Preparing For a Warmer Planet

How prepared are we for the next big storm? In his new book Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth, journalist Mark Hertsgaard explains how some countries like the Netherlands are planning 200 years in advance for rising sea levels and alternating periods of drought and heavy rains.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

How ready are you for the consequences of global warming, global climate change - rising ocean levels, stronger storms, perhaps wetter, colder winters like the one we're having now? By the way, while we're freezing here, up north the Arctic sea ice coverage was one of the lowest on record this winter.

Some other countries, like The Netherlands, are taking action. They're building up shoreline defenses against a rising sea, and what are we doing here in the U.S.? How will the U.S. fare if we don't do anything? What's in store for our coastal cities like San Francisco or New York or Tampa, Boston, places like that?

My next guest has written a book asking that question. It's called "Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth." Mark Hertsgaard is environment correspondent for The Nation and has been covering climate change for 20 years. And as I say, the name of the book is "Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth." Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. MARK HERTSGAARD (The Nation): Hi, Ira, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there. If you had to say what the biggest change in the next 50 years was going to be due to climate change, what would you point out?

Mr. HERTSGAARD: The scientists say that we're definitely going to be getting a lot hotter and a lot wetter. So that's probably the short answer to that. It will vary, of course, by locality. It will depend on where you are, where on the planet. But we're definitely going to be a lot hotter than we were, and there'll be a lot more extreme weather than before.

FLATOW: You call this the second era of global warming. Why do you refer to it that way?

Mr. HERTSGAARD: I say that, Ira, because, you know, I've covered climate change since 1989, and throughout the first era, which began in actually - the first era began in 1988, June 23, when NASA scientist Jim Hansen went to the United States Senate and testified that man-made global warming had begun, and if we didn't do something about it, we risked the habitability of this planet, at least for our species.

And throughout the intervening years, the basic argument was about: How do we stop it? Is it real? What do we do? Who pays? But it was always a distant, far-off problem, a very dangerous problem, but one that could still be prevented, and it wasn't going to happen for a very long time.

And we're now in the second era, I would argue, because of a paradigm shift in the problem, which is that global warming triggered outright climate change, and it did so 100 years sooner than most scientists expected. And of course the big problem there is that the inertia of the Earth's climate system means that once climate change has begun, you can't turn it off very quickly.

Carbon dioxide stays up in the atmosphere a long time. Oceans expand over centuries when they get heated up. And so we're basically looking at at least now 50 more years of rising temperatures.

Even if we do everything right to reduce greenhouse emissions and to get onto, you know, leave fossil fuels and other carbon activities behind and create a genuinely green economy, we're still locked in to 50 more years of rising temperatures and, of course, the climate impacts that come along with that.

FLATOW: And one of the impacts that we've been discussing over the years has been rising sea levels, not just because glaciers may be melting and raising the levels over the oceans but because the oceans' water, as it expands, gets - expands. As it heats up, it expands.

Mr. HERTSGAARD: Exactly.

FLATOW: And the Dutch are already, right, preparing for this.

Mr. HERTSGAARD: The Dutch are probably the world's leaders on dealing with, as the scientific term is, adaptation, adapting to these impacts that are now unavoidable. We're doing some things in some parts of this country, for example, in Seattle, King County, Washington, but clearly the global leaders are the Dutch. They actually have a 200-year plan for coping with climate change, 200 years.

FLATOW: And 200 years, that means they're going to be...

Mr. HERTSGAARD: That's kind of inconceivable here in the United States, isn't it?

FLATOW: Here 200 days is...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HERTSGAARD: I know. Well, my editor, actually, when I handed in that part of the manuscript, my editor sent that part back, was saying typo, 200 years. He thought it was 20 years. I said no, 200 years.

But of course the Dutch have 800 years of history of dealing with water management issues, and they are thinking very long term. They're spending real money, about a billion and a half dollars a year, and they're making - perhaps the most impressive thing to me is they're making very tough political decisions, including retreating from parts of the coast that are seen as too vulnerable and too expensive to protect.

FLATOW: That's what I was going to say. They're retreating from the coast. They're building more protection to keep the seas out? What exactly are they doing?

Mr. HERTSGAARD: Both.

FLATOW: All that stuff.

Mr. HERTSGAARD: Yeah, they're doing all of the above. Of course, they have the world's strongest sea defenses already, which were built, of course, in response to the terrible and deadly floods of 1953. But they began to look again at the science in the last 10 years on climate, and they are now deciding that they have to increase their defenses yet again, and much stronger.

You know, the general world standard is to have so-called one-in-100-year protection for floods, and that's seen as more or less adequate. Well, the Dutch have always had one-in-10,000-year protection in terms of the North Sea, and they're going to move that up to one-in-100,000-year protection, meaning that they are protected against a flood that would only happen one in 100,000 times. It's a very, very small probability, but they say: So much of our country is below sea level, we absolutely cannot allow any flooding to come through.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I. And go to our Facebook page at scifri - /scifri at Facebook, and also on our website.

