(42) Climate Science

Hurricane Katrina (2005)

Hurricane Katrina: Facts, Damage & Aftermath


Step Three: Research and Possibly Develop Some Far-out Ideas

Another idea for reducing rising temperatures is to lessen the amount of incoming solar radiation to reduce the amount of energy that enters the Earth system. There are many possible technologies for accomplishing this, and all would require a great deal of research and development to become usable. One crude idea is to enhance global dimming by purposely placing sulfate aerosols in the upper atmosphere. This strategy has a lot of trade-offs, including increased acid rain and negative health effects from pollution, although it would very likely reduce global warming. Incoming solar radiation could also be decreased by increasing cloud cover through cloud seeding.

A more technological solution is to shadow the planet with large orbiting objects. A 1,243­mile­diameter (2,000-km-) glass mirror manufactured from lunar rock, for example, could act as a sort of sunspot. As it orbited Earth, it would reflect back about 2% of incoming solar radiation to compensate approximately for the amount of heating expected from CO2 doubling. Creating such an object, however, would use a lot of energy.

Tapping into enormous amounts of energy without producing any greenhouse gas emissions is another category of technological solution to global warming. One idea is to place giant photovoltaic arrays on the Moon or in an orbit around Earth. The system would convert solar energy into microwaves and beam the energy to receivers on Earth.

A solar plant outside of Earth’s atmosphere would receive eight times more solar energy than one inside the atmosphere due to the lack of gases, clouds, or dust to block the sunlight. While these panels would be tremendously expensive, the technology could be extremely effective later this century.

For complex technical solutions to be successful in reducing global warming, at least four things are necessary:

The technology must work.

The negative consequences (e.g., environmental damage) of the technology must be minimal.

The technology must be effective enough to combat the effects of continual increases in greenhouse gas levels.

The technology must be less expensive than the cost of reducing emissions at the source.

Individual Contributions

While avoiding dangerous climate change will require coordinated efforts on a global scale, individuals can make a difference by being conscious of what they do, what they buy, and what actions they take. People in the developed world lead energy-intensive lives. Energy is used to power up computers, cook meals, drive to soccer practice, and manufacture consumer goods. Reducing energy consumption reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Limiting the consumption of consumer goods, seeking out more energy-efficient technologies, and avoiding activities that use excessive energy are all steps that individuals can take to reduce their impact. Governments can also assist individuals in being more energy efficient by providing monetary incentives for energy conservation.

Energy-Saving Behaviors

Small actions can lead to big energy savings when a large number of people engage in them. A few guidelines for saving energy are:

Turn electrical appliances off when they are not in use, including lights, televisions, and computers.

Unplug cell phones and other chargers when not in use.

Use precise task lighting at night.

Change old light bulbs to compact fluorescents.

Keep the thermostat set to a reasonable temperature.

Always be conscious of ways to reduce energy consumption.

For example, take showers instead of baths, and only boil the amount of water needed for cooking.

Because most energy consumption is involved with transportation, and because every gallon of gasoline burned emits 20 pounds (9 kg) of CO2 (and many other pollutants), conserving energy in transportation is extremely important. If possible, drive less by living near work or school or by using public transportation. Walking, riding a bike, and carpooling are also good ideas. When driving is necessary, avoid energy-wasting behaviors: Keep the car serviced and the tires inflated, drive within the speed limit, accelerate gradually, and avoid drive-through lines.

Energy-Saving Technologies

Choose technologies that are appropriate for the specific task: For example, a small, fuel-efficient car can transport a family to a soccer game as well as a large sport utility vehicle. A clothesline can be used to dry clothes on a sunny day as well as clothes drier.

Around the house, use energy-efficient appliances and lighting that are operating well. Look for the EPA’s Energy Star when choosing energy-efficient products. When possible, switch to more efficient forms of lighting, heating, and cooling. In the long term, encourage and support energy-efficient building design, including renewable energy technologies such as solar panels. Because manufacturing uses a great deal of energy, try purchasing recycled products, which use less energy than products made from new materials.

