Welcome to the Politics of Climate Change: Adapt and Avert

While thousands converged on Washington to rally for climate change, the U.S. government was building a levee to protect the National Mall against Katrina-like flooding. Whether we like it or not, we’re going to have to adapt while also averting total disaster, writes Mark Hertsgaard.

02.19.13 2:45 PM ET

Braving frigid cold, at least 35,000 demonstrators gathered in Washington on Sunday for the largest climate change rally in history. With a second climate and clean energy rally planned for Earth Day on April 22, Sunday’s demonstration had the feel of a first act, an opening statement of what the burgeoning U.S. climate movement is demanding from a government that for decades has denied and delayed action on the most urgent problem of our age.

The primary aim of the demonstrators was to press President Obama to make good on his pledge in the State of the Union address to “do more to combat climate change.” Above all, they urged him to say no to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport carbon-heavy tar sands oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast. Building that pipeline would be like lighting a fuse to the second-largest pool of carbon on earth, according to writer Bill McKibben, whose 350.org group co-sponsored the rally with the Sierra Club, America’s oldest and largest grassroots environmental group.

“Keystone isn’t simply a pipeline in the sand for the swelling national climate movement,” says K.C. Golden, the policy director at Climate Solutions, a clean energy group in Seattle. “It’s a moral referendum on our willingness to do the simplest thing we must do to avert catastrophic climate disruption: stop making it worse.”

Environmentalists aren’t alone in making this argument. A recent report by the eminently establishment International Energy Agency warned that two thirds of the world’s fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground if humanity is to have a 50-50 chance of limiting temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. That 2C used to be considered a relatively safe limit, but scientists now consider it the boundary between “dangerous” and “extremely dangerous” climate change. After all, they point out, look at the impacts already being experienced today, after we’ve experienced only 1C of warming. In 2012 alone, the United States endured its hottest summer on record, its worst drought in 50 years, and the superstorm horrors of Hurricane Sandy.

One disquieting sign of the dangers climate change is already posing was evident right under demonstrators’ feet on Sunday, on the grounds of the Washington Monument, where they assembled before marching to the White House. Just south of Constitution Avenue, a new levee is being built, linking the grounds of the monument with those of the World War II Memorial. Its purpose? To protect the White House, the National Archives, buildings containing the Justice Department, the FBI, the Environmental Protection Agency, the IRS, the Commerce Department, and other key federal agencies from flooding caused by torrential rains or hurricanes. 

A study by the Federal Emergency Management Administration had determined that this section of Washington, known as the Federal Triangle, had less than 100-year flood protection. In other words, the heart of the nation’s capital was roughly as vulnerable to flooding as much of New Orleans was prior to Katrina. Hence, the new levee.

The 17th Street Closure, as it’s called, boasts a counter-intuitive design: cars can drive right through it, at least most of the time. That’s because most of the time the mid-section of the levee—comprised of aluminum panels that will extend across 17th Street—is dismantled. All that’s permanent are the levee’s two wings, stone-clad cement walls that curl away from the roadway and embed into the higher ground on either side of 17th Street. Only when government scientists determine there is a risk of flooding will the middle of the levee be put in place. Workers will fetch the aluminum panels from a storage site in suburban Maryland and fasten them between the levee’s wings, creating a barrier 12 and a half feet tall. 

View of the 17th Street Closure System with post-and-panel components up to block flood waters.


The 17th Street Closure will help provide Federal Triangle with 185-year flood protection, says Ashley Williams, a spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers, which has supervised the project. But flood protection is not necessarily equivalent to hurricane storm-surge protection—no small matter, given that the nearby Potomac River connects to the Atlantic Ocean via the Chesapeake Bay.

