Global Warming – Prevention or Adaptation

Blog, Climate, Les Routledge

The Grist blog has dressed this article up as a global warming topic

“Writing this book has taught me more than I’d like to know about our climate dilemma: about how drastically our civilization must change course to avoid catastrophe, how stubbornly some people and institutions resist even minor shifts in direction, and how destabilizing the impacts that are already locked in are likely to be.”

The story about the adaptation activities in Seattle do not really have anything to do with global warming at all.  Instead, they are examples of municipal leaders looking forward to anticipate the impacts of variations of weather patterns and investing in a plan to deal with the challenges that have presented themselves in the past and will be presented again in the future.

The first example is the need to update flood levies that were originally constructed to protect farmland from minor floods.

Farmers had built levees along the Green River 50 to 60 years ago, said Isaacson, but those levees were little more than mounds of earth extending along the riverbanks. They were sufficient to protect farmland that could afford to flood occasionally, but inadequate when billions of dollars of commerce were at risk.

The problem the city faced was not more severe floods, it was that buildings and development had occurred in a floodplain while the levies were only designed to protect farmland that could tolerate occasional flooding.  While it makes sense to upgrade the levies as they did, the questions that are left unasked is why those buildings were constructed in a vulnerable location to begin with, why it was everyone’s responsibility to pay to fix the folly of that decision, and was there any plan to prevent a comparable situation emerging elsewhere.

The second example was in the supply of water and re-using treated water to irrigate recreational land like golf courses.

“People didn’t want to believe there were going to be water shortages,” he recalled. “After all, this is a place where it always rains. But I said, ‘This is what the science says. We have to respect it.’ The reason we have so many ecological problems today is because we didn’t listen to science.”

Perhaps listening to science is the issue, but it is listening to science and history to understand that the Pacific coast region is frequented by extended dry period during the summer.  Add in a constantly expanding population driving increased demand for water supply and it is likely that the region will experience water supply shortages from time to time.  Global warming and climate change may or may not make the problem worse, but the problem of limited supplies of water occurred in the past and will likely occur in the future.

The solution selected, namely using recycle waste water to supply industrial needs could make sense.  While water utilities resisted the move, perhaps the problem was an absence of market signals being experienced by customers and water suppliers.  If prices for potable water was allowed to increase for high volume customers during times of shortage, perhaps more industrial customers would be willing to buy recycled water instead of consuming scarce supplies of potable water.  If market signals and market forces were allowed to work, would the “purple lines” be installed because it made good business sense for both customers and suppliers?