How Environmental, Economic, And Political Crises Will Redraw The World Map
By Cleo Paskal
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2010 Cleo Paskal
All rights reserved.
THE COMING STORM
All I want for Christmas is my city back.
—Handmade sign in a post-Katrina New Orleans window
Let me tell you how my civilization froze in its tracks. It was January 5, 1998. I was staying with my dad at his house in Montreal. The weather was oddly mild for mid-winter and so, instead of snowing, it started to rain.
As the rain landed, it froze drop by drop by drop wherever it found purchase. On and on it rained. Drop by drop by drop it froze. Soon there was a thick crystal shroud on everything: cars, roads, trees, roofs, phone and power lines. Electricity cables that didn't sag and break under the weight were soon knocked down by shattering branches and trees. Wood utility poles supporting the ice-heavy power lines eventually gave up and snapped like toothpicks. And finally, the steel pylons supporting now heavily weighted high-tension wires crumpled. The ice storm continued for four days. People started to lose electricity the night of day one. By night five, millions in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States were wrapped in the dark and cold. At the height of the crisis in Quebec, the worst affected region, three million people had no electricity. Quebec is a large hydroelectricity producer and the province encouraged industrial and domestic reliance on electricity, so for most no electricity also meant no heat.
With the temperature hovering around freezing, the situation was bad. But then the temperatures dropped to minus 31 degrees Fahrenheit and the situation became critical. Millions tried to stay warm any way they could, sleeping in running cars, making fires in long-ignored fire-places, leaving gas-fired ovens on all night. Not surprisingly, by January 18, fifteen people had died, most from hypothermia, fires, and carbon monoxide poisoning. The city of Montreal declared a state of emergency.
Lack of power also meant, in many cases, no gas (the pumps at service stations ran on electricity), nowhere to buy food or get money (stores, banks, and bank machines closed), no postal deliveries (no paychecks for many), loss of TV and radio signals, and sometimes no phones (not only were telephone lines and transmission towers down, but many also just had electrically recharged handheld phones at home). Hospitals, full past capacity as people slipped on the ice and broke limbs, were running off generators, surgeries were canceled, and blood supplies were critically low. Panic started to set in on day six when one of the city's two water filtration plants shut down and tap water was declared unsafe to drink. We were instructed to boil water for five minutes to make it safe, a cruel irony for those with electric stoves. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio station gave out survival information twenty-four hours a day, advising people to sleep in a tent pitched inside their house to conserve body heat. Thanks to the CBC, I now know how to cook off a car engine, burn nail polish remover for heat, and make a candle out of a potato.
Parts of the province looked like a war zone, with homes and cars crushed by falling trees and farm animals dying by the tens of thousands. Neighboring regions did their best to help. People from across Canada tried to send firewood, and the railways tried to use locomotive engines to generate power for frozen towns. The Rolling Stones canceled their concert, but the Montreal Symphony Orchestra played for free in shelters. And there were a lot of shelters.
In the largest peacetime mobilization in Canadian history, troops cleared away forests of dead trees, evacuated the seriously ill, set up field kitchens, rebuilt generators, and provided security. They were well prepared for the job as many had recently handled floods in Manitoba and then Quebec. The soldiers had the power to detain looters and compel people to leave their homes. Those without an alternative source of heat were evacuated to shelters set up all over the province in schools, community centers, army bases, even shopping malls. There were over a hundred shelters in Montreal alone.
My dad's area of Montreal is one of the most multicultural in Canada, with over half the residents born abroad. Many come from countries where a soldier knocking on your door and ordering you to leave home implies a destination far less benign than the local hockey rink turned shelter. Many residents left their homes reluctantly, and were distraught when they arrived at the overcrowded shelters. At my local shelter, at the height of the blackout, more than four hundred people were sleeping on mats on the floor of the community center.
My dad and brother, hardy veterans of summer camp, opted to stay at home and live off the Coleman stove. I slept at home and pitched in at the local shelter. My turf was two rooms, normally used for art classes and the like, that were now reserved for families with children. Most were mothers and kids. The fathers had stayed behind in cold apartments to ward off looters that, for the most part, never came. Everyone helped each other as best they could, but no one slept very well, apart from one mother of seven who took a Valium shortly before lights out. Smart woman.
The starkest moment came when I was detailed to another shelter, normally a school, that had taken in some men from a nearby home for the mentally ill. No one had seen "the boys" for a while, so I was sent to look for them and make sure all was well. I found them in the library, enjoying an afternoon of normally off-limit videos. Or, to be precise, one video: A Clockwork Orange. Some people were making the most of the chaos.
