We have no insurance against this risk

Nobody can take credit for inventing insurance. All cultures have found ways to protect individuals from the full cost of bad luck.

  • Farmers diversify their crops in type, location and timing to reduce their risks, but storage, trade and mutual assistance help unlucky farmers.
  • Communities diversity their work, assets and family relations to reduce their risks, but migration, sharing and collaboration help unlucky neighbors.
  • Investors diversity among liquid and illiquid assets with short-term or long-term maturities, but laws, family ties and social welfare protect the bankrupt.

Humans evolved these structures — and the rich social bonds and norms that hold them together — over millennia, with each post-event refinement bringing a little more stability to the system and prosperity to the group.

For most of the 200,000-year history of our species, Nature delivered accidents and harm, but those risks became predictable over time and thus amenable to insurance, hedging, and other means of investing a little in good times to avoid occasional, catastrophic losses.

Among those who study climate, “stationarity” implies that patterns vary within clear boundaries over time. For the past 5,000 years, climate has been stationary in terms of temperatures, precipitation and storms. That pattern has been disrupted by acute forces — hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions — just as it has evolved under the influence of solar radiation and other geological processes, but those changes (small and local or large and slow, respectively) have not been strong enough to overwhelm our primitive insurances or prevent us from migrating out of harm’s way.

Welcome to non-stationarity

Anthropogenic climate change will bring unprecedented risks that will strain and occasionally break our formal and informal coping mechanisms. In October 2017, the World Meteorological Association noted that:

Concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere surged at a record-breaking speed in 2016 to the highest level in 800,000 years… The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, the temperature was 2-3°C warmer and sea level was 10-20 meters higher than now… The rate of increase of atmospheric CO2 over the past 70 years is nearly 100 times larger than that at the end of the last ice age. As far as direct and proxy observations can tell, such abrupt changes in the atmospheric levels of CO2 have never before been seen.

The unprecedented levels of CO2 and other greenhouse gases (GHGs) and their unnatural accumulate rate in the atmosphere mean that our species is about to experience dramatic changes in temperatures, precipitation and storms.

As a water economist, I am well aware of climate change’s impacts on the water cycle and thus on the various categories of water-related phenomena  through which climate change will arrive. Given this experience, I would order the risks in these categories, in order of highest to lowest threat to humans, as follows:

  1. Temperatures too high or too low for unprotected exposure
  2. Droughts or precipitation too long to be buffered by storage or drainage
  3. Changes or crashes in biodiversity that destroy entire food systems
  4. Wind-driven storms stronger than natural or man-made defenses
  5. Changes in sea levels and currents that alter continental ecosystems

Note that I put sea-level rise — the change most closely connected to the name of this project — as the least-threatening category of change.

There are many ways to die

Our formal and informal means of insuring ourselves against risk and disaster are going to fail many people in the decades ahead. Poor people with incompetent or corrupt governments will try to help each other, but their resources can only go so far. Rich people will be partially insulated by financial and political coping mechanisms, but additional costs will undermine markets and overwhelm bureaucracies and taxpayers. People all over the world will face the reality of uninsured losses and the uncertainty of emerging, unprecedented risks.

In 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next 40 Years, Jorgen Randers (one of the original authors of The Limits to Growth) suggested that climate change would slow as humans diverted resources from consumption (and thus GHGs) to investments designed to offset climate change impacts. Although his logic is sound, I see few signs of that switch.

Bottom line: The damages from climate-change driven alterations to the water cycle will overwhelm our coping mechanisms, leading to unprecedented death, destruction and misery. It’s unlikely that anyone will have the resources to help you when you need it, so now is the time to invest in securing yourself and your community against those risks.

Blue death

This “vision” is one of the 30+ that we’ll publish here in the next months. Most of them will go into Life Plus 2 Meters, Volume 2 (expected publication: Dec 2017). We hope that you will comment on the message, suggest ways to sharpen the narrative, and tell us how the story affects your understanding of adapting to climate change.

Most importantly, we hope that you enjoy reading these stories and share them with your friends and family. —David Zetland (editor) and the authors

Some say the world will end in fire

I like the idea of a nuclear apocalypse — the sound of it. The “nuclear” clips and the “apocalypse” pops. More than that, I like the suddenness. I’d like to go quickly, in the four-mile blast radius where winds reach speeds of 158 miles per hour (and that’s just for a one-megaton bomb). Of course, a four-mile blast radius is only 50 square miles of a 200-million-square-mile Earth, but the world is small when a bomb lands on top of you. And when a bomb lands on top of you the apocalypse is stentorian and scriptural and sudden. The world ends just as it should – in fire that falls from the sky. Red death is quick.

Blue death is slower. The seas are rising: a millimeter and a half every year in the 1990s, three millimeters a year by 2000. Three and a half millimeters in 2016. A slow creep as global temperature rises and the ocean expands. And scientists expect that hurricanes will get worse too, as the decades tick by – infinitesimally more intense one season, infinitesimally more intense the next.