At 12.5 feet, the completed levee should suffice against the storm surges of most Category 1 or 2 hurricanes, says Phetmano Phannavong, an engineer who serves as the DC Floodplain Manager for the city government. But a Category 3 hurricane would bring 18.1 feet of storm surge, according to a 2009 Army Corps of Engineers report; a Category 4 storm surge could reach 26.1 feet. A Category 3 or 4 storm surge thus “probably would overtop the levee, so the area behind [it] would be flooded,” says Phannavong.

The problem is, climate change is expected to bring more big storms, including perhaps an increase in Category 3, 4, and 5 hurricanes. And why didn’t the levee design take this into account? The relevant government agencies could not locate sufficient funding to build a stronger levee, says Phannavong.


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Together, the new Washington levee and the climate movement’s calls to block the Keystone XL pipeline illustrate a crucial fact about the climate crisis, a fact that has been largely overlooked since Hurricane Sandy put the issue back on the public agenda: there are two halves to the climate challenge, and both must be addressed simultaneously if real progress is to follow.

On the one hand, the inevitability of rising temperatures and more extreme weather dictates that we put in place protective measures now: better levees against flooding, less wasteful water systems to manage droughts, more tree cover, and cooling centers to handle heat waves. Climate experts refer to such measures as adaptation. At the same time, however, we must attack the underlying problem—the global warming that is driving these impacts—by reducing the amount of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. This second task, known as mitigation, will require a rapid global phase-out of oil, gas, coal, and other fossil fuels and replacing them with climate-friendly energy sources, including wind, solar, geothermal, and vastly improved energy efficiency. 

The mantra invoked by experts is that climate policy must aim to “avoid the unmanageable and manage the unavoidable.” That is, we must slash the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide enough to avoid an unmanageable amount of climate change; as a recent World Bank report declared, “there is no certainty that adaptation to a 4-degrees-C world is possible.” And we must achieve this even as we also do sufficient adaptation to enable our societies to manage the sizable climate impacts that, alas, are now unavoidable.

In short, adaptation and mitigation are twin imperatives. At this late date, to do only one or the other is to guarantee failure. Take it from the Dutch, the world’s indisputable leaders in adaptation. The Netherlands is now preparing for 1.5 meters (roughly five feet) of sea level rise by the year 2100, and its experts are thinking ahead to what happens if seas rise even higher than that. “Up to two meters, we think we can do the job,” Pier Vellinga, one of the top climate scientists in The Netherlands, told me in an interview for HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth. Beyond that, he said, “even Dutch engineers get a bit worried.”

Unfortunately, neither President Obama nor most other U.S. political, economic, and media voices appear to grasp the dual nature of the climate challenge confronting us. The one silver lining of Hurricane Sandy was that it refocused public attention on climate change. But this attention has focused overwhelmingly on the adaptation side of the challenge, while ignoring the mitigation imperative.

“It’s good that New York governor Andrew Cuomo, who frankly hadn’t done much on climate change, is now saying it’s a big deal,” says Rohit Aggarwala, formerly the top climate change adviser to New York mayor Michael Bloomberg. The risk, Aggarwala cautions, “is that we swing so completely towards adaptation that we ignore that the best way to prevent things like Hurricane Sandy in future is to mitigate climate change.”

Ron Sims, a former three-term county executive in Seattle, King County, Washington, literally wrote the book on how governments must deal with both halves of the climate challenge. His approach was the model for Bloomberg’s policies in New York and for similar initiatives in Chicago and elsewhere. During Obama’s first term, Sims served as the No. 2 official in the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which perhaps explains why he is unwilling to endorse most environmentalists’ disappointment with Obama’s climate leadership to date.

“I’m not going to just blame the president,” says Sims. “It’s pox on all of us. If you want the president to do something, you need to provide the broad, vocal base of public support. With the civil rights movement, it was the upswelling of popular support that made it happen. If people do nonviolent demonstrations at large scale, walking with their kids and grandkids, maybe then we’ll see people in government acting more courageously against climate change. Maybe Bill McKibben is correct: people need to get in the streets.”