Thursday, November 01, 2012

Let us raise the right barriers and destroy the wrong ones

As Hurricane Sandy pushed stormy weather up to Rhode Island, the hurricane barrier by Fox Point came up to prevent the Providence River from surging into downtown Providence.  It was built in the 1960s, this barrier, and has come in handy for many storms like this.

There are no such barriers in the Hudson River to protect New York City from the kind of devastation it saw this week.  (At this writing, the death toll from Hurricane Sandy in New York alone is 37; nationwide, the count has passed 80.)  New York did not often need them.  For all the weather that has hit New York, flooding in Manhattan was once rare.  Rare enough that no major infrastructure was deemed necessary, and only piecemeal and reactive measures were taken after unusual weather.

Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed on Tuesday that this may need to be re-thought.  His remarks at the press conference were strangely coy: acknowledging that climate change is transforming weather patterns, yet declaring that he did not want to engage such a "political" issue.

Of course it's political.  Human activity is changing climatic conditions on our planet. We are now seeing "environmental refugees" as people are forced to pick up their community and find settlement elsewhere as sea levels and temperatures change; we are seeing changes of air quality; we can literally watch the arctic ice on which we depend melt before our eyes; and we are seeing new patterns of weather, including extreme storms like Hurricanes Irene and now Sandy.

Governor Cuomo on Tuesday:

When you start to fill the subway tunnels with salt water—much of the Con Ed equipment is in the tunnels, is underground—when hot electrical equipment hits cold salt water, that is a bad combination. And that is a design flaw, I believe, for our system now, if you anticipate these extreme weather conditions.
Obviously we didn’t when we designed this system. We did not anticipate water coming over the Hudson River, coming over the banks, being five feet deep on the West Side Highway, and filling subway grates and every opening and filling that massive infrastructure we have below ground.
Going forward, I think we do have to anticipate these extreme types of weather patterns. And we have to start to think about how do we redesign the system so this doesn’t happen again. After what happened, what has been happening in the last few years, I don’t think anyone can sit back anymore and say “Well, I’m shocked at that weather pattern.” There is no weather pattern that can shock me at this point. And I think that has to be our attitude. And how do we redesign our system and our infrastructure assuming that?”

It is to Governor Cuomo's credit that he made a case for acknowledging facts.  But it is so little, so late.  And yes, it is political.  It is political when we cannot have a serious and factually based public discourse about climate change and the human activity that contributes to the process and accelerates its effects.  It is political when scientific research, and reporting on that research to the general public, are corrupted by the influence of business interests.  It is political when scientific research, and even science itself, is impeached for political reasons.  The political conflict is quite serious.  The implications of this reality suggests a human interest in putting limits on some capitalist activities and making radical changes in our habits of consumption and energy production.  There might even need to be changes in the economic system itself.  There are some very powerful interests who do not want the public thinking about it that way. 

In the short term, however, for god's sake, get the feasibility study underway as a step toward building storm barriers in the Hudson.  The cost of that project would be in the billions, but far fewer than the billions of dollars in damage and lost economic activity from just one major storm.  Just do it.  

Governor Cuomo is attracting attention of late as a potential candidate for president.  I hope he loses his inhibitions about discussing climate change -- and do I dare hope he will find the courage to embrace systematic change?  We are past the point of averting catastrophic effects of climate change.  We are now in an era where we can still work to contain the catastrophe -- and that opportunity is slipping by as well, while politicians and their patrons resist and deny science in order to preserve the current system.

Besides building barriers in the right places, it is time to blow up the barriers that are keeping us from sanity.

What will it take, my friends?  What will it take?

[Image: Fox Point hurricane barrier, Providence]

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