But a slow apocalypse is so difficult to think about. We don’t like it. I don’t like it; I hate playing the game of time. If I have children, will they have children, and will those grandchildren be born by 2100? (Climate scientists tend to make their predictions for the year 2100.) And will those grandchildren perhaps live in the Netherlands (where my grandparents lived), at some location that is currently only one meter above sea level? Because, if so, those hypothetical grandchildren would surely be subsumed by the sea – but this game is tedious and by this point I’ve lost interest in panicking.

It’s much easier to panic about the nuclear apocalypse than it is to panic about the apocalypse that is wet and blue and slow.

The heat of a hurricane

The heat energy released by a fully developed hurricane is equivalent to that of a ten-megaton nuclear bomb exploding every 20 minutes. Not a one-megaton bomb, with its 158-mile-per-hour winds within a four-mile blast radius, but a ten­-megaton bomb, and in another 20 minutes another ten-megaton bomb, and in another 20 minutes another ten-megaton bomb. In the most impressive hurricanes – Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale – wind speeds may exceed 158 miles per hour. The amount of energy released by a hurricane is shattering. It’s apocalyptic.

If a Category 5 hurricane churns over you, then the apocalypse is quick, although not red. If you favor a fiery end, then console yourself that at least there is heat in a hurricane – thousands of billions of watts of heat, many nuclear bombs’ worth of heat. So much heat that it’s almost strange that hurricanes bring blue death.

The hate of a hurricane

There’s hate in the nuclear apocalypse. There has to be hate, because bombs are dropped by people. (Hate is indifference where there should be empathy.) There’s no hate in a hurricane.

Except that hurricanes intensify as the climate warms, and the climate is warming. The most intense of hurricanes – the Category 5 storms as well as their cousins in Category 4 – are going to become more frequent. By 2100, when my hypothetical grandchildren are growing up, the number of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes will have doubled. And perhaps my grandchildren will not be living in the Netherlands, after all (because perhaps the Netherlands will be underwater) and will instead inhabit a more hurricane-prone location, like Japan or Bangladesh or the Gulf of Mexico coast. And while they are growing up on the Gulf of Mexico Coast, they will have good reason to be afraid of Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, because Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are exceptionally destructive. During the last century, when they only accounted for 6 percent of the storms that hit the U.S., they were responsible for 48 percent of the hurricane-induced damage.

So there is no hate in a hurricane, except that hurricanes intensify as the climate warms, and climate warms as carbon dioxide spills into the atmosphere, and carbon dioxide spills into the atmosphere because we burn coal and oil and gas, and we burn them freely. And we like to think that the apocalypse will be red and fast, so we like to think that it can’t be happening right now. After all, it’s hard to see the sea as it rises, millimeter by millimeter, and it’s hard to see the hurricanes getting worse and worse, because they only land on us one at a time. And it is very tedious to spend time considering a hot, wet, blue death.

And perhaps it’s just tedious enough that I am unmindful, and perhaps I am just unmindful enough that I am willing to be cruel to my bright-eyed hypothetical grandchildren. And perhaps, in 2100, there is hate in a hurricane after all – my ancient hate.

(Hate is indifference where there should be empathy.)

Death by water

When a hurricane hits it is certainly not the heat that kills, and nor, mostly, is it those galloping, screaming winds. Nearly seven hundred storms hit the U.S. over the past half-century; they killed two-and-a-half thousand people; and the winds killed less than a tenth of those people. Water killed nine-tenths – about 2,100 people.

When a hurricane makes landfall, it pushes before itself a wall of water called the storm surge, which can be as short as four feet or as tall as forty. Storm surges in the U.S. over the past-half century accounted for half of the deaths by water. A hurricane also brings rain, and where it rains it may flood, or the ground may collapse into a mudslide – so rainfall accounted for about three-tenths of the deaths by water. And the rest drowned in riptides, and waves, and the open ocean. It can take more than four minutes for a person to drown, and death is slow, and death is blue.

When I dream of the end of the world I dream of water.

Kalila Morsink is a university student in New York City, where she studies earth science and creative writing. When not preoccupied by blue thoughts about the future, she enjoys going hiking and purchasing patterned socks.

Hurricanes in Ireland?

Yes, indeed. Here’s one Irishman’s advice on how to cope:

I told my nephew the storm might cause the power to go out. The thoughts of not being able to go on youtube for a few hours almost had him in tears.

I told him youtube will be the least of his problems if flooding is bad enough, because then the pirates will come. They’re probably going to sell his mother as a prostitute and drown his little sister in the water. I probably won’t help because I’ll be a pirate too and my pirate crew would be my family in that scenario, making our relationship worthless. His best chance of survival, well, he wasn’t old enough to understand any of that stuff yet. He can figure that out when the situation arises.

