Cities and Resilience: The Year Climate Started Hurting Politicians

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In city after city, the story has been the same. An extreme weather event hits, the city's team has been overwhelmed, and the whole issue becomes a small arms firefight between the mayor and whoever else lines up on the ramparts. In February, it was snowmaggedon that left DC's Adrian Fenty and Balitmore's Stephanie Rawlings-Blake looking bad. This month, it's New York's Mayor Michael Bloomberg that's come off looking inept. In 2009 and again this month, it was London's mayor that looked unprepared.

In February, Vincent Cannato, an American history professor at UMass-Boston, told ABC News: "The thing about snow, it is symbolic. It's symbolic about other problems. It's symbolic about the way people see the whole city functioning."

We assume that if only city government worked better, the hassles of the weather could be avoided. We blame The Man.

There have been plenty of other extreme weather events that have caught cities flat-footed, too. There was the flooding of Fargo early this year, which the mayor there noted was "uncharted territory," but also a "wake-up call." Then there was the more recent flooding in San Diego, which got the mayor lashed by a political opponent.

And earlier this month, it was Minneapolis' mayor pleading for the patience of the residents of his city when a snowstorm hit. That city's transportation supervisor said, "I don't remember since the Halloween blizzard [of 1991] when we didn't get through our routes. It's just overwhelming."

Which brings me to my point: While I'm sure weather emergencies can be handled better or worse, if the weather is crazy enough, the government-quality signal gets drowned out by the weather signal. Cities were built with certain tolerance levels in mind, certain climactic baselines, and if you go outside of them, everyone looks terrible because they're pulling levers of power and control that are not commensurate with the task they need to fix.

Let's use the floodplain as a metaphor. People tend to build where a flood may happen every once in a long while, but not where a flood happens every couple of years. That just makes sense, and there's a whole institutional framework that exists around making that happen. But what if the baseline changes? Suddenly the place that used to flood (or get deeply snowed in or run out of water) once every 50 years starts getting hit once every 10 years. It's not that human beings couldn't build a system that would allow them to live in that place, but that the system they need is not the one they have. And the system they'd need is also going to be a lot more expensive than they bargained for.

The same goes for snow. If you're a mayor, you could have X number of plows and plow operators and different kinds of anti-snow legions. You could pump money into making sure you had a truly resilient system that could beat any type of storm. Or you could fix the roads and keep up the sewers. Or you could raise taxes and do it all but cost yourself politically. Under those circumstances, most mayors have favored efficiency and lower taxes over resilience at the extreme ends of the weather spectrum. Why prepare for a day that may never come? Why plan for a once-a-decade event when you've got people in your ear about things that need fixing tomorrow (or yesterday).

But that calculation might start flipping. Because what mayors need to do is restructure their cities, not engage in last-minute heroics a la Cory Booker. (Although let's be honest, his use of Twitter was pretty awesome, politically and otherwise.) One of the most solid predictions of climate change is an increase in extreme weather events. In fact, such an increase has already been observed. And while you can't link any individual event directly to greenhouse gas emissions, the trend exists.

Here's the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's response from their FAQ:

Q: Are Extreme Events, Like Heat Waves, Droughts or Floods, Expected to Change as the Earth's Climate Changes?
A: Yes; the type, frequency and intensity of extreme events are expected to change as Earth's climate changes, and these changes could occur even with relatively small mean climate changes. Changes in some types of extreme events have already been observed, for example, increases in the frequency and intensity of heat waves and heavy precipitation events.

But all that is dry, technocratic talk. What you need to know is that your city -- pretty much wherever it is -- was built for a climate that it may no longer have. That's going to mean tough commutes during the winter and spending more money on air conditioning in the summer. It's going to mean that your city shuts down more often because some freaky thing happened that no one can remember happening in their lifetimes. It's going to mean the power's going to go out because the electric system in your area wasn't designed to handle the stresses it will be put under. Cities will have to get less efficient and more resilient. Redundancies will have to be built into systems that previously seemed to work just fine.

This is how climate change will cost us all money. Maybe more importantly, these kinds of storms can cost politicians elections, which might be the only thing that will start pushing them to make the hard, long-term decisions to adapt to a changing climate. And when the costs of those changes become apparent maybe climate legislation won't seem like a strange, extraneous tax but like the necessary corrective that it is.

Or maybe we'll just stop carping about the overwhelmed mayor and all just get used to scenes like this:

stormbrooklyn.jpg

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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