Kaj Embren

Over the coming days and weeks I hope to see a more proactive agenda emerge from stakeholders across the public, private and voluntary sectors. With the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) launched its 36-page policy report in Stockholm the 27th of September, there will be many new messages and lessons to absorb.

But while my blog usually centers around strategies and governance within political and business sectors, today I want to focus on the human adaptation to climate change.

What impact will global warming have on our daily lives over the next 20 or 30 years, as severe weather becomes more frequent and we face the possibility of a world where flooding can be expected during any given season?

This is not just a worst case scenario. Even if we take immediate steps to reduce our emissions and strengthen our efforts to counter climate change, things may still decline before they can get better.

In some places, evidence of such shifts are already well underway. Take the east coast of the US for instance, where people have seen extreme weather become increasingly normal. Experts expect 13 to 20 tropical storms this year, with up to 11 becoming hurricanes and as many as six reaching major storm status. While some research suggests that higher temperatures could bring about atmospheric changes that push the storms out to sea and away from land, scientists have warned local governments against lowering their guard. The bill for storm defences will, of course, be picked up by the taxpayer.

Could this type of real-life impact on people’s lives act as a driving force for change? Will citizens realize that fighting climate change can help control the environmental, physical and financial damage at they may personally experience in the next few decades?

Hurricane Sandy prompted the US Congress to approve more than $60 million in storm aid. But this should also have been a time to review the climate risks that lay behind the extreme weather by setting new targets for reducing carbon emissions. America is only one example.

In the coming years, coastal cities all around the globe will find themselves similar circumstances. More than 600 cities worldwide face increasing dangers from natural disasters, exposing 800 million people to flooding, earthquakes and major storms, according to a new study by insurers Swiss Re that encourages local governments to minimize damage by banning new construction in vulnerable areas.

Today, some of the world’s leading risk experts will meet in Stockholm to discuss how the new data from the IPCC should be integrated into decision-making. The panel will discuss analytical financial tools, as well as the security policy experiences implications of dealing with shared global risks. One of the speaker was Paul Dickinson, Executive Chairman of The Carbon Disclosure Project in London. Their latest report showing that S&P 500 companies leading on Climate Change action have dubbled in number. What is needed are radical changes within the business sector. But we should also look beyond the upper strata of decision-making – what does it all mean on an individual, human level?

I remember my wife’s friend, Judite dos Santos, an artist, talking about Hurricane Sandy when she came to visit us in Stockholm. She now lives in one of the buildings that was hit by Sandy last year – the Westbeth Building in Manhattan’s West Village. The historic complex of 13 buildings was formerly the site of Bell Laboratories (1868-1966) and played host to the first talking movie, the first condenser microphone, the first TV broadcast, and the first binary computer. The complex has become a centre for arts and affordable residence for artists, with studios and galleries that host and attract many visitors. Westbeth houses a large community of artists in lower Manhattan. Its loft flats provide accommodation and working spaces. The basements were used for storage, service areas, housed all machinery and operational systems for the building, as well as many artists studios, until hurricane Sandy arrived in 2012.

“It is still actually very difficult for me to feel ready to talk about Hurricane Sandy and how it affected me directly,” she admits. “I have been resisting it because my life was turned upside-down. A year has almost passed and a lot of what I am dealing with now, including moving to a new apartment, resulted from what happened on October 30, 2012.

“I know I am one of the lucky ones, considering the thousands of people whose lives were truly destroyed by the storm,” she says. “Many lost their homes permanently, others lost family members and suffered total devastation, and many are still, even at this time, without a proper place to live. The tragedies are countless and horrific, and these major disasters seem to happen so often now.”

But Judite’s compassion for others’ suffering cannot detract from the hardship that Sandy brought her. Her story is a difficult one.

“As the storm approached i prepared myself. I stocked up on water, emergency food, batteries, flash lights, a portable radio and so on,” she recalls. “The Hudson River is just across the street from where I work and live. On the day of the storm, as I heard updates throughout the day, I went out regularly to check on the rising water up to about two hours before the storm hit. By the time the river water was already at the level of the walkway along the riverside park and the wind was starting to blow stronger than usual.