I told him it was important to remember there is no God and his existence doesn’t matter. Our relationships and very existences are so fragile and can be altered so dramatically that they are ultimately worthless. We’re all alone in our lives, I told him. Nobody really gives a fuck about him.

My sister kicked me out of her house at this point.

The underpass

Joseph Cohn updates our visions of biblical floods.

The storm raged all night. The refugees trembled as the wind howled beneath the bridge. Soon the water rose. For two hours it roared through the underpass. Along the concrete walls black shapes writhed in the primordial darkness. The underpass became a vault of screams to echo the agony of the dying earth. By dawn the flooding had ended and thirty-three people had died.

In the morning the refugees climbed down to scavenge and search for the dead. They cleared the ground and sent the dead into the sea, and then they gathered to eat out of cold, dented cans. Afterward they rested against the walls and watched the world with mute eyes. Their figures faded into the gloom, until they were no more than shadows of anguish. No one spoke, and no children ran at play. The last child living beneath the bridge had died three weeks ago.

Around midday a wild-eyed man with long, tangled hair stood at the center of the underpass. From a ragged book he read to the refugees of prophets and dead kings and a time when the earth burned. But above all else he spoke of an empire called Babylon. Of how it fell at the height of glory, its towers and walls crumbling to the earth. The refugees heard him, but they did not listen.

A month later the underpass was silent and the people were gone. Whether they fled to some distant Elysian field or perished beneath the bridge was unknown. Their fates like their origins were lost, their existences forgotten. All was still but for the ocean. It loomed just beyond the bridge, gray and calm and ever shifting. A mercurial plain beneath whose surface lay the ruins of Babylon. A sepulcher fit to house all human folly.

Joseph Cohn [email] is a high school student from Southern California. Growing up close to the ocean, he has seen how all human activities —ranging from fishing to littering — can have harm our oceans.

I don’t like these storms anymore

Ben Ruddell’s view on storms has changed, is changing and will change…

As a kid in the Midwest, the distant rolling thunder of a summer soaker was soothing, and the lightning bolts were exciting, bursting with neon light and color. Those storms were beautiful, with their sunbursts, whipping winds, and towering black clouds sweeping across the flat open land.

Those storms changed, flooding fields and towns but leaving withered crops and dry riverbeds in the summer. Those tenacious farm towns survived fifty years of depopulation, but collapsed as the groundwater ran out and the corn moved north to Canada. We followed so many others when fled the economic blight of the Midwest for greener pastures in the Mountain West. There were jobs, and the reservoirs had enough water for the dry spells.

The Southwest was so beautiful: pristine pine forests ringing towering mountains, vistas and red rocks, deserts and flowers. I never saw anything like it, and once I came I never wanted to leave. We had storms here, too, but they brought the most welcome rain to the arid hills. And rainbows- so many rainbows in these desert storms. No wonder these mountain towns are so popular. Everyone wanted to come here.

The kids felt the fear before I did. We tried to calm them when the lightning struck, but they felt a fear too deep for a parent to reach, a fear I didn’t understand. My oldest piled rocks around a tree to keep it safe from the lightning. It was cute. I thought he would grow out of it, but he didn’t; we did. Us older folks fooled ourselves with a lifetime of false experience.

When I first smelled the smoke, I felt that same fear- ominous, imminent, unavoidable. The fires were all over the summer news. A million acres here, a hundred houses there, year after year. Fort McMurray burned in Canada, but it was always far away. Still, my subconscious mind was catching on. When I caught myself hugging the kids because I was scared, I knew didn’t like storms anymore. The lightning made me jumpy, and if nobody was looking I would walk nervously to the window to check for smoke. I wrote my Congressmen about funding for the Forest Service after I read they only had money to manage a tiny fraction of the public forest in these mountains.

Every year the fires were worse than the last, and Congress finally funded the overdue thinning project out here. It was ten years of work, Billions of dollars. It was too late for us. That big, dry monsoon storm came in at the wrong time, and the lightning set the forest ablaze in a thousand fires. A hundred years of overgrown fuel went up in smoke, along with the power transmission lines and half of the town. It was all the fire service could do just to keep the highway open for evacuation.

The mountains burned, leaving a charred and sediment-choked moonscape. The power and water were out for a long time, and most of us had nothing to come back to after the evacuation. The tourists and students vanished, and with them my job. We moved back east to live with family, and figured out how to make ends meet. We survived, but things aren’t the same. I heard that a few of the mountain towns are recovering, but only rich vacationers can live there now. These fires woke middle class folks like us from our Southwestern dream.

Now, on those the terribly hot Chicago summer nights when the rain falls, I tell the kids these storms are as beautiful as I remember from my childhood, and we’re lucky to be here. But to tell the truth, I don’t like these storms anymore.

ruddellBen Ruddell Ben Ruddell is from the Midwestern U.S., works on the faculty at Northern Arizona University, and lives in Flagstaff, Arizona with his wife Jennifer and their children. This vision published in Life + 2 meters is vaguely autobiographical.