Vehicle choice is extremely important. Small, energy-efficient vehicles are preferable to larger “gas guzzlers.” As gasoline prices rise, alternative vehicles become more popular. Hybrid cars are now widely available, and cars powered by liquid natural gas or fuel cells will be more common in the future.

Some activities waste enormous amounts of energy. For example, burning airplane fuel produces greenhouse gases, while airplane exhaust produces ice crystals that trap them. The total warming effect of air travel is 2.7 times that of the CO2 emissions alone. Driving or taking a bus or train presents a good alternative.

Be Politically Active

Work with government at all levels to encourage or require energy-efficient behaviors and technologies. Governments can do many things, including:

Tax energy to encourage conservation and energy efficiency, and to provide funds for research and development of new energy-efficient technologies.

Develop public transportation and increase the safety of biking by building bike lanes and installing bike racks in public places.

Provide tax incentives for households and businesses to adopt more energy-efficient strategies or to convert to carbon-free power sources.

Provide tax incentives for people buying low greenhouse gas-emitting vehicles, while eliminating tax incentives for people buying high-emission vehicles.

Influence energy-efficient development by designing communities that encourage walking and public transportation use.

Individuals can encourage local politicians to take action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions by promoting energy efficiency, mass transportation, and by developing alternative energy sources. Individuals can vote for national leaders who recognize the potential consequences of climate change and will take action. Political leaders can also be encouraged to see that the United States participates in international treaties that seek to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Offset Carbon Emissions

People can now pay to offset the carbon they produce. An average car produces about 10,000 pounds (4,535 kg) of CO2 per year. To offset that amount, a driver can donate $25 to $50 to a carbon-­neutral organization. The money helps pay for the development of clean power by subsidizing the construction of new wind turbines or solar energy collectors, for example. Planting trees or buying forestland to preserve it is another way to offset carbon emissions. Organizations can counteract their carbon emissions, too: The Rolling Stones offset carbon emissions from a 2003 concert by donating money for planting trees in Scotland, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream offsets the carbon it produces in manufacturing and retailing. For this strategy to actually offset carbon emissions, the money must fund a project that would not otherwise have been realized.

Buying carbon offsets to counteract greenhouse gas–producing behavior is controversial. Some environmentalists say that buying carbon offsets in conjunction with a conscious effort to reduce an individual’s emissions is a way to increase awareness of the global warming problem while supporting projects that may someday help with the solution. But others say that this market approach does nothing to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions. While it allows people to feel good about contributing money to offset their carbon footprints, most are still engaging in environmentally destructive behaviors. No matter which side of this issue a person takes, there is no doubt that this is a growing business. Estimates are that people are buying more than $100 million per year in offsets, and that the amount is escalating rapidly.


Even if a radical reduction in greenhouse gas emissions could be rapidly achieved, temperatures would continue to rise due to greenhouse gases that have already been emitted and the thermal inertia in the climate system. How much temperatures rise depends on what mitigation strategies are developed and when they are begun. In the meantime, people, communities, and nations can respond to environmental changes after they happen, or they can anticipate and prepare for the changes.

Communities and nations differ greatly in the resources they have to protect their people from the impacts of climate change. Poor communities already rarely have enough resources to deal with immediate problems, such as poverty. Poor people lack the access to financial and natural resources and social services and, as a result, are often unable to rebuild their lives after a disaster. For adaptation to climate change to work, wealthier communities will have to assist poorer communities in developing their economies while reducing their greenhouse gas emissions and learning to use alternative technologies.

Adaptation before the predicted changes occur has a large cost benefit. Preparing for a disaster is less expensive and less disruptive to people’s lives than mopping up after one.

