While a commonly expected impact is more frequent, and more intense, storms, that is not the focus of the book. Instead, Tidwell pulls on his intimate knowledge of the coastal zone around New Orleans to show that Katrina was a model for what any big storm hitting any major city will be like with 3 feet of sea level rise. That’s because our activities around New Orleans have replicated a 3-foot rise, by allowing what is essentially a 3-foot sink in the land mass around the city. Before the years of Army Corps of Engineers projects to build levees and dams towards the mouth of the Mississippi, there was a dynamic equilibrium in the delta area, where land was washed away, and new land was deposited by the river. With the earth works, the new land washed right through, leaving only the washing away, with the end result of what basically equated to a 3-foot rise in sea level. The outer islands have been disappearing, marshes sinking underwater, and the natural defenses to the coastal city dissolving.
Without these defenses to slow the storm down, without the millions of blades of grass providing some friction, the storm hit the city full on with disastrous affect. Putting the pieces together, the book paints a frighteningly clear picture of how exposed our coastal cities will be to storms with sea level rise.
The book also runs through much of the more common aspects of climate disruption – its causes and impacts – and the maddening lack of response from us. Towards the end, it also, refreshingly, gets into the heartening opportunities that we have to minimize the damage we’ve already created. I think one little example in particular is worth quoting at length:
Here’s what gives me hope: In the middle of the U.S. Capitol, stands a tall and shiny symbol of rural America. It’s a twenty-ton corn granary, full of organically fertilized, Maryland-raised corn. Every few weeks during the winter, a Mennonite farmer forty miles away dispatches a feed truck to refill this two-story tall, cylindrical granary. Then, in the shadow of high-rise apartment buildings within earshot of D.C. subway trains, fifty families in and around my neighborhood come at their convenience to withdraw the fuel the need to heat their homes with corn-burning, climate-friendly stoves.
This first-in-the-world urban corn cooperative exists because the granary exists. And the granary exists because my city government in Takoma Park, Maryland, has a policy of fighting global warming. Indeed, the granary itself sits on city property at the public works compound. Among other things, Takoma Park’s leaders recently purchased wind energy to power all government buildings. And in 2002 the city worked creatively with local citizens, farmers, and private industry to establish this unique granary system that’s now being replicated in other parts of the region.
After I installed my own corn stove on September 11, 2001, I told people I was fighting terrorism. Now I tell people I’m fighting hurricanes, too. And so are many of my neighbors thanks to the outpouring of creativity and problem solving that comes when elected officials adopt innovative policies that convert common problems into public gain. The Takoma Park granary, at no cost to taxpayers whatsoever, has reduced the heating bills of lots of people. It’s helped preserve at least two Maryland farms, enhanced the bottom line of a stove-manufacturing company in Minnesota, and oh yeah, kept hundreds of tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in the process. It’s also made local politicians look very, very good…
So imagine – just imagine – what would happen if we did this sort of thing on a national scale. In May 1961, President John F. Kennedy committed the United States to a policy of putting a man on the moon by the end of the decade. What made that national commitment particularly audacious was that it required lots of technology that simply didn’t exist in 1961. So we had a policy – go to the moon – but not the technology to get there, and still we succeeded in eight short years.
It’s the opposite with global warming. We have all the technology we need to solve the problem, we just don’t have a policy.
A policy is coming. Hopefully it will be soon enough, and hopefully it will be strong enough. There are plenty of effective models out there. The growing momentum of international (Kyoto, iCAP), regional (RGGI, WCI), state (AB 32), local (US Mayors), and institutional (ACUPCC, US CAP) plus the promise of Obama or McCain in the White House guarantee that we’ll have a policy. If the vested interests in coal, oil, and nuclear make the wise decision to spend their money on creating safe solutions instead of on PR campaigns against the laws of thermodynamics it has a shot at happening soon enough and being strong enough.
One aspect I like about the example above is that the corn for the stoves that he talks about is local and organic. The biofuel debate rages on under the assumption that the agricultural system is necessarily dependent on fossil fuels, pesticides, chemical inputs, lots of transport, and subsidies. With innovative policies and concerted focus on high-yield, low-input, sustainable agriculture, we could do a lot more with a lot less and address another huge and fundamental sustainability challenge around destructive agricultural practices. Imagine extensive permaculture design incorporated into the medians of our expansive highway systems providing food, fuel, and jobs for the surrounding local areas. There is plenty to rethink. Stay going.