Coping with Change, continued
The oceans rose roughly 2 millimeters per year over the course of the 20th century, creeping up the Carteret's shores. The Carteret islanders may have made a bad situation worse by fishing with dynamite, destroying protective reefs in the quest for food after refugees flooded the islands during Bougainville’s war to secede from Papua New Guinea in the 1990s. But sea levels could rise meters more by this century's end as warmer ocean waters expand and the meltdown of vast ice sheets in Greenland continues. That would be the end of the Carterets – and many other small islands.
The government of a more famous island chain, the Maldives, has announced efforts to set aside money that would allow its more than 300,000 citizens to secure a new homeland. But the 1,700 or so Carteret islanders may be among the first to actually move. That's because scientists estimate the islands will be drowned by 2015.
A 19th century sea captain dubbed the Carterets “Massacre Islands.” The massacre now is of the traditional foodstuffs of the inhabitants: taro, breadfruit and the like, poisoned by intruding salt water that is also fouling drinking water. Storm surges – and even waves at high tide – now routinely wash over entire islands in the group.
The Papua New Guinea government has authorized Carteret residents to move, and at least five families already have permanently relocated to Bougainville as part of what the islanders are calling Tulele Peisa, or "sailing the waves on our own." The move is expected to take at least a decade to complete, according to Rakova, who is helping lead the relocation effort.
"The sea that was once a friend to us is basically now destroying the lives of my people," she told OneWorldTV last fall. "When we move it means some parts of our culture will be destroyed, will be left behind because we need to adapt to the new situation."
Sea level rise isn't just affecting small islands. It is also altering lives in rich countries like the Netherlands. The Dutch decided in 2006 to come up with a long-term plan for coping with climate change. How long? Two hundred years long. The plan is set to cope with sea level rises of as much as 4 meters by the end of that span.
The Netherlands’ strategy covers everything from strengthening massive sea defenses, like the Delta Works series of dams and barriers, to planting trees to soak up CO2 while cooling Amsterdam and other cities. Massive dunes that protect the coast will be reinforced with dredged sand. Some land will be abandoned to rising sea levels – a managed retreat.
Part of the Netherlands is already below sea level, low-lying areas of, typically, farmland surrounded by dikes known as polders. To adapt to a world with both more intense periods of rainfall and longer droughts, the Dutch will need water storage, and that's exactly what they will get by flooding these formerly drained areas. The essence of this part of the plan is summed up in its name, Planologische Kernbeslissing Ruimte voor de Rivier – "Space for the River."
Certain communities that will remain drained will be designated as spillover zones to contain unusual floods. It's as if New Orleans had designated the Ninth Ward as a place that would be flooded when faced with a powerful storm surge like the one created by Hurricane Katrina. Of course, that's exactly what happened—but in an unplanned inundation that resulted in more than 1,400 deaths.
The Dutch are not alone. Communities from New Orleans to Kings County, Wash., are developing plans to deal with flooding – or at least strengthening levees in anticipation of new water flow conditions. And in January, the U.K. environment ministry released some of its suggested climate adaptation plans, including new standards for roads that will face hotter summer temperatures and even potentially relocating fish from waters in the famous Lake District of northwestern England to cooler waters further north.
Water is also a major concern when it comes to generating electricity. That's because power plants that burn fossil fuels or split uranium atoms to produce turbine-turning steam need a lot of water to cool the steam once it’s done its job. As a result of droughts in the southeastern U.S. in 2007, some coal and nuclear power plants actually had to produce less electricity because there simply wasn't enough water to do so.
That's one of the reasons why electric utility Duke Energy – the third-largest CO2 emitter among U.S. corporations—is getting into solar energy. The power provider has installed photovoltaic panels in neighborhoods and on the rooftops of some of its larger customers, like a Food Lion grocery store in Salisbury, N.C.
"We paid the customer to allow us to use their roof as if it was a plant site," explains Jim Rogers, chief executive of the Charlotte-based utility. "It is just another way of making electricity."
It also happens to be a way of making electricity that produces less of the CO2 causing climate change. Such low-CO2 sources of electricity – whether solar or new nuclear power plants—are exactly what Rogers and some other utility executives see as the future of power in the U.S.
“It is very critical that we address the carbon issue," Rogers says.
Betting on the weather
Some companies are making money preparing for climate change – or, more specifically, the weather climate change will produce – via new weather derivatives.
Weather desks like the one at Evolution Markets in White Plains, N.Y., help companies buy and sell the weather—specifically, heating degree days in winter and cooling degree days in summer. “Degree days” measure the deviation from a temperature that would require no heating in winter or cooling in summer. The idea is to buffer, say, a brewery against the loss in beer sales occasioned by an unusually cool and damp summer – or, more commonly, an electric utility against the loss in revenue that stems from an unusually cool summer that requires fewer people to use electricity in running air conditioners.
Against the Storm
Storm surge barriers such as the Hartelkering in the Hartel Canal are part of the Netherlands' strategy to stave off rising ocean waters.
What is Adaptation?
Governments, businesses, nonprofits and people around the world are working to minimize global climate change by lowering the amount of CO2 we add to the atmosphere. But just as a bicycle keeps moving after you start to brake, climate change doesn’t halt the instant we act to slow it. That means that even while we reduce greenhouse gas emissions and create carbon sinks, we also need to prepare for changes already underway.
How? One approach is to resist change – as Austrian ski resort owners have attempted to do by laying white plastic over glaciers to slow their melt. Another is to increase our ability to roll with whatever punches climate change might throw – as engineers did when they designed a bridge between Prince Edward Island and mainland Canada with an extra meter of clearance to allow for rising seas. Yet a third is to adjust our old activities to new realities, as Inuit hunters are doing by moving their huts in response to thawing ice – and Kenyan farmers by moving planting dates to adjust to warmer, drier conditions.
Adaptation is not a substitute for cleaning up our carbon act. But it is an important complement as we both put on the brakes and prepare for a warming world.
Conventional power generation uses tons of water. By installing solar photovoltaic panels and batteries to store the electricity they generate. Charlotte, N.C.-based Duke Energy is increasing the resilience of its grid to drought.
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Last modified on January 23, 2012