Two weeks after the first drops fell, large sections of downtown Montreal were still closed. Parts of the province didn't get power back for close to two months. The damage was estimated at around $5 billion. For many, it was one of the most traumatic times of their lives. Yet, technically speaking, it wasn't even a major event. Largely it was just a matter of the power going out. But in a technologically advanced, and dependent, region, that was enough to stop society dead in its tracks. It is very likely to happen again. With increased winter precipitation, and milder temperatures, there is a likelihood that in currently cold areas, such as Canada and the northern United States, ice storms will become more common, and civilization will risk being unplugged more often.
Usually, the negative effects of environmental change on human society are thought of as mainly affecting countries with a low per capita income, the same way as malnutrition and infant mortality. Events such as the ice storm and the damage caused by Hurricanes Rita, Wilma, and Katrina in the summer of 2005 should have been wake-up calls, but still the West considers itself relatively insulated from the worst effects of environmental change, with the most common domestic fear being a wave of incoming refugees. That assessment sharply underestimates the actual threat and leaves some of the seemingly most powerful countries woefully unprotected. The reality is the West, including the United States, is potentially as vulnerable to costly and disruptive environmental change as the rest of the world.
The United States, United Kingdom, and the rest of the West will suffer from the same destructive effects of environmental change as the developing world, including problems with transportation infrastructure (especially along flooded and eroding coastlines), legal complexities (including lawsuits against emitters and between states over water supplies), threatened shifts in boundaries and territory, failing agriculture, increasing cost and decreasing availability of insurance, water scarcity (especially in the southern and western United States), spreading disease (including increased range of disease-bearing insects), mass movement of internal refugees (as seen with Katrina), floods, and droughts. Compared to developing nations, the United States, United Kingdom, and other Western nations have the added challenges of more expensive (and in many cases, pre–World War I era) infrastructure, relatively more expensive labor costs for shoring up that fragile infrastructure, and a population that is used to a high level of social services and quality of infrastructure, and that is reluctant to reduce either standard even for a short time.
Unless environmental change is accepted as a looming catastrophe and countered as such, when all—or even some—of the above factors combine, social instability and depletion of economic strength may become commonplace. On average, the United States has lost more than $20 billion a year to weather damage between 1995 and 2004, with insured losses steadily increasing—and that count does not include the infrastructure destruction caused in 2005 by Hurricanes Katrina, Wilma, and Rita, which affected entire cities, transportation systems, and global economic engines, such as the petrochemical complexes off the U.S. Gulf Coast. This is not just a national problem. As the financial crisis of 2008–2009 has shown, a destabilized United States can be bad for the entire globe.
The challenges are many, complex, and widespread. As a result, it is difficult to decide where to prioritize investment in responses, as countries have widely varying vulnerabilities. Moreover, different regions within the same country face different threats and so need different countermeasures. The United States, for example, is suffering coastal erosion and destruction of infrastructure due to thawing permafrost in Alaska(potentially threatening the delivery of domestic oil supplies as pipelines are built on increasingly unstable ground), severe droughts in the western and southern agricultural areas, and flooding problems along its coastlines, which incidentally are home to many of its biggest cities and much of its national product. Clearly, the United States has many environment-related vulnerabilities, but for now we will concentrate on just two interrelated components: the effect of rising sea levels and coastal storm surges. Those two factors alone should be enough to give an idea of what's in store if we don't start planning now.
Over half the U.S. population lives near the coast, and large sections of the U.S. coastline, in particular much of the Atlantic and Gulf Coast, are vulnerable to flooding and erosion. According to a major U.S. Department of Transport study, that means that, with a relative sea level rise (combining the effects of subsidence and sea level rise) along the Gulf Coast of 2 to 4 feet, "a vast portion of the Gulf Coast from Houston to Mobile may be inundated over the next 50 to 100 years." That might seem like a long way off, but it falls within the expected lifespan of infrastructure and housing that are being put in place today through development, post-hurricane reconstruction, and stimulus spending. If those plans don't take the coming environmental change into account, those investments will be lost, and more people and businesses will be put in harm's way. I've been in a shelter. Valium or not, it's no fun. But, as bad as the ice storm was, as least we knew we would have homes to return to once the lights came back on. Flooding is much worse.
As for other vulnerable coastal regions, different geology has different risks. Florida, for example, presents a seemingly more stable environment, in large part because of its flat limestone base. This ensures that sea levels can continue to rise without a visible change in habitat. However, once the rise gets up to the threshold of, or above, that limestone base, then expansive losses of coastal areas will take place, a phenomenon being witnessed in at least one region of Florida even at the present level of sea water.
