Harvey and Irma Show the Future is Now
[Note: a significant amount of this column appeared on 9/25 in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. I live in Sarasota FL so there is a Florida emphasis here. ]
These two hurricanes have dominated the news cycles for the past few weeks. Initially, there was hyperventilating weather and news coverage. Where will landfall be? When will it be? Watch out for the storm surge! Evacuate! Evacuate!
That was followed by all the coverage of the difficulties of recovery in the Houston area and Florida. This coverage will continue for weeks if not months, which is the topic of this column.
Here is what we have learned from Irma and Harvey:
-Hurricane forecasting is surprisingly inaccurate and also a bit obtuse (can anyone explain why there are so many “models” and how they are created? And why is the “European” model seemingly the most accurate?)
-The recovery seems to cause as much disruption and significant economic loss as the storms themselves. We spend two to three nervous and panicked days preparing for a hurricane, one to two days riding out the storm and then hours, days, weeks, months and years recovering, primarily because of 20th century infrastructure, municipal services and zoning laws
-The dramatic warming of the oceans in the last 30 years has clearly amplified hurricane intensity and precipitation.
-The 20th century infrastructure and brash development of Houston were dangerous and obsolete.
-The 20th century development and land use laws of Florida are disastrous and now outdated in this new age of climate change and population growth
Time to retrofit 20th century thinking
The 21st century is the first century when humanity must literally retrofit the prior 20th century. There are two primary reasons for this.
First, the human population quadrupled in the century, going from 1.5 billion to 6 billion. Prior to the 20th century it had taken 150,000 years to get to 1.5 billion. So, we basically populated/overpopulated the planet in 100 years.
Second, we “paved the planet” in the sense that the inventions of the 20th century became institutionalized. The internal combustion engine was institutionalized into transportation. Farming became industrialized. Production, consumption and the focus on unlimited growth became a global endeavor. We have to go back and retrofit not just what we built but the thinking behind why we did so. 20th century thinking no longer works in the 21st century. These two hurricanes help illustrate that reality.
Harvey’s strike on Houston shows us the problems the U.S. faces in the 21st century that were created in the 20th century, when reality was different. Houston is the most car-centric city in the U.S., almost all of them with internal-combustion engine all powered by the No. 1 industry in Houston, energy extraction. Houston is one of the world capitals of the Carbon Combustion Complex economy and also has had the long-standing reputation of having little or no cohesive zoning laws.
This is the unfortunate irony of what happened to Houston. As a city that is headquarters to major fossil fuel companies, it is the by-product of that industry, carbon dioxide, that has caused global warming and thus climate change. Ninety percent of the warming that has occurred in the last 40 years on Earth has been absorbed by the oceans. This means that they are measurably warmer than 30 to 40 years ago. In addition, the warming of the planet has increased evaporation and precipitation.
In addition, many refineries and toxic storage facilities are in the Houston area because of fossil fuel production. Water, land and homes inevitably will be contaminated. Toxicity is a key component of the Carbon Combustion Complex. The people who live in Houston may well have pollution, contamination issues and subsequent health issues in the months and years ahead.
Okay, now we get closer to home with greater controversy for the Gulf Coast.
In the last 100 years, the level of the sea surrounding Florida has risen 11 inches. Hardly noticeable. This century was when Florida was settled, zoned and developed with a focus on beaches, tourism and retirement. As has been discussed here and shown in a drone video production I coordinated, the current conservative estimate of sea level rise for the Gulf Coast is 8 inches by 2030 and 2 to 4 feet by 2040. Even if you want to lower these forecasts from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the fact remains that there will be more sea level rise in the next two to three decades than in the last 100 years.
I gave a speech a year ago at the annual Sarasota-Bradenton Realtor luncheon in which I asked the question: “When does it become fraud to sell beach-front property?” This triggered wide-spread coverage.
We have a new reality that clearly is crushing the old models of economic development and thinking. Endless development of beach-front and coastal properties, if it continues, will ultimately have to be strictly zoned and self-funded.
It is time for the Gulf Coast of Florida to make Irma a teachable moment. It is time for our communities to come together to discuss the now-urgent need to decide and implement ways we can all work together to protect and prolong the beach-oriented communities and economies we all love so much.
We cannot allow ourselves to think that we only have to worry about hurricanes. Seventy percent of the people who live in Florida and the U.S. believe that climate change is real and to some degree triggered by human activity. I call on that 70 percent to step up and work together to forge a new way of thinking and acting that can result in the prolonging of what we all love so much.
In my 2013 book “Entering the Shift Age,” I suggested that one of the contexts through which the future will be viewed is the need to “retrofit the 20th century.” Retrofit the existing physical plant and infrastructure and the now-outdated thinking behind it.
It is time to retrofit our thinking, our planning, the ways we live, zone, land use and preservation of natural resources to more honestly face the new realities of the 21st century. For Sarasota and all Gulf Coast communities, those realities include climate change and significant increases in population.
.With the pain of Irma lingering and many people suffering physical and economic hurt and massive inconvenience, we should open our eyes and truly see the need to rethink how to intelligently live in our beautiful coastal cities.
In order to truly face our future, we will have to change the way we are doing things. Soon.