Hurricane Katrina

Is a tragic example of how planning could have decreased economic costs, the number of lives lost, and the number of those whose lives were disrupted. For decades, climatologists and coastal scientists had warned that a very powerful hurricane could break the levees that protected New Orleans from surrounding water. The levees were designed only to withstand a Category 3 storm. (In the meantime, for a variety of reasons,

the city had sunk to 20 feet [6 m] below sea level in some areas.) Despite these warnings, the recommended improvements to the levees were never made. Hurricane Katrina reached Category 5 as it traveled through the Gulf of Mexico but had dwindled to a Category 3 at landfall and was only a Category 1 or 2 as it passed over New Orleans. Although initially people thought that the city had been spared, the storm’s slow passage over the region was enough to break the levees. The resulting flood left 1,800 people dead while displacing about one million others from their homes. The economic impact is estimated at as much as $150 billion. By upgrading the levees so that they could have protected against a Category 5 hurricane, New Orleans would have been ready for this inevitable storm and the storm surge that accompanied it. This preparation would have been expensive, but compared to the cost of the damage caused when the levees broke, the cost would have been minor.

Other regions can adapt to climate change by recognizing and preparing for their own potential problems. Healthy ecosystems can protect coastal regions, and the original wetlands that once thrived on the Louisiana coast might have spared New Orleans some of the brunt of the hurricane. Hard structures, such as seawalls, are better used sparingly; but soft protection, such as beach nourishment, is wise, although it is very expensive. Increasing the capacity of rainwater storage systems may reduce the number of times a city floods and can be used to save water for drier times. It is necessary for evacuation plans for residents of storm-prone areas to be well thought out, easy to implement, and understandable by all who need them.

Although this is unlikely to happen until the effects of global warming are even more pronounced, coastal scientists recommend that communities retreat from the shoreline, and that new building takes place farther inland. Insurance companies can help to reduce coastal development by increasing rates for those who live in dangerous areas, as they are beginning to do in the hurricane-vulnerable regions of Florida. Federal insurance, which has allowed coastal development to thrive, can also be eliminated (with some compensation for those who own vulnerable property).

London is the first major world city to recognize the need for a detailed climate change adaptation plan. This old but vital city is mostly built on the floodplain of the River Thames, which is a tidal river. Adaptation to higher water levels began in the early 1970s when a movable barrier was built along the Thames to stop flooding from storm surges. In the early years, the barrier was closed no more than two times per year. In most of the years since 1986, the barriers have been closed between 3 and 19 times. The barrier was designed to mitigate sea level rise until 2030. The city is working on plans for what will come next for flood protection and also on plans for other impacts of climate change, including positive ones. For example, planners anticipate an increase in tourism and recreational activities as weather becomes more favorable in the United Kingdom and less attractive in the Mediterranean region. Some small communities are facing inevitable climate change with similar foresight. To adapt agricultural systems to a warmer world, agriculturalists may need to develop crop strains that require less water and less soil moisture. Farms may need to be moved to more climatically hospitable areas. Changing the timing of farming events, such as planting crops earlier, will need to continue. In southern Africa, where droughts have become longer, farmers are making changes such as seeking out crops that are better adapted to the current climate, planting trees to protect the soil, and diversifying their livelihoods.

Adaptation will be an effective response to warming only to a certain extent. If no changes in emissions are made, at some point the environmental changes will likely become too overwhelming, and the costs too great. One example is what could happen to South Florida, where a small increase in sea level would flood some of the lowest lying areas and make the coast more vulnerable to damage from hurricanes and other storms. While people may be able to prepare for these changes or at least mop up after large climatic events, this is very draining when it occurs on the scale of a major city, as has been seen in New Orleans. As sea level rises even higher, the entire southern portion of the state of Florida could flood. If this scenario comes true, at some point Floridians will need to give up trying to patch up the damage and relocate. The economic and social costs of doing this for an entire region are unfathomable.

Society is a long way from mitigating the problem of climate change. Doing so will require the political will to make the necessary changes to reduce emissions at all levels of human organization, from governments down to individuals. Drastically improving energy efficiency is the easiest change to make and can be rapidly initiated. Technological advances in energy use and even in carbon sequestration should be pursued. Over time, more brazen strategies, such as placing solar panels in space, may be possible. The longer action is delayed, the more drastic future changes will need to be. It is predicted that if society delays action for 20 more years, emissions reductions will need to be 3 to 7 times more than if the reductions begin immediately.

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