Monday, November 5, 2012

Did Climate Change Throw a Left Hook at Manhattan?

While traveling last summer, I found myself in a rental car kiosk near Sea-Tac Airport with an employee of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA).  We were both waiting for the less-than-fully-trained early morning shift of the rental car company to remember how to print receipts.  They never did remember.

The NOAA employee was returning home after a three-month assignment in Port Angeles, helping the local National Weather Service staff upgrade to a new generation of meteorological equipment.

I asked him for his thoughts on climate change.  It was a timely question.  Later that morning, my traveling companion and I would sit on the tarmac for over an hour waiting for a thunderstorm to abate so fueling could be completed and we could depart for home.  I lived in Seattle for five years in the 1980s and don’t recall a single summertime thunderstorm, but it was the second Seattle thunderstorm of the summer of 2012.

Without hesitation, the NOAA employee responded that we can only judge long-term climate patterns in hindsight.  That it might be a century hence before we can truly and accurately assess what is happening to our climate in 2012.

It reminded me of the joke about the balloonist caught in a freak wind pattern.  After being tossed about for several hours, he found himself above unfamiliar terrain.  He spotted a farmer plowing a field below and called out “Where am I?”

The farmer scratched his chin, thought for a moment, and called back “You’re in a balloon.”

The balloonist turned to his companion and said “He’s completely right.  And completely useless.”

The “can’t judge for a century” response was equally correct and useless.  I’m not criticizing the NOAA employee.  His response probably came directly from the NOAA playbook and was intended to avoid embroiling employees in sidewalks debates with extremists on either end of the climate change spectrum.

I would have tried him to convince that I was asking in a true spirit of intellectual curiosity, not as the opening to a rant, but the rental car folks finally admitted defeat and sent us on our way without receipts.  (I’ll never again patronize that rental car company.)

This conversation was brought forcefully back to mind by Hurricane Sandy.  It’s nice to say that we won’t know about a climate change for a century, but it’s not at all helpful.  Instead, we must make decisions on the best information at hand and then implement the policies needed to follow those decisions.

I had hoped to delay this climate change discussion for awhile longer.  I’m far from a climate change expert.  I may have done more reading than others, but it’s an exceedingly complex subject.   I’ve promised to give myself a gift of climate change knowledge for Christmas this year, setting aside all other reading materials for the two holiday weeks in favor of four books on climate change that represent the full spectrum of opinions.  (Hey, you have your Yuletide traditions, I have mine.)

But Hurricane Sandy forced my hand.  I’ll introduce the subject of climate change here, with the plan to return to it as events bring it back to the fore.  Particularly after Christmas.

Climate change is strongly tied to the urbanism focus of this blog.  This article in Salon makes the connection well.  The article is long and sometimes wanders, but remains well worth your attention.  Writer Jeff Speck, who has a forthcoming book on walkability that will also be on my reading table, notes that the average energy use of people living in walkable urban settings is far less than of people living in drivable suburbia.

Speck argues that we’ve been seduced by “gizmo green”, the thought that we can add solar panels or a bamboo floor to our current lifestyle and think we’ve done enough.  But he notes that the average savings from a year of CFL lightbulbs is equal to the energy savings from one week of living in a walkable urban community.  Urbanism isn’t a panacea to the energy usage that may be behind climate change, but it’s a damn fine start. 

Which brings us back to the question of whether climate change caused Sandy.  The answer is probably not.  However, it probably made Sandy worse.  The current studies indicate that storm frequencies won’t be impacted by climate change, but the intensity of weather events will be increased.  For references, this is the infamous Business Week article of last week and here is another from the Union of Concerned Scientists.  There are many other articles reporting the same information.

None of this proves that climate change is real, is caused by humans, or is changing the weather.  It’s possible that scientists have missed a key calculation or that the earth has an ability to moderate the climate that we’ve yet to discern.  But it is the considered opinion of a vast majority of the scientists who studied it and it’s the best information we have.

Besides, do we buckle our seatbelts knowing that the odds of an accident during any particular trip are very slight?  Do we submit to airport security screenings when the probability of a terrorist targeting our flight is impossibly low?  Doesn’t it make sense to give the same consideration to climate change, which is credibly judged to be much more likely than either?  Especially when, in the case of urbanism, all we need to do is remove the impediments slowing urbanism?  A majority of the population has already expressed a desire for greater walkability, so the marketplace will work just fine if we let it.

By the way, I’m not putting myself on a pedestal here.  I try to limit my carbon footprint, but I’m far from perfect.  (If I was perfect, I wouldn’t have been at Sea-Tac Airport this summer.)  But I’m aware of the concern and am continually looking for ways to do better.
Photo note: The photo is from the Washington Post.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. - Dave Alden (

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