Feb 19, 2021 - Energy & Environment

Living with climate catastrophe

Illustration of the U.S. map under a large rain umbrella

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

From stronger storms to Arctic warming to California fires, rising atmospheric carbon levels mean there's no escaping the fallout from global warming. Now, we're plunged into a new world of managing the consequences.

Why it matters: Some regions will require power grids more prepared for extreme heat and cold. But the needs go far beyond power systems to building codes, workplace regulations and design and placement of infrastructure.

Rutgers University climate scientist Robert Kopp tells Axios that the pandemic and the Texas disaster have shown us that the competence of public institutions is a predictor of the "severity" of transcendent disasters.

  • He's among the many authors of a 2018 federal report that laid out the climate-related health and economic risks facing different parts of the country. 
  • "[R]ising temperatures, sea level rise, and changes in extreme events are expected to increasingly disrupt and damage critical infrastructure and property," along with labor productivity, the report says.

Scientists are still analyzing the nexus between polar vortex events and climate change. But Princeton energy expert Jesse Jenkins wrote in a New York Times op-ed: "[W]e do know that climate change increases the frequency of extreme heat waves, droughts, wildfires, rain and coastal flooding."

  • "Those extreme events test our systems to the breaking point, as they have in Texas this week," he writes.

Michael Wehner, an extreme weather expert with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, said in an email exchange with Axios that vast swaths of the country will need to adapt:

  • "For hurricanes, this may mean managed retreat in some low-lying areas and building code changes in other areas," Wehner said.
  • Low-income people and people who work outdoors are most at risk, requiring stiffer workplace safety guidelines — and enforcement.

What's next: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced Thursday he'll ask the legislature to require Texas' power system to be winterized — a basic step that it didn't take before this week's disaster.

The bottom line: As important as adaptation strategies are, climate experts say they're not a replacement for the need to cut emissions.

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