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This is the skyline of my hometown, New Orleans. It was a great place to grow up, but it's one of the most vulnerable spots in the world. Half the city is already below sea level. In 2005, the world watched as New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were devastated by Hurricane Katrina. One thousand, eight hundred and thirty-six people died. Nearly 300,000 homes were lost. These are my mother's, at the top -- although that's not her car, it was carried there by floodwaters up to the roof -- and that's my sister's, below. Fortunately, they and other family members got out in time, but they lost their homes, and as you can see, just about everything in them.
Other parts of the world have been hit by storms in even more devastating ways. In 2008, Cyclone Nargis and its aftermath killed 138,000 in Myanmar. Climate change is affecting our homes, our communities, our way of life. We should be preparing at every scale and at every opportunity.
The changes in these times won't affect us all equally. There are important distributional consequences, and they're not what you always might think. In New Orleans, the elderly and female-headed households were among the most vulnerable. For those in vulnerable, low-lying nations, how do you put a dollar value on losing your country where you ancestors are buried? And where will your people go? And how will they cope in a foreign land? Will there be tensions over immigration, or conflicts over competition for limited resources? It's already fueled conflicts in Chad and Darfur. Like it or not, ready or not, this is our future.
Sure, some are looking for opportunities in this new world. That's the Russians planting a flag on the ocean bottom to stake a claim for minerals under the receding Arctic sea ice. But while there might be some short-term individual winners, our collective losses will far outweigh them. Look no further than the insurance industry as they struggle to cope with mounting catastrophic losses from extreme weather events.
So what can we do? How can we prepare and adapt? I'd like to share three sets of examples, starting with adapting to violent storms and floods. In New Orleans, the I-10 Twin Spans, with sections knocked out in Katrina, have been rebuilt 21 feet higher to allow for greater storm surge. And these raised and energy-efficient homes were developed by Brad Pitt and Make It Right for the hard-hit Ninth Ward. The devastated church my mom attends has been not only rebuilt higher, it's poised to become the first Energy Star church in the country. They're selling electricity back to the grid thanks to solar panels, reflective paint and more. Their March electricity bill was only 48 dollars.
Now these are examples of New Orleans rebuilding in this way, but better if others act proactively with these changes in mind. For example, in Galveston, here's a resilient home that survived Hurricane Ike, when others on neighboring lots clearly did not. And around the world, satellites and warning systems are saving lives in flood-prone areas such as Bangladesh.
But as important as technology and infrastructure are, perhaps the human element is even more critical. We need better planning and systems for evacuation. We need to better understand how people make decisions in times of crisis, and why. While it's true that many who died in Katrina did not have access to transportation, others who did refused to leave as the storm approached, often because available transportation and shelters refused to allow them to take their pets. Imagine leaving behind your own pet in an evacuation or a rescue. Fortunately in 2006, Congress passed the Pet Evacuation and Transportation Standards Act (Laughter) — it spells "PETS" — to change that.
Second, preparing for heat and drought. Farmers are facing challenges of drought from Asia to Africa, from Australia to Oklahoma, while heat waves linked with climate change have killed tens of thousands of people in Western Europe in 2003, and again in Russia in 2010.
In Ethiopia, 70 percent, that's 7-0 percent of the population, depends on rainfall for its livelihood. Oxfam and Swiss Re, together with Rockefeller Foundation, are helping farmers like this one build hillside terraces and find other ways to conserve water, but they're also providing for insurance when the droughts do come. The stability this provides is giving the farmers the confidence to invest. It's giving them access to affordable credit. It's allowing them to become more productive so that they can afford their own insurance over time, without assistance. It's a virtuous cycle, and one that could be replicated throughout the developing world.
After a lethal 1995 heat wave turned refrigerator trucks from the popular Taste of Chicago festival into makeshift morgues, Chicago became a recognized leader, tamping down on the urban heat island impact through opening cooling centers, outreach to vulnerable neighborhoods, planting trees, creating cool white or vegetated green roofs. This is City Hall's green roof, next to Cook County's [portion of the] roof, which is 77 degrees Fahrenheit hotter at the surface. Washington, D.C., last year, actually led the nation in new green roofs installed, and they're funding this in part thanks to a five-cent tax on plastic bags. They're splitting the cost of installing these green roofs with home and building owners. The roofs not only temper urban heat island impact but they save energy, and therefore money, the emissions that cause climate change, and they also reduce stormwater runoff. So some solutions to heat can provide for win-win-wins.
Third, adapting to rising seas. Sea level rise threatens coastal ecosystems, agriculture, even major cities. This is what one to two meters of sea level rise looks like in the Mekong Delta. That's where half of Vietnam's rice is grown.
Infrastructure is going to be affected. Airports around the world are located on the coast. It makes sense, right? There's open space, the planes can take off and land without worrying about creating noise or avoiding tall buildings. Here's just one example, San Francisco Airport, with 16 inches or more of flooding. Imagine the staggering cost of protecting this vital infrastructure with levees. But there might be some changes in store that you might not imagine. For example, planes require more runway for takeoff because the heated, less dense air, provides for less lift. San Francisco is also spending 40 million dollars to rethink and redesign its water and sewage treatment, as water outfall pipes like this one can be flooded with seawater, causing backups at the plant, harming the bacteria that are needed to treat the waste. So these outfall pipes have been retrofitted to shut seawater off from entering the system.
Beyond these technical solutions, our work at the Georgetown Climate Center with communities encourages them to look at what existing legal and policy tools are available and to consider how they can accommodate change. For example, in land use, which areas do you want to protect, through adding a seawall, for example, alter, by raising buildings, or retreat from, to allow the migration of important natural systems, such as wetlands or beaches?
Other examples to consider. In the U.K., the Thames Barrier protects London from storm surge. The Asian Cities Climate [Change] Resilience Network is restoring vital ecosystems like forest mangroves. These are not only important ecosystems in their own right, but they also serve as a buffer to protect inland communities.
New York City is incredibly vulnerable to storms, as you can see from this clever sign, and to sea level rise, and to storm surge, as you can see from the subway flooding. But back above ground, these raised ventilation grates for the subway system show that solutions can be both functional and attractive. In fact, in New York, San Francisco and London, designers have envisioned ways to better integrate the natural and built environments with climate change in mind.
I think these are inspiring examples of what's possible when we feel empowered to plan for a world that will be different. But now, a word of caution. Adaptation's too important to be left to the experts. Why? Well, there are no experts. We're entering uncharted territory, and yet our expertise and our systems are based on the past. "Stationarity" is the notion that we can anticipate the future based on the past, and plan accordingly, and this principle governs much of our engineering, our design of critical infrastructure, city water systems, building codes, even water rights and other legal precedents. But we can simply no longer rely on established norms. We're operating outside the bounds of CO2 concentrations that the planet has seen for hundreds of thousands of years.
The larger point I'm trying to make is this. It's up to us to look at our homes and our communities, our vulnerabilities and our exposures to risk, and to find ways to not just survive, but to thrive, and it's up to us to plan and to prepare and to call on our government leaders and require them to do the same, even while they address the underlying causes of climate change.
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As Vicki Arroyo says, it's time to prepare our homes and cities for our changing climate, with its increased risk of flooding, drought and uncertainty. She illustrates this inspiring talk with bold projects from cities all over the world -- local examples of thinking ahead. Read our Q&A with Vicki Arroyo.
Vicki Arroyo uses environmental law and her background in biology and ecology to help prepare for global climate change. Full bio »