Sunday, January 13, 2013

Re-thinking adaptation after Sandy

There is a brilliant article written by Eric Klinenberg in The New Yorker, Dept of Urban Planning, about „adaptation“; a wonderful example that the climate debate indeed moves forward and is not only deadlocked in the fruitless discussion between alarmists and skeptics or the incestuos climate science / climate politics relationship. Unfortunately, the article is behind a pay wall. I will try to sum up those arguments which really impressed me most; I’ll do so mostly from memory and in form of my own thoughts; I can only hope that you get access to The New Yorker and read this elegant piece of climate expertise on your own!

Climate change and the need to adapt to its effects is a global problem which materializes locally. The article connects the global with the local in taking the Second Architecture Biennale in Rotterdam, 2005, as a center point – with “The Flood” as its topic – and links it in various steps to the events surrounding “Sandy”, the recent storm that devastated parts of the New York coastline.

One level of comparison is national cultures: The main building of the exhibition in Rotterdam floats on water; the electrical infrastructures in Rotterdam are subterranean and thus not affected in case of flooding; they have the fastest and best WLAN and cellphone network which also works in case of catastrophe. You get the idea: in New York during Sandy, cellphones didn’t work anymore, the electric system (open, above ground) broke down, and houses were not flood proof etc. And while the Dutch are prepared to live with flooding, the US American strategy traditionally is about evacuation. But according to the author, the Obama administration did already a lot to strengthen FEMA (after its failure during Katrina) and to change its strategies for more effective adaptation measures.

As a link from technological to social infrastructure, Eric Klinenberg introduces insights from the heat wave of Chicago in the nineties. The Chicago heat wave has been object of several social studies. In two adjacent quarters of the city – both poor – there were totally different outcomes; in one part, there was a high death rate, in the other a low one. The difference was in the existence / non-existence of sidewalks, for example: in the parts with sidewalks, there were shops, cafes, public life – people know each other, have an active neighborhood and take care of each other in cases of emergency; in the other part, people lived isolated, there were many old people no one took care of (or even knew of their existence), and there was no no public sphere.

Interestingly enough, such a public (atmo)sphere emerged in the aftermath of Sandy in New York:

“When I visited Rockaway Beach in mid-November, residents complained about the slow pace of recovery. The power was out. The gas was off. Phone service was spotty. Trains weren’t running. Sewage water from the flooding covered the streets. Still, there were some bright spots. The Rockaway Beach Surf Club, which opened in March, in a converted auto-repair shop beneath the El on Beach Eighty-seventh Street, transformed itself into a temporary relief agency when two of its founders returned after the storm, posted Facebook updates inviting friends to join them, and watched more than five thousand volunteers come to help. It became the community organization, providing food, cleaning supplies, camaderie, and manual labor for nearby residents. The surf club’s neighbors, including blue-collar families and poor African-Americans who, months before, had worried about how the club would fit into the community, joined in and benefitted from the organization.”

New forms of such “adaptive” neighborhoods do not come into existence by command from above or by order:

“What’s actually happening on the ground is not under an incident command system”, (Michael McDonald from Global Health Initiatives tells the reporter)  “It’s the fragile, agile networks that make a difference in situations like these. It’s the horizontal relationships like the ones we’re building on the ground, not the hierarchical institutions. We’re here to unify the effort”.

And the geophysicist Klaus Jacobs, who leads the author through the history of New York’s adaptation measures, makes the necessary link to politics, who are either productive for adaptation or not:

“We were making some progress on climate-change adaptation in the late nineteen-nineties. (…) But September 11th set us back a decade on extreme weather-hazards, because we started focusing on a complete different set of threats.”

And Eric Klinenberg concludes:

“It’s a cause of regret that we’re not responding to the challenges of climate change with the same resources we’ve devoted to the war on terror. As long as the threat from global warming seemed remote and abstract, it was easier to ignore. Now climate change is coming to mean something specific, and scary (…) ‘We just can’t rebuild after every disaster’ (Jacob says). We need to pro-build, with a future of climate change in mind.”

This is what impressed me most in this brilliantly written article: the author acknowledges neighborhood activities and social movements as much as city planning and national activities; this means a necessary shift from the government- and planning- fixation of climate research (be it natural or social sciences) to a more ethnographic and "on the ground" centered approach.  Furthermore, the author brings the abstract term of adaptation “into the world” in tracing carefully the connections between a global phenomenon and the adaptive measures necessary on different levels. Something students and scholars of climate change can learn from this excellent piece of journalism, I guess. (And yes, it is possible to write well about climate change!).


Hans von Storch said...

