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Why Climate Matters…


Dear President Obama and Governor Romney:

We are in the final week of the Presidential campaign of 2012, buffeted by a massive storm that wreaked havoc in the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast.  SuperStorm Sandy has demonstrated the devastation that nature can bring even with the best public compliance behavior and sophisticated forecasts and warnings.

While casualties mount, fewer human lives were lost than expected.  While millions are still without power, far fewer families and businesses suffered the loss of electricity in the mid-Atlantic region, and flood damages in the mid-Atlantic were less than expected.  This relatively good news is tempered by the horrific damages experienced by citizens in New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Connecticut, where winds, rain and storm surge tore through entire communities and generated enormous losses.  In the sobering light of day an immense amount of work lies before us to rebuild infrastructure and restore the simple things we took for granted before this storm – transportation, power, water, the infrastructure that keeps us high and dry; and, the government services that allow our largely urbanized society to function.

I am appealing to you because I hope you will re-consider the metric of climate change and get it back on the policy table.  We are in store for more of this as our changing climate brings episodic and unusually extreme storms our way.  The impacts are being played out now, not just in terms of human lives and property, but in growing strains and stresses on the silent and decaying infrastructure that we all depend on for everyday life-sewage treatment plants, rail lines, bridges, the electrical grid.  It will cost billions of dollars just to bring New York City back to working order-draining the tunnels of water, restoring electricity to south Manhattan, getting the subway system to work again-just the essentials, let alone the amenities.

The kinds of disasters thrust upon us by SuperStorm Sandy are exactly the kind of things we can expect with climate change, particularly flooding in coastal areas, which are extremely vulnerable during storms from the combination of sea level rise, onshore winds of hurricane-strength force, storm surge, and tidal crests. This is why I exhort you, Mr. President and Governor Romney, to please put climate change back on the policy table-whoever wins this election. Climate change scenarios provide pictures of what is likely to happen, more often, in the future.

The consequences of not doing so are dire.  Climate change provides a scenario of what will (and is already) happening with public infrastructure and community vulnerability.  If we go the way of the fiscal cliff in January or if we “shrink the government” and continue to reduce taxes, the burden of maintaining and improving infrastructure will likely fall to the states and municipalities.  We have no overarching insurance framework for the federal government-and most states-to deal with disasters that are climate-related and slow-onset, such as the increasingly devastating winter storms that threaten communities in Alaska coastal areas.

The effects of climate change are happening now-not sometime in the distant future, like 2050-or in faraway places, but here in the US in a slow and insidious manner; sometimes with startling and prescient glimpses into the future, such as with SuperStorm Sandy.  At the recent “First Stewards” symposium, testimony from U.S. Senators, environmental scientists, tribal chairmen, and honored elders, provided personal details and experiences including the loss of their own property and entire villages due to rapid coastal erosion and storms. Village after village described the economic, psychological and cultural effects that changing climate is bringing-thinning ice makes hunting more dangerous and affects caribou migrations; increased fetch on the sea causes larger waves and greater erosion. When you can’t get to the grocery store, it’s important to be able to get to other food. Similarly, Native Americans in the Northwest are facing the loss of salmon in their streams from the inability of salmon to return to their rightful and genetically-programmed streams because of lack of glacial water and runoff.  These are happening now, they are not projections.  They may not happen every year as climate modelers tell us, but still, the trends and direction are clear.

The Arctic and the highest latitudes in the US are projected to feel the brunt of climate change the most quickly and rapidly according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.  Communities already need to relocate.  Take the case of Alaskan communities Shismaref and Kivalina as the most well-known examples.  Kivalina, positioned for hundreds of years on a bare spit of a barrier island, has been trying to relocate since 1992 as they face being pounded out of existence by winter storms. They find themselves in “administrative orbit” going round and round with federal agencies and the state in an effort to engage appropriate assistance in relocation.  Social scientist Christine Shearer documents their dilemma in a recent book, Kivalina, and anthropologist Elizabeth Marino has convincingly described the plight and dilemmas facing Shismaref .   FEMA does not have authority to do community-based risk mitigation; federal agencies have not been sufficiently equipped, empowered, or funded to deal with climate change dislocations. The USCAE needs a better ability to deal with communities to attempt coastal armaments aimed at protection (the bulwark failed before the first storm hit).  The bottom line is that US agencies cannot deal with unprecedented risk, relocation, and localized, immediate adaptation that will occur with climate change; and if the federal government can’t provide assistance, given the history of federalism and public revenues, it is doubtful that states will be able to pitch in or will want to.

Mr. President and Mr. Governor, there are important questions of equity associated with the failing infrastructure and devolvement of maintenance and repair to states.  Since we don’t have a statutory or a government-wide plan for authorizing assistance for slow-onset disasters, that means that those who are at the lowest economic rungs are the most vulnerable and will suffer the most-something that political and social science policy communities have long noted.  The communities and families least likely to be able to pay for bridges, roads, and relocations are most likely to suffer the consequences.

Climate modelers have provided projections and models into the future and while it varies by region, they show an increased likelihood of extreme weather-hotter than normal summers, heavier rainfall in shorter periods, greater periodicity in the rain, more periods of drought.  In 2013 the U.S. will release the National Climate Assessment, a report to Congress required every four years by law.  The report is likely to note increased public costs to states, localities and the federal government to repair and maintain infrastructure such as bridges and roads.  Roads and schools in some counties on the Chesapeake Bay region will likely be abandoned because of the costs of maintenance and drainage issues-and which ones will that be?  You guessed it, as noted in an EPA report on Sea Level Rise to US Congress by James Titus et al.  it will be the most vulnerable folks who will disproportionately suffer:  People who have lived for generations in low-value property areas; people whose modest income levels mean that it is all the more difficult to rebuild a sustainable livelihood when storm surges and floodwaters force them to move away.

Sadly, the messaging around climate change has become so politicized and confusing that we are fast losing the opportunity to enable and empower people and communities to adapt and make changes to accommodate the problems, let alone try to interrupt it.  The public is looking the problem straight in the eye, whether we call it climate change or not, while politicians are burying their heads in the sand.  This is a failure of leadership and an indictment of political gridlock, abetted by the politicization of the climate change discourse.

Climate change is a “wicked problem” as policy experts have termed it and solutions are not easy; but we can’t afford to let climate and adaptation fall off the policy agenda. Anthropologists and other environmental social scientists can help by describing how climate changes are affecting communities and their capacity to sustain lives and livelihoods. We can help work with communities to strengthen their resilience in the face of adverse change by improving adaptive capacity. And, we can help work with governments to shape policy that reflects the cultural guideposts that are central to actually achieving intended results.  But it is far harder to do our work if climate policy becomes a policy of neglect, if no one is listening to the plights of real people, and our leaders aren’t talking about either climate change or infrastructure.

Shirley J. Fiske is an environmental anthropologist and research professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, and Chair of the American Anthropological Association Task Force on Global Climate Change. She is a former NOAA program official, and senior legislative advisor in the U.S. Senate, working on climate, oceans, fisheries, public lands and energy issues.  Contact her at

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