
Climate emergencies are no longer really emergencies but routine events. Natural disasters are nothing special and have become a way of life on our warming planet. We need to do far more to prepare for disasters and mitigate their impact. As Christopher Flavelle wrote in the New York Times last month:
“The new money is less than what some disaster experts had said is needed, especially because the warming planet is making storms, flooding, wildfires and other disasters both more frequent and destructive. The United States experienced 22 disasters that exceeded $1 billion each in damages last year, a record.”
While some of my colleagues are studying “managed retreat” from the most climate-vulnerable communities, it is becoming clear that you can run, but you can’t hide from climate impacts. February’s energy grid failure in Texas was a nearly state-wide disaster caused by vulnerable infrastructure that was built without consideration of the need for increased resilience. There were few places Texans could hide from the impact of that extreme weather event. It’s obvious that our built environment must be constructed to withstand the effects of extreme weather. Existing infrastructure must be reinforced, and new elements of the built environment need to be engineered to withstand extreme weather events. Damage prevention costs money up-front, but it reduces the cost of reconstruction.
Vulnerable coastlines must be strengthened with natural and built forms of protection, including wetlands, landfilled buffers, sea walls and sand-replenished beaches. Energy, water, sewage, communication, and transportation infrastructure needs to be more resistant to heat, cold, wind and both fresh and saltwater. The average American is highly dependent on shared systems that provide us with energy, water, waste disposal and transport. Over the long term, the least expensive method of protecting those critical systems is to mitigate climate change. But eliminating global warming will take decades, and we need to get used to living in a climate-challenged world.
Unfortunately, climate is not the only challenge we face. A host of technologies that we rely on created the climate crisis. But other technologies also pose threats that require system-level solutions as well. Businesses, governments, and institutions all over America are being attacked by cyber-criminals holding their computer systems hostage for ransom payments. The technology of global travel spread COVID-19 throughout the world, causing trillions of dollars of economic damage. Our national and local security institutions require resources, strategies, and authority to protect us from these threats. Our interdependency provides massive benefits to all of us, but it also creates a vulnerability that cannot be ignored or wished away. International and increasing domestic terror continue but are familiar enough to have generated institutional responses. Computer and biological viruses require a similar level of attention. COVID-19 has demonstrated the sorry state of America’s public health system: from the CDC down to county health organizations. Cyber attacks require businesses to rely on private cybersecurity firms for protection. Meanwhile, American government is asleep at the switch. Our federal government is only slowly responding to this emerging threat.
America’s ideological battles seem to be focused on fighting the last war rather than the next one. Demonstrating your freedom by refusing to wear masks seems a little silly when you can’t buy a steak from your cyber-attacked meat distributor or store it in your freezer when the climate-challenged power grid fails. And your gasoline-powered generator won’t run too well when your cyber-attacked gasoline pipeline is shut down because it’s held hostage by a gang of Russian tech criminals. The Second Amendment may allow you to buy an assault weapon, but who will you shoot when your house is burned down by a forest fire? Here in New York City, policing has become a major issue in our mayoral campaign. Police behavior must change and become more attuned to the real threats we face. Racial profiling is not only unethical and wrong; it also diverts attention and organizational capacity from real threats to public safety. That requires more sophisticated capacities to address more complicated threats. In 2020 there were 447 homicides in New York City, a 41% increase over 2019. So far this year, there have been 173 homicides compared to 147 at this time in 2020. Those 620 deaths are a profound loss and a severe setback for public safety. But compare the threat of homicide in New York City to the 33,280 deaths from COVID-19. The threats are both serious, but clearly, our need to enhance our system of public health is at least as important as the issue of policing.
First responders from FEMA to firefighters and local health officials must be better resourced to be capable of protecting the public from the real threats to our well-being. Enhanced security requires more resources, not less. The fact is that we live in a technologically complex, interconnected, global economy. We depend on each other, and that interdependency creates great benefits but also makes us vulnerable to system break-down and attacks. We require redundancy and backup systems, decentralization along with connectivity and most of all, a greater understanding of our shared fate.
We have seen two radically different approaches to the dangers posed by the more complex world we live in. Donald Trump looked for someone to blame our problems on. The deep state, immigrants, China, Antifa and BLM are only a few examples of Trumpian scapegoats. Trump’s lies and nastiness created a debased new normal in political speech. Trump’s approach was to ignore root causes and sow division wherever he could. In contrast, Joe Biden has sought to be an empathetic unifier. He is not looking to blame others for our problems, but instead, his team looks to analyze the underlying causes of our troubles and seek consensus about potential solutions. Vice President Harris is traveling to Latin America to see if we can address the root causes of immigration. Trump left the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization while Biden rejoined those global institutions. Biden’s experiment in consensus and community-building confronts a Republican senate more interested in gaining political control than solving the nation’s problems. Not to mention an unhinged ex-president still convinced that the 2020 election was stolen from him and this summer he will return to the White House.
The theme of these past several years is that we live in a more dangerous and vulnerable world than we thought. Many of the threats are subtle: virus transmission, cyber-crime, manufactured news, and the dysfunctional impact of social media. The benefits of this world are many and include global travel, low-cost communication, infinite information and entertainment, enhanced wellness, and medical technology- to name only a few. The search for simple answers and a clear set of heroes and villains is bound to miss the nuance of the complex environment we face. It is hard to solve problems when we don’t have a shared understanding of their causes and effects. The threats to our security are real and require a rational and strategic response. Let’s hope we can produce one.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.