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The ocean would also come ashore as storm surge, pushing saltwater into rivers with enough force to reverse the natural flow. Thanks to a remarkably realistic animation from the Weather Channel—complete with floating cars, submerged buildings and glug-glug sound effects—it was no longer impossible to imagine the kind of damage that could result, yet the reality proved far, far worse. Rivers didn't jump their banks so much as were drowned, turning landscapes into a vast inland seas laced with snakes, fire ants, pig poop, chicken waste, carcinogenic coal ash, dead animals by the millions, and a devil's brew of dangerous chemicals and poisonous pathogens.
If that weren't enough, a series of Florence "mini-me" tornadoes pirouetted across the horizon. It would take weeks for the trillions of gallons of ocean-turned-rain and the trillions more gallons of salty storm surge to retreat back to the Atlantic, creating plumes of brown, polluted water so massive they could be seen from space.
Devastation can be obvious and immediate, or invisible and long term. Anyone can see the damage on the surface: wrecked homes, roads and bridges, boats washed ashore, soggy cars, roadside fish, dead hogs and chickens floating downstream, and crops rotting in the field (agricultural losses in North Carolina have now topped $1 billion). Polluted water presents a direct threat not only to human health, but also to that of wildlife, livestock, native plants and crops.
It is also hard to miss the insidious creep of mold growing on water-logged debris or millions of Jurassic-size flood mosquitoes capable of biting through two layers of clothing. Epidemics of asthma and other chronic respiratory illnesses will follow. And although flood mosquitoes generally don't carry human pathogens, other mosquito species that do will thrive in the warm, waterlogged aftermath of the storm. (There are roughly 3,000 types of mosquito, of which 200 present a threat to humans.). Flies, ticks and the many parasites and pathogens they carry will thrive as well. Making matters exponentially worse, a single insect can transmit more than one disease with a single bite.
It is easy count the dead, as grim, or politically contentious, a task as that may be. It is far more difficult to tally up the number of people whose quality of life has been significantly diminished. There are cascading impacts: Missing parents can't provide for their children. The loss of a child can cripple a family with grief. The chronically ill are unable to work, so the tax base erodes. Children with asthma miss school. For the uninsured and underinsured, the high cost of medical care makes everything that much worse. (In the US, prices of generic drugs have spiked in recent years. Tetracycline used to cost six cents per pill. Now it's $4.60 per pill.)
Storm damage falls into four broad categories: insured private property, uninsured private property, public property and utilities. Insurance claims are easy to tally: x billion dollars paid out. The price tag for the uninsured—the vast majority of those living in Florence's path—are far greater, but also much more difficult to pin down. Those property owners will have to pay out of pocket and if those pockets aren't deep enough, the interest on loans will need to be factored in. Those unable to borrow face a grim choice: either forgo urgent repairs and try to make do, or leave. The combination of lower property values and fewer property owners left to pay taxes can trigger a downward spiral that eviscerates municipal budgets. Also, capital funneled toward repairs and interest payments is capital that is unavailable to invest in economic development.
Meanwhile the money for rebuilding public property, including critical infrastructure such as a roads and bridges, comes from federal or state funds. This is often money that has to be borrowed, which adds to deficits. The US deficit has ballooned to trillions of dollars, with annual interest payments now calculated in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Most of us don't realize it, but part of our current tax bills go toward paying off bills for disasters that happened years ago. Likewise, American children, no matter where they live in the US, will find themselves saddled paying off bills for Florence. With interest.
Utilities such as electricity providers typically factor potential repair costs into their rate calculations as a self-insurance strategy, but can also seek regulatory approval to pass along unexpectedly high expenses.
Making a bad situation much worse, recently instituted tariffs on steel, aluminum and lumber will hike the cost of rebuilding an individual home by tens of thousands of dollars and rebuilding public infrastructure by millions of dollars. Unless these tariffs are reversed quickly, insurance companies will be forced to hike rates for everybody in the US to reflect the steep increase in recovery costs.
A new round of tariffs covering $200 billion worth of goods imported from China will similarly increase the cost of car repairs, replacement and auto insurance, not only for the victims of the hurricane, but for all of us.
The costs of a major disaster such a Florence can be both insidiously specific and incomprehensibly abstract: lives cut short, opportunities lost, money squandered. The shock waves can ripple through communities and impact economies for years and even decades to come.