“I went back to my apartment across the street. The windows were shaking loudly. At 7:30pm the lights went off and the house phone stopped working. The storm was coming from the south, it must have hit power plants on its way north and I realized that communication and electricity had both been affected, even before the surge had reached us.”

But because everything in Judite’s building ran on electricity, as soon as it was cut off, nothing else functioned. They had no water, elevators or heat. The emergency lights in the corridors would only last for the first night, after which flash lights were the only means to move out of the apartments and through the stairwells. But the impact on life in the neighborhood was more far-reaching, she explains.

“Since all the machines and systems that kept our building working were located in the basement, nothing was functioning and we were told that things might not be resolved for some time. The salt water penetrated everything and would quickly corrode the wires but nothing could be known until specialists could evaluate the situation. We had just recently installed five new ‘green’ water boilers to replace the original plumbing system, which was old and inefficient. The whole process, including applying for a grant, had taken about a year to complete and the new boilers were still in the “phasing in” stage when Sandy destroyed everything.

“As well as a number of work studios occupied by artists, all the machinery and services for the building were located downstairs as well. Management kept equipment and tools in the basement and all were lost. There were not even generators or pumps to begin clearing the water out and the most urgent equipment had to be rented out, meaning that it was days before the first small generators and pumps arrived. Because the entire downtown area of Manhattan was under water, all suppliers from towns not affected by the storm no longer had equipment available.

“It was very chaotic in the beginning and everybody was very stressed and exhausted, since those on higher floors had to climb many floors up and down numerous times a day,” she explains. “The building has almost 400 apartments, many with entire families or very elderly residents. Without elevators some people were bound to their apartments and depended on neighbors to bring them water, food and other essentials. The logistics of organizing groups to manage the various localized emergencies became a huge task.”

Judite’s story will be a familiar one to other residents in New York at the time. The whole of the downtown, from 34th Street down, was without any transportation or electricity and services were phased in and restored slowly. Supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants and other stores remained closed and deserted, especially below 14th street, 5 blocks above the Westbeth. The area became a ghost town, she remembers.

“Even during the day there was a darkness and a sense of abandonment. It was even more eerie than after 9/11 because people began to leave the area and the streets were completely empty. Everybody who was able to find an alternative place to stay, just left, but many in my building had nowhere else to go.

“In a sense, the worst of the storm begun to evolve after Sandy had passed and our building, neighborhood and the entire downtown area were paralyzed. We had no television and very little information available in our area, in the first couple of days. My apartment was extremely cold and the plants began to freeze. There were awful fumes coming through the ventilation into the corridors. Oil spilled into the basement as the impact of the water had demolished some internal walls and broke through the receiving oil pipes. The fumes begun to penetrate the apartment and, as all stored emergency items were running out, I had to move out of the apartment.”

After my talk with Judite, I discovered that the damage to Westbeth’s infrastructure totalled more than $5.5 million. And that was just one complex. The city had been devastated and to defend New York from future disaster, the Mayor outlined a $19.5bn (£12.5bn) plan to protect the city from storms.

I went back to read the report from Swiss Re, which is filled with similarly startling figures. Flooding around Bangkok, Thailand, in 2011 broke the record for the most expensive freshwater flood in history, causing $47 billion in economic losses. While natural catastrophes caused average economic losses of $60–100 billion annually, a single large-scale disaster in the heart of a big metropolitan city will surpass this figure significantly.

We all live in “developing countries” that have benefited from fossil fuels and are now paying the price for that dependency. Conditions and perspectives are different and we will all feel the impact of environmental mismanagement. But we have to face these problems together and find a way out.

Climate adaptation is an urgent priority for both national and city authorities. While many measures are available to make cities more resilient to the impact of climate change, mayors need together with public and private investors to act. We must take measures to protect against natural disasters and the underlying causes of natural disasters.

Kaj Embrén


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