Climate of Uncertainty: Planning for the Hoax Apocalypse

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By David Underhill

MOBILE, Ala. – Deniers and doubters of global warming, frequent bedfellows with haters of the government, have the government to thank for opportunities to make money off global warming.

The accursed feds concluded years ago that the earth really is running a temperature and that the main cause is human activity — not natural variations — especially greenhouse gasses emitted by the fuels of industrialized society. And the Mobile area formally concurs, because this finding appears in a 2010 agreement between federal transportation authorities and SARPC, South Alabama Regional Planning Commission, an offspring of cohabiting local governments.

Under the terms of this document the feds and SARPC formed a climate change workgroup to anticipate the effects of rising temperatures, waters and winds on the major transportation systems of the local coast. The research aims to create methods for performing similar risk assessments elsewhere. These studies would guide decisions about building defenses against the impending perils.

The workgroup met last week for an update on the status of this effort at SARPC’s quarters in the historic Mobile train station, saved from vacant ruin a decade ago by restoration into office spaces. Open to all but not widely publicized, the meeting attracted a couple dozen people, mainly representatives of waterfront interests, government agencies and enviro orgs.

They received spoken and written reports on the vulnerabilities not only of roads, bridges and tunnels but also public transit, airports, seaports, railroads and pipelines. Details of the info presented at this meeting and previous ones are linked on SARPC’s Website.

This data attempts a necessary but nearly impossible feat—projecting the multiple effects of multiple climate changes on multiple transportation systems across a large area many years into the future. Some science and number crunching is involved, but also some sorcery in the form of educated guesswork to craft scenarios about likely conditions a decade or two ahead and at the century’s end.

Soft Factor Hard Part

Then comes the hard part: figuring in the “soft factors” as some participants described it. This was never precisely defined (and perhaps that can’t be done), but it included the chancy aspects of politics, budgets and public attitudes swirled into long range construction plans for bolstering the infrastructure against climate turbulence.

“We’re not used to dealing with this level of uncertainty in engineering,” said Jake Keller of the Parsons Brinckerhoff consultancy.

Some of the uncertainty arises from information withheld. The 2010 agreement with the feds commits SARPC to assist them “in working with other planning and transportation authorities in the Mobile area, including port, pipeline, rail, and airport planners, as well as local and state decision makers.” As a public agency, SARPC can expect cooperation from other public agencies responsible for highways, airports and the state port authority’s sector of the waterfront. But many docks are private operations, as are the railroads and pipelines that converge along the local shoreline.

They have neither customary nor legal obligations to provide data the transportation workgroup needs. And SARPC evidently doesn’t have (or hasn’t sought) the ability to compel the release of such info by court subpoena or otherwise. The result is magnified uncertainty about these major components of the area’s transportation systems. They move and store huge quantities of hazardous materials in the coastal zones most exposed to damage from the projected stronger hurricanes and rising sea levels linked with global warming and polar melting.

But the risk associated with these facilities can’t be confidently included in the workgroup’s studies.

It would be, says Keller, “if we could find a pipeline that was willing to share the information with us.” Yet they aren’t, so it isn’t. The same apparently applies to railroads and private ports also.

This generates unnecessary uncertainty. The data exists but its possessors won’t divulge it. Some other uncertainty has inescapable political origins.

Bridging Data Gaps

The meeting noted a trend toward designing deliberately weaker and cheaper bridges for areas prone to flooding and hurricane storm surges, then rebuilding when they wash out, rather than designing very strong, very expensive bridges intended to endure. Nobody specified whether this trend derived from careful cost-benefit analysis, or was an engineering fad, like changing architectural styles, or sprang from choked budgets, among other causes.

But whatever the reason, an inclination to build Mini Cooper style bridges instead of Lexus ones implies inherently doubtful forecasts of sustained political support for one approach over another.

How realistic can long range planning be when it must rely on consistency from fickle sources?

Merely maintaining the existing bridges has become a challenge beyond the capacity of allegedly responsible authorities. The result is spectacular collapses, like the one with many fatalities on a major highway in Minneapolis several years ago. Or an earlier one in the Mobile area, which attracted less attention because nobody happened to die. Such events prompt surveys that routinely generate catalogs of repairs necessary to keep the country’s existing infrastructure intact, with cost estimates reaching into the trillions. But the tasks remain undone.