So they're way ahead. We're going to take time to catch up. You know, I always wonder when I hear stories like this: Has anybody ever calculated what it's going to cost for the whole world to do these things? I mean, you know, we hear people say that we can't - we shouldn't do anything about global warming because it's too expensive. But if you don't do something, the cost of not doing something, I never hear, you know, what's that cost add up to.

Mr. HERTSGAARD: There have been - yeah, there have been some preliminary estimates of that, but it's - even the scientists who are looking at it say that it's very rough.

You hear - the latest figure that I've heard from Dr. Martin Perry(ph), one of the leading scientists in Britain, is it would cost about $175 billion a year to adapt throughout the world.

Perhaps a better number is to look at what happened to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Louisiana and so forth, after Katrina, which was only a Category 3 hurricane by the time it made landfall five years ago. And the damages, the economic damages alone, leave aside the human misery and the 1,800-plus deaths and the thousands and thousands of people who were displaced - purely on an economic basis, $200 billion were lost by that hurricane.

And I interviewed for this book the head of the one Fortune 500 company down - that's headquartered in New Orleans, Entergy. And they happened to be, even before Katrina, were very outspoken, exceptional within the U.S. business community, of saying, look, we need to deal with climate change.

And one of their top VPs, vice presidents, said to me after Katrina that, you know, in a kind of slow rage, that I am tired of reading on the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal how it is too expensive to fight climate change. We just lost $200 billion here because we didn't invest $5 billion in proper levees.

FLATOW: And that's just one city.

Mr. HERTSGAARD: That's just - well, one state.

FLATOW: One area, yeah, one state, one, and...

Mr. HERTSGAARD: Think about what would happen in New York City, you know, where you guys are. Where you are, you know, New York is, for one thing, historically overdue for a major hurricane. You're looking at least three feet of sea level rise, which is going to put a lot of Brooklyn and Queens and Lower Manhattan, all the way up through Wall Street and the 9/11 Memorial, all that would be underwater with three feet of sea level rise and a decent storm.

And luckily, New York City is beginning to face up to that, as is Chicago and Seattle King County. But it's - those cases are the exceptions to the rule here in the United States. Most of the United States is still not looking at this.

And part of it's because we're the only country in the world where we're still talking about whether the science behind climate change is real. Nobody else is still talking about that.

FLATOW: And so is it up to the local communities that are endangered -New York City, New Orleans, Boston, Los Angeles - to do this for themselves?

Mr. HERTSGAARD: The - again, looking back at the Dutch, they say that -the top scientist there, named Pierre Verlinga(ph), said to me for this book that adaptation is inherently local, and everybody does have to -in their locality - have to take the first steps, because when and if this stuff hits, people on the outside are not going to be able or inclined to help you.

That said, it is essential to have regional and national coordination and support. And, in fact, President Obama recently issued an executive urging the - ordering, I should say, the federal government to begin to prepare to adapt for these things.

So you need coordination. You also need, by the way, civic involvement. It's not enough for just governments to do this. You've got to have the population and the civic institutions and the businesses involved as well.

FLATOW: Talking with Mark Hertsgaard, author of "Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth." Let's go to Ben in Athens, Ohio. Hi, Ben.

BEN (Caller): Hi, Ira. I just had a question for Mark. I was actually wondering, given how the Dutch are adapting more as a nation versus, as you were questioning earlier, as individual cities, et cetera, Mark, in your research, did you come across any Midwestern territories or states in the United States that maybe were saying, you know, we need to develop economically. We're in an economic downturn, and if we begin our development now, even just as little as, say, searching for water in the geological table, making our, you know, Midwestern desert states more inhabitable, come the time when sea levels rise and people are migrating inland. Did you find any states or cities that were maybe taking that approach, that if we're not...

Mr. HERTSGAARD: I did.

BEN: ...able to prevent it, can we adapt in a way that is beneficial now economically, and down the road, gives people a place to go...

FLATOW: Where are they going to go?

BEN: ...that isn't necessarily a desert?

Mr. HERTSGAARD: Yeah.

BEN: And I'll talk my comments off the air.

FLATOW: Okay. Thanks, Ben.

Mr. HERTSGAARD: Yeah, yeah. I did find that. I mentioned it earlier. Chicago - the city of Chicago has begun a real serious climate preparedness plan. And that means working both ends of the problem, not just what most people mean when they talk about climate policy, which is, you know, going solar and green and energy efficiency and all those things that are more important than ever but no longer sufficient.

Of course, we've got to reduce the emissions as quickly as possible because we're already locked in to very serious impacts. Three feet of sea level rise is going to be very challenging to adapt to. We don't want to make it 10.