Across the country, the threat is real and imminent, and the United States is not prepared, as was evident in the summer of 2005.
Hurricane Katrina, which struck the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005, made ice storm survivors look lucky. For several heart-rending weeks, people all over the planet watched as one of the great cities of the world, normally full of life, music, and history, became a fetid disaster zone. While most watched with despair, and a craving to help, national security organizations around the world studied it closely, making detailed analyses of the U.S. response to the devastation, in part because it showed the sort of cracks that could be expected, and exploited, by hostiles attacking America.
One can't say that Hurricane Katrina was caused by climate change. Any single event is considered weather, not climate. But for the purposes of this section, the specific cause of Katrina is irrelevant. What is important is what Katrina revealed about the United States' adaptive capacity to the sort of environmental crises that are likely to become more common with environmental change. Katrina brought to global attention several major, systemic U.S. vulnerabilities, and gave an indication of how the country may fare in the future when hit by a similar wide-ranging disaster. While extensive and excellent domestic studies and "lessons learned" have improved U.S. ability to respond to emergencies the next time around, more attention must be paid to the factors that make the nation more vulnerable in the first place. The best rescue in the world is still not as good as avoiding the crisis in the first place. Unfortunately, the vulnerabilities in the United States are many, varied, and have often been left unaddressed.
In the summer of 2005, the weaknesses were in place long before the first leaf was caught up in the gathering storm. Some of those problems were caused not by climate change but by a much more direct form of human-induced environmental change. According to Dr. Virginia Burkett of the U.S. Geological Survey, "In New Orleans we've got a real serious problem because a lot of the land is below sea level, and protected only by levees. The land wasn't below sea level when the city was first established. Even when the Native Americans lived there, they were right at sea level or slightly above. But as they built the levees, pumped out ground water, drained the soils and all that organic matter oxidized, the city accelerated its sinking relative to sea level. That's why it's below sea level right now."
The result of those man-made interventions was a sinking city in a hurricane belt. Cities in hurricane belts get hit by hurricanes. Sinking cities flood. What happened in New Orleans shouldn't have been a surprise, but it was worse—it was a disaster.
When Katrina hit New Orleans, it was no stronger than a category 3 hurricane (out of a possible 5). It caused some damage, but it was once the worst of the storm was over that the levees broke and water poured into the city, drowning entire neighborhoods, command stations, and escape routes. Evacuations were panicked and poorly coordinated. As an example, the New Orleans 911 emergency call center was quickly flooded and evacuated. The back-up plan was to transfer calls to the fire department, but that too had been abandoned. It took critical hours for some calls to find their way to unprepared operators in Baton Rouge, days for the answering system to stabilize and, in some cases, over a month for follow-up.
As for the official response in general, rather than an overall plan into which component parts fit smoothly, there was an inchoate slew of separate sets of actions, several of which canceled each other out or exacerbated the problem. The situation had so deteriorated that, according to New Orleans police officer Thomas Redmann, "We didn't know where the command structure of the police department was physically located, let alone how to communicate with them. [...] There were just hundreds of people walking down Canal Street in broad daylight, tearing the security gates off the front of stores, smashing out windows. They were just stealing the city blind." In most cases, there was no point in making arrests as the prisons themselves were in chaos. According to two reports, some prisoners, including juveniles, were left with little food or water, some standing up to their chests in the fetid floodwater. Many city police officers did excellent work, but a large number did not. By day three, around a third of the force had gone AWOL.
After the National Guard arrived, on day four, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco gave the Guard permission to "shoot to kill" if they confronted violent offenders. As she put it, "They have M–16s, and they're locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and I expect they will." Unsurprisingly, Operation Katrina resulted in some questionable, and tragic, shootings.
These things are inexcusable in civilian populations during times of war—let alone in what had until then been a functional city. New Orleans, synonymous with life and romance, was allowed to become a combat zone, complete with armed troops trying to put down what in effect were instant regional warlords. Putting "order" above relief resulted in private security contractors such as Blackwater being inserted into New Orleans before the Red Cross was allowed in. By implicitly viewing the bulk of the civilian population primarily as potential criminals rather than victims needing rescue and relief, the response matrix to the crisis developed in a way that potentially prolonged the torment. Blackwater, for instance, appeared to focus less on rescue and relief than on securing high-end private property from looting. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Global Warring by Cleo Paskal. Copyright © 2010 Cleo Paskal. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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