If attending to these current basics is too daunting, what are the true odds against a durable commitment to build bridges of a certain type far into the future? Or against carrying through any of the other numerous parts of the workgroup’s vision?

And apart from the quirks of human decisions, even the most elementary aspects of planning harbor surprises. Figuring the flooding by hurricane storm surges ought to be a fairly simple calculation involving the elevation of coastal lands and the predicted height of surges above normal sea level. But it isn’t.

Hurricane Katrina came ashore about a hundred miles west of Mobile and drowned New Orleans. But it also pushed a bigger storm surge up Mobile bay and into the city than other hurricanes striking closer had done. Not even the planning commission planned for that. Katrina propelled the edge of the ocean to the revived railroad terminal housing SARPC’s offices and swallowed its vehicles parked outside.

This is where the workgroup met last week to supposedly plan for events more complex than storm surges under extreme conditions induced by climate change stretching from now to the end of the century. The attempt is a wise precaution, but it suffers from delusion, just as the deniers of global warming do.

Mutual Delusion

They cling to the fantasy that this wrenching of the environment is a hoax, despite accumulating evidence to the contrary. And the planners of the defense against apocalypse are far too confident of the ability to manage it.

A passing remark by an analyst at the meeting illustrated this. She was presenting a series of maps and charts depicting the most vulnerable transportation facilities under warmer versus hotter end-of-century climate projections. The hotter version assumed ten times more days with temperatures above 95 degrees than now, she mentioned, while discussing the effects of heat on roads and runways, bridges and ports.

Wait!!! That’s a 1,000 percent increase in days with stifling heat (and corresponding elevated nightly increases too) across a region that’s already semi — tropical, with pervasive air-conditioning the only thing making it liveable — or even survivable—for much of the population. And you’re talking about the transportation consequences for a ten-fold expansion of such days without also talking about the social disintegration this heat implies?

Granted, an ordinary engineering analysis does not include these features. But one that omits them is delusional. Or the officials are delusional who drafted the contracts with consultants that omit these features.

Pavements and structures will not be vulnerable merely to the effects of heat at such sustained high temperatures. They will also be vulnerable to neglect, at best. The resources necessary to crank up enough power for the required air-conditioning will rob the resources necessary for the transportation systems. And the spike in pollution if this power comes from fossil fuels will make breathing even more perilous than already. And the rise in sea level and weather extremes accompanying such heat will turn the region inhospitable and its economy anemic.

At some stage these decays provoke an exodus, like the mass evacuations from the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. Or riotous upheavals. Or both.

The details are unpredictable. But something hugely disruptive of this magnitude or greater would occur under such convulsed climate conditions. Then no projections of the sort offered about transportation systems at last week’s workgroup meeting would apply.

Selling the Hanging Rope

This is nothing to fret about — because meanwhile the construction undertaken to provide fictional defense against the results of a crockpot globe will be marvelously profitable to contractors, while wrapped for marketing to the public in a decoration of jobsjobsjobs.

The blowout of BP’s offshore oil well offers confirmation. For months as it gushed into the gulf of Mexico anguished meetings along the coast drew mostly enviro types and folks like fishers and shrimpers whose livelihoods came from the sea. But when the well was capped and instead a flow of money began from compensation payments and fines, attendance changed. Suddenly local officials and eager contractors appeared, seeking a share for their variously worthy or unworthy projects.

The multiple menaces spawned by a warming world promise many more and much larger opportunities for cashing in. A bonanza of unprecedented scope awaits when the pilot research program underway in Mobile is extended into concrete coastal defense efforts along all shorelines. They won’t succeed in their announced purpose. The force of nature gathering against them is too great for that. But they will be hugely profitable for poised reapers.

This prepares the stage for a warped enactment of the grim drama sketched by Karl Marx imagining revolution. He perceived a system so corrupted by a logic of greed that it was incapable of saving itself. The last capitalist, he said with relish, will sell us the rope to hang himself. That never proved true in Marx’s lifetime but it could yet, in a perverted fashion.

A different outcome might be possible. Perhaps a mobilization of anxiety and outrage would spark the formation of workgroups with the resources and authority to address the causes of global warming, not just the consequences — which is the only thing happening here and now.

© 2013, Glynn Wilson. All rights reserved.

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