At the same time that Florence was turning roads into rivers, cities into islands and dreams into nightmares, Typhoon Mangkhut, an even more powerful cyclone, was working its way through the South China sea, laying waste to the Philippines, Hong Kong and Mainland China.
2018 has indeed been a banner year for massive storms with Hurricane Lane in Hawaii, Typhoon Jebi in Japan, Cyclone Sagar in East Africa, a rare pair of Category 5s spinning simultaneously in the Pacific and even a "Medicane"—Zorba—hammering Greece. (Ed. note: Less than a week after this post was published, we can add record-breaking Hurricane Michael to the list, twelfth billion-dollar US weather-related disaster this year.) This comes on the heels of 2017, which saw Hurricanes Irma and Maria shred Puerto Rico, and Harvey drown Houston.
The threat isn't confined to coasts. A series of water-saturated, persistent weather patterns have also caused record floods this year in Northern Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, parts of Pennsylvania and through the farm belt of Minnesota and Wisconsin.
The science of attributing the impacts of climate change to specific storms has come a long way. For example, researchers calculate that Florence dumped 50% more rain than it would have without climate change. It is all these storms taken together that reveal a far more frightening truth: As a direct result of human-generated carbon pollution, the natural rate of climate change increased exponentially. What should take many millennia has been accomplished in a couple of centuries.
Earth's climate has been radically deformed and weaponized. It is as if we loaded a giant water cannon, pointed it directly at ourselves and lit the fuse. A warmer world holds vastly more moisture in its atmosphere and stores more heat in its oceans. This is far from the first time Earth's climate has been this warm, but it is the first time that it is has happened so quickly and, of course, with our species on the planet.
These storms are no longer random natural disasters, but have been ginned up by our actions and made exponentially worse by reckless deregulation (see methane), greed-driven zoning (see pig and poultry factory farms) and a methodical dissolution of the social safety net (see healthcare).
There are also simply a lot more people in harm's way. Since 1954 when Hurricane Hazel slammed into the Carolinas as a Category 4, the population has nearly tripled from 6.3 million to more than 15 million.
When "1,000 year" storms start to happen every other year, when global temperature records are broken on an annual basis, when glaciers no longer move at a glacial pace and when the prospect of lethal humidity becomes a genuine threat to tens of millions of people, then that's the new normal. It is one for which we are far from ready.
"There is only one opportunity. That is when disaster hits. It's like an X-ray. It tells you where all your vulnerabilities are and gives you the opportunity to say, "We can do better." - Henk Ovink, Special Envoy for International Water Affairs for the Kingdom of the Netherlands
"For us, the first self-endangered species, I have bad news and good news. Conservative climate models underplayed climate change's speed and its runaway feedbacks, but they also understated practical—and profitable—ways to prevent it." - Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist, Rocky Mountain Institute
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Strategic Flood Control
It is cold, soggy comfort for the millions of people in the Carolinas struggling to recover their homes, businesses and lives, but with some planning--and putting science above special interests—the damage could have been limited. It is still not too late to take steps to keep the damage of the next, inevitable catastrophe in check.
It starts with common sense: putting public health and safety first in the development of zoning maps and environmental regulations. In a recent segment on "60 Minutes," Dutch water expert Henk Ovink noted that Americans "...pay for people to be in the most vulnerable places in the country. There is a national flood insurance program that is going bankrupt. You pay disaster bills every year. And the rebuilding, it's costing a lot of money. It's wasted."
Ovink comes from the Netherlands where most the country lies beneath sea level (a "nether land") and into which several major European rivers drain. The country is also subject to fierce North Sea storms with hurricane force winds that can drive massive storm surges up those rivers. Yet it has been 65 years since the Netherlands fell victim to a major flood. In 1953, 2,000 people died when a series of dams, dikes and levees gave way during a massive storm. Since then, billions of dollars have been invested in coordinated flood protection plans that include moving people out of harms's way to allow for natural but controlled flooding. Artificial dunes (some of which do double duty as parking garages) and a pair of giant flood gates have been constructed as barriers to storm surge. The hefty price tag, spread over more than a half century, is a small fraction of what US has paid in just the last few years for hurricane clean-up.