Eric Klinenberg wrote this book:

Klinenberg, E., 2002: Heat Wave. A social autopsy of disaster in Chicago. The University of Chicago Press, ISBN 0-226-44321-3, 305 pp.

For me, this book was an eye opener, which displayed very clearly the constructed dimension of the issue of climate and climatic risks. And reiterated Brecht's words of the Holy Johanna: Das Unglück ist wie der Regen, den niemand machet. (Something like that). Why became Sandy a disaster - not because of a failure of the city's administration (incl. mayor), but something from outside, beyond the means of the city - climate change, unforeseeable and caused by sinister forces somewhere else.

Mark B. said...

“It’s a cause of regret that we’re not responding to the challenges of climate change with the same resources we’ve devoted to the war on terror."

The north central Atlantic coast of the United States was not hit by climate change. It was hit by a tropical cyclone. There have (effectively) always been such storms - many far stronger - and there always will be. The need to insert climate change inappropriately into the discussion of (stormy) weather preparation is a perverse hijacking of the always present topic for ideological purposes.

Coastal communities need to be prepared for storms - now. If the scientific consensus were to change 180 degrees tomorrow, and all agreed that the climate was no longer changing, we would still have 'Sandys.'

Karl Kuhn said...

After Sandy I opened a discussion on the sinking of the Bounty in One discussant wrote:

Hab gerade ne Kollegin zu Sandy befragt:
Sie war während Sandy mit ihrer Familie auf Herbstferien in New York... ist zwar gestranded aber denn doch bald weggekommen:
Ihre Aussage:
war halt wie ein Sturm häufiger bei uns an der Nordseeküste, kennen wir ja...
Nur das die dort extrem schlecht drauf vorbereitet sind...
kein Küstenschutz...(der ja bei uns selbstverständlich ist)
U-Bahnschächte fast auf Meereshöhe - klar, dass die vollaufen,
Häuser am Strand... (kein Deich davor, damit man besser sehen kann)...
Frei fleigende Verdratung... (gibt schöne Blitze und Feuerwerk im Sturm)
Pappschachteln als Häuser...
bei so einem lauen Lüftchen lacht der Ostfriese, die Amis geraten in Panik, weil das ganze Land nur ein Provisorium ist.

That should put things a bit into perspective. Do we really think that CO2 mitigation could replace Küstenschutz? No, not even if we stopped emitting tomorrow.

Werner Krauss said...

Marc B,

someone like you who recently stated here on klimazwiebel that "the Greens are like Communists" shouldn't blame other people to be ideological. Thanks.

Karl Kuhn,

the observations of your colleague more or less fit with the overall description in the article, even though she cannot explain why it is that New York / US are so unprepared for a storm like this.

But who said "that CO2 mitigation could replace Küstenschutz?" Sorry, but your remark does not make any sense in the context of this post, as far as I can see.

hvw said...

Thanks, Werner for this very nice piece. I enjoyed very much to learn about the non-technical aspects of disaster resilience. The Chicago heatwave example is very enlightening (living in poor but social intact neighborhood ~= having an air-conditioner in each room!)

Afraid I see something less encouraging in this article too: The space of adaption measures mentioned is as least as political as the mitigation discussion and overlaps it.

Wouldn't anybody not think that the fact that the US power-grid is in such a miserable shape, compared to the super-duper Dutch one, is related to the fact that US power supply is completely private, whereas the Dutch one is almost completely publicly owned? (And the private ownership of the German electricity infrastructure causes a major headache in the implementation of the "Energiewende"?)

Klinenberg makes the "resistance of the cellular industry to efforts to regulate it" responsible for the nice-weather-only performance of the US comm. infrastructure. "'We have a public interest in building robust networks,' Feld says. 'And by now it's clear that we're not going to get them by letting industry regulate itself.'"

Jacob promotes, instead of a big fat dam, spatial reorganization, which would likely meet the resistance of those with nice beach front property.

It is no news to urban planners that healthy social structures are supposed to be enabled and fostered by their planning. These objectives however are in competition with economic ones -- which frequently win. Not to mention the "taxmoney for community center vs. taxcuts for my suburban one-family house" controversies. In cutting-edge pilot projects, social urban planning is often combined with energy efficiency, no cars policy, carbon footprint control, etc.

All in all, in this local adaption space, I see pretty much the same ideological fault-lines as in the global mitigation debate.

I would be very surprised if the "skeptics", who have the curiosity and attention-span to read the Klinenberg article to the end, would not use Jacob's quote: "More heat waves, wildfires, hurricanes and floods are to be expected. We are entering an age of extremes" as a proof that this is all a climate-lie based conspiracy to push the "socialist and communist" agenda.