That said, we do have to deal with three feet of sea level rise, and essentially, the approach that Chicago is taking is modeled very much on the U.S. leader, which is Seattle King County out in Washington state, where they, as they put it, ask the climate question, which means go to your scientists, find out what kind of rainfall and temperatures and other impacts we're going to be facing by the year 2050 and then work backwards from there to figure out what we need to do today to deal with that.

And in Chicago's case, they basically have two big issues. It's going to be a lot hotter there, and there's going to be stronger storms. They have the advantage of not being on a coast, so they don't have to worry so much about hurricanes or storms, and they also will have adequate water supply. So they've got that going for them in Chicago.

They are going to have to deal with more extreme storms in both summer and winter and the higher temperatures. So one of the things they're doing is planting a lot more trees in Chicago to reduce the temperatures in the urban heat islands. They're also beefing up their health and emergency services and public outreach and education efforts so that people know that when the temperatures are going up that they need to take steps. They need to get to cooling centers. They need to check on the elderly and so forth.

FLATOW: We're talking about global warming this hour in SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Mark Hertsgaard, author of "Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth."

So what I hear you saying, Mark, is that there's not one plan for everybody? Every plan has to be local because you have different needs where you live.

Mr. HERTSGAARD: Every plan does have to be local, but there are certain core principles, which is one - and this was the - when I asked the Dutch, what's the one piece of advice you would give? He said start now. You are far more vulnerable than you think, and you have farther to go than you think.

Start now. Check with your scientists. Take the science seriously. Stop this nonsense of pretending that it's all a hoax. Take the science seriously. Figure out exactly what the climatic conditions are that you are going to face in the years to come and then work backwards from there.

And, yes, it is going to be mainly local. The localities will have different effects, but you're also going to need regional coordination. And then finally, you want to make sure that your adaptation measures complement rather than contrast with the mitigation. That is to say when you are trying to prepare yourself, don't do things that are going to make global warming worse, such as turning on a lot of air-conditioning that is powered by coal-fired power plants. That's going to make the front end of the problem a lot worse.

FLATOW: You say that the government needs to lead a rapid shift to green energy. You hear the president talking about this all the time, but no one is listening, you know, in terms of making a rapid shift.

Mr. HERTSGAARD: I think a lot of people are listening, but he is facing a Congress that is pretty in the pocket of big corporations and others and unions and others who are tied into the status quo.

We happened to have - as one official I interviewed for this book said, you know, we're really an OPEC nation when you get down to it. Look at our history, we've had strong oil and coal resources and therefore industries over time. And they really do call the shots in Washington to the point that even a president like Barack Obama, who came into office clearly understanding the urgency of the climate problem.

I was in Grant Park in Chicago the night he won the presidency, and he astonished me by mentioning that climate challenge is one of the three big challenges he faced as president. And yet, he's come into office and done very little, shown very little leadership. When he talks about so-called clean energy along the same lines, he includes so-called clean coal, which is something that does not exist. It is literally a coal industry P.R. specialist phrase that has no business coming out of the mouth of the president of the United States.

So he, I think, has been a disappointment on this front, but it is largely because he faces a Congress where the power of big money so far still is overreaching the power of the citizenry. We'll see if that continues as he goes forward.

FLATOW: And in the last minute that I have, what about this - the nuclear disaster in Japan, a lot of environmentalists were looking toward nuclear power as an answer.

Mr. HERTSGAARD: True. You know, I wrote a book on the nuclear industry in 1983 and interviewed a lot of the executives, and it was the very first time I heard about something called global warming. The nuclear industry was saying back in the early '80s that global warming was going to save their bacon because it was right after the Three Mile Island accident; everybody thought the industry was dead. They were saying back then that global warming was going to help them.

And it is - you're right, Ira, that a lot of enviros have come around to it to believe that. It's strange to me, though, leave aside the safety and proliferation problems. The truth is, is that going nuclear will make climate change worse, will make climate change worse.

FLATOW: Really?

Mr. HERTSGAARD: Why? Yeah. Because of economic reasons, though. It's because nuclear is so expensive that a dollar that you invest in nuclear power compared to a dollar that you invest in energy efficiency, that dollar you invest in energy efficiency will save about seven times more carbon emissions quicker and cheaper than that dollar that you invest in nuclear. So if you invest in nuclear, you are making the problem worse by diverting scarce capital towards a dead-end economic solution.

FLATOW: All right...

Mr. HERTSGAARD: It's really not necessary, or there's other ways to fight this problem.

FLATOW: And you can read about all this other ways in the new book by Mark Hertsgaard: "Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth."

Mark, thanks for taking time to be with us again.

Mr. HERTSGAARD: Always a pleasure, Ira.

FLATOW: And good luck to you.

Mark is an environment correspondent for The Nation and author of "Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth."

We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we're going to talk about the future of cancer research. Stay with us.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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