There are other significant economic benefits: Businesses stay open, so people can go to work. Schools stay open, so kids can study. Buildings aren't moldy, so people are healthier. Capital is available to be invested in other projects. Consumers have more to spend. The tax base is in solid. Public debt is manageable. (In the Netherlands, public debt is about 57% of GDP, compared to over 105% for the US—a staggering number that is expected to go up as massive tax cuts take effect).
The Dutch approach has also saved lives. In a country where sea level rise has been an existential constant, it is a point of national pride that since 1953 there has not been a single flood fatality.
Efficiency: Offense as Defense
While Ovink focuses on adaptive survival strategies, Amory Lovins, co-founder and chief scientist of Rocky Mountain Institute, analyzes energy use to get at the root cause of anthropogenic climate change: fossil fuel emissions. Energy efficiency is used as the measure of success, which also serves as a good proxy for time and money. By taking a systems approach through integrative design, efficiency technologies can be leveraged and amplified in ways that often reduce capital costs. Not only can it be cheaper to build smarter, but also less expensive in terms of operational costs as well.
When less energy is required, less energy needs to be generated, with implications that extend all the way back to the power plant. Efficiency can take a variety of forms. For example, Lovins notes that if plumbing schematics were reconfigured, switching out the default of long, skinny pipes with 90° elbow joints for shorter, fatter pipes connected at shallower angles (imagine a tree branch or a heart valve), the friction caused by moving substances through pipes could be reduced as much as 90%. Since much of world's energy is used to power motors that push liquids and gases through pipes, the efficiency dividend is substantial. According to Lovins, if all the world's pipes immediately embraced the mantra of "short, fat & shallow," half the coal plants could be shut down tomorrow.
No coal plants means no carbon and other toxic emissions. It also means no risk of carcinogenic coal ash waste spilling into waterways after heavy storms, which means no clean ups required, which means no costs passed on to the public through taxes and rate hikes.
The Invisible Superhero
"Few policymakers realize that saved energy is already the world's largest source of energy services, bigger than oil," notes Lovins, answering to the question posed in the title of his latest research paper: How big is the energy efficiency resource?
So it's really big, and getting bigger all the time. In contrast to finite deposits of oil and coal, "efficiency resources are infinitely expandable assemblages of ideas," says Lovins.
Let that sink in for a moment: efficiency resources—which include everything from insulation to plumbing design—are "infinitely expandable assemblages of ideas." The benefits, defined in the negative, are just as intangible: money that isn't spent on utility bills or fuel, pollution that doesn't occur.
But the impact is very real. Without the significant gains in energy efficiency over the last 40 years, atmospheric carbon levels would very likely be 150 to 200 ppm higher than they are today. Instead of flirting slightly above 400 ppm (50 points above the climate-stable goal of 350 ppm), we could have been as high as 600 ppm. That's Armageddon-level climate change with all the bells and whistles: melted ice caps, city-swamping sea levels and temperatures in the bake-simmer-and-fry range.
Less is More: Unleashing Abundance
Indeed energy efficiency has had more than 30 times the impact of renewables in terms of keeping fossil fuel use in check. Nothing "keeps it in the ground" more effectively. Efficiency gains are also in large part responsible for reducing primary energy use in the US to less than half of 1980s-era projections. It is a feat made all the more remarkable considering that no one foresaw the popularity of personal computers, mobile devices and the internet. We are more plugged in than ever, yet using less energy.
Advances in vehicle efficiency have been similarly impressive: a Tesla X SUV can go nearly eight times the distance on the energy equivalent of a gallon of gas compared to the average car circa 1973.
This is demand-side economics with savings that not only go straight to the bottom line, but directly into rate-payer pockets. It has freed up capital that businesses have used to invest in growth and consumers have used to buy more things. We don't see the savings (aka negawatts) on our utility and fuel bills, but without efficiency, those bills would easily be several times higher.
Such savings can provide significant competitive advantage, which is important in good times and can make all the difference when an economy tanks. Ray Anderson, founder of pioneering carpet-maker Interface, credits efficiency savings not only for helping the company weather the recession of the early 2000s, but also with helping it emerge better positioned to increase market share. Competitors, saddled with higher costs, didn't fare as well.
Design as a Scaling Vector for Change
Determining exactly how the "assemblages of ideas" are assembled is key to maximizing the efficiency resource. So too is having a clear sense of the overall objective: good lighting; thermal comfort (heating and cooling); reliable, safe transportation, etc. Efficiency is not about sacrifice, but rather about getting a superior outcome using less energy.
To stretch an analogy, it's a little like making a cake, with efficiency technologies as the ingredients. Mix them together in the right order and "bake" and you end with something not only better than the sum of its parts, but almost unimaginably so. You may not be able to see the sugar, flour, chocolate, baking powder, butter and eggs in the finished cake, but together they deliver the objective of dessert deliciousness, and with buttercream style.
Integrative design provides a framework to develop the best recipes for maximizing efficiency, whether for buildings, consumer products, mobility solutions, industrial systems, infrastructure or urban planning. The potential savings, whether measured in dollars or in reduced greenhouse gas emissions, are immense. In tandem with a massive shift toward clean, renewable energy generation (solar, wind, hydrogen) and improved battery storage, efficiency, leveraged through integrative design, could dramatically slow climate change—perhaps enough to keep global temperatures from rising above the 2°C Paris Accord goal.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Florence, solar installations were back and up and running almost immediately. By contrast, much of the grid was shredded, causing extensive outages that required expensive repairs.
In the era of the new normal, where extreme weather is just weather, it isn't enough to ramp up building codes and develop evacuation plans. Recovery has to be planned for as well. Integrative design takes a whole systems approach, which provides insights relevant both for building and also for rebuilding. Structures and systems that are modular, scalable and flexible are more resilient. For example, an electric system comprised of microgrids using distributed, renewable power (solar, wind, fuel cells) would be more resilient and less expensive to repair than patching up an aging, failing grid to support large coal, gas and nuclear plants. Each microgrid could be "islanded" to run independently in case of trouble, limiting the extent of a outage. As an added bonus, microgrids are also more efficient. According to the US Energy Information Administration, 5% of energy generated by central power plants is lost in transmission and distribution.
Efficiency has more than proved its worth. We may be on the brink of runaway climate change, but due in large part to the accruing, compounding goodness of efficiency, we are still hanging on by a thread. Integrative design can exponentially increase its impact in ways quick to implement and economically advantageous. Yet, notes Lovins, because integrative design is a methodology and not a technology, it has largely been left out the discussion. It isn't mentioned in IPCC reports, nor taught in most engineering schools. It also isn't discussed much in MBA programs. One the most sure fire ways to improve a bottom line isn't on the syllabus.
On the other hand, because it is a methodology, it is also much more robust against efforts to limit implementation. While electric utilities can lobby for limits on home solar installations, and politicians can tweak regulations to favor fossil fuel producers, there are limits to how much can be done to thwart good design.
"Today's efficiency-and-renewables revolution is not only a convergence of technology plus design plus information technology. It reflects no less than the emergence of a new economic model. Today's energy transition exhibits not the Ricardian economics of scarcity, like diminishing returns to farmland and minerals, but the complementary modern economics of abundance, with expanding returns," writes Lovins.
Instead, we are running headlong in the wrong direction. The Trump Administration's justification for rolling back fuel efficiency standards is based on the assumption that climate change (which is otherwise vigorously denied) cannot be reversed: Since emissions cuts won't make much difference in bringing global temperatures down fifty years from now, why sacrifice near-term profits? Using the same bleak logic, emissions standards on methane are also being scrapped in order to make fracking for natural gas more lucrative. Meanwhile, coal plants can now legally spew more carbon into the air and, for good measure, mercury, too.
Such moves will inevitably lead to a future that won't end well. Follow the advice of Ovink and Lovins and a better, more prosperous future is still possible. In fact, efficiency, turbo-charged by integrative design and combined with renewable energy and improved battery storage, can make the new regulations moot by crashing demand for fossil fuels. Who needs a pipeline when you don't need what's in the pipe? Who needs a coal, gas or nuclear power plant when you can generate plenty of clean energy without them?
We have everything we need in terms of tech and smarts to turn things around. According to the latest IPCC report, only a few years remain to keep runaway climate change at bay. The future of the future is at stake and there is no time to lose.
It would be easier if government policies were aligned with common sense, the greater good and an ethical responsibility to leave the world a better place for those who come after us. However, there is no reason to wait for those stars to (re)align, and every reason to do all that we can as soon as we can.
More storm clouds are gathering on the horizon.
• A Creative Brief: How Designers & Branding Experts Can Help Save Us All (Really, Truly) / J. A. Ginsburg