Watching the video feeds from the New York and New Jersey areas in the wake of Sandy reminded me of the images seven years ago from New Orleans being decimated by Katrina.
Other than perhaps providing a warning not to call a particular geographic area “New” anything, what do these storms tell us?
Like Katrina did, Sandy reminds us most poignantly how little most Americans think about the reliability and importance of energy – until it’s not there. And then, they think about it – a lot.
The sight of people lining up for gasoline, and fighting about who gets to the pump first, is evidence of the dependence of our society on commodities over which individuals ultimately have minimal control.
The sight of people screaming at civic leaders about the slow pace of power restoration says volumes about the resentment about our subservience to technology – and the necessary prerequisites that enable technology to actually work.
The sight of people desperately tapping into scattered energized cell phone charging sites, so that they can maintain connectivity to others that they depend on or that depend on them, confirms the observation that our species is no longer able to be truly self-sufficient, much as some may like to think otherwise.
Sandy thus reminds us that our vehicles and our buildings and our communications need constant access to energy, whether electricity, gasoline, diesel or natural gas. Without energy, these artifacts of modernity quickly become irrelevant. Without energy, 21st Century humans can barely survive at all.
In turn, the supply line of energy provision is an immense enterprise that can nevertheless be easily disrupted. The short-term consequences can be acutely tragic, with damaging economic effects that can linger for a long, long time.
One consequence of Sandy is that, like Katrina, it has elevated the topic of climate change in the national discourse.
Many advocates had been complaining about “climate silence” during the 2012 Presidential campaign, but New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg threw the issue into the spotlight in the wake of Sandy by endorsing Obama over Romney. The endorsement came in large part because Bloomberg believed that Sandy was amplified by climate change, and that candidate Obama was more committed to taking action to combat climate change, thereby reducing the risks to low-lying places such as New York in the future.
The hand-wringing conversations occurring now are similar to those immediately post-Katrina, and I expect that the U.S. will similarly act on climate change now as it has consistently since then – with no action.
Alas, that’s because the political climate in Washington is probably in worse shape than the atmospheric climate covering the planet.
Although we can’t say for sure that Sandy (or Katrina, or any of the other mega-storms of recent years) were caused or even worsened by anthropogenic climate change, most experts agree that the frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events is likely to increase as the energetic content of the atmosphere and oceans has risen with decades of carbon dioxide emissions – from consuming the energy upon which we so utterly rely.
Moreover, experts also agree that the emissions of the past decades have still yet to exert their full impact on the climate, so some additional worsening is likely baked in, even if the world (especially the U.S.) finally decides to do something to control emissions on a going-forward basis.
So: Expect more Sandies and Katrinas. Expect more heat waves. Expect more droughts.
In fact, expect more blizzards too. The average temperature of the planet may be increasing, but the probability distribution of temperatures is widening, which means cold events will still happen on occasion. And, when they do, they may well be accompanied by more moisture – hence, blizzards.
All of this illuminates a central thrust of how the cleantech sector can best help mankind in the decades to come, in the face of what is likely to be increasing climate chaos: adaptation.
Adaptation has many forms. For instance, adaptation should force a re-think about the wisdom of civil construction right along ocean shorelines. Adaption might involve people relocating to live within reasonable walking distance of their workplace, not reliant on vehicles or public transportation.
Adaptation also suggests that, given an increasing exposure to storms like Sandy (and other threats such as terror attacks), the energy system should be designed and built with greater redundancy and dispersion of assets, to be more robust in the face of overwhelming events – of which Sandy is just the latest.
Sandy should provide an impetus for increased installation of uninterruptible power systems and backup/standby generators – especially at gasoline stations, many of which in the Northeast were put out of commission due to lack of electricity – as well as an awareness NOT to situate these devices in places where they will be flooded and hence unusable exactly when they’re most needed.
More broadly, becoming more resilient in a more turbulent world implies a move away from a centralized energy topology based on large-scale refineries and powerplants, and the huge corporations that own and operate them.
Making that transition would not only be expensive, as it implies a massive change-out in the nation’s energy infrastructure, but it would be highly uncomfortable.
Although they like to think that the nation has been built largely from the bottom-up via individual initiative, Americans are stuck in an outdated “top-down” mentality when it comes to the energy sector.
Americans are complacent about their reliance on the power grid and on petroleum-fueled vehicles. They want continuous access to any form of energy at virtually no cost. While they prefer minimal environmental impact and detest the strategic reliance on the Middle East for oil, they heartily trade off higher emissions or ongoing geopolitical subjugation for a just few cents cheaper.
Americans may not much like Big Oil, or utility monopolies, or the dirtiness of the coal sector, but they don’t want to sully themselves by doing much to disrupt them from their current dominance. They certainly have limited appetite for taking energy matters into their own hands by supporting novel smaller-scale distributed energy approaches being pursued by cleantech innovators that may entail a little more cost (at least currently).
In many ways, the American willingness to go along with the energy status quo mirrors the American dependence on large institutions – governments and corporations alike – that are nevertheless widely-hated and even antithetical to the idealized notion of American self-reliance.
Sandy thus has highlighted the deeply-seated fear and loathing of the United States, circa 2012, in a way that would do Hunter S. Thompson proud. The physical damage wrought by Sandy upon New York and New Jersey is a metaphor for the salt that Sandy has thrown in the open wounds of the collective American psyche.
There is a joke that asks “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a lightbulb?” The answer is “Just one, but the light bulb really has to want to change.”
Whether Americans in the wake of Sandy will want to undertake the effort to change, in order to not only heal themselves but inoculate themselves against challenges posed by future storms like Sandy, is a major question. The evidence, post-Katrina, indicates a high willingness to moan and groan, but a limited appetite for making the necessary commitments and sacrifices to effect meaningful long-term improvement.
Meanwhile, the cleantech community continues to press forward, under the forecast that opportunities for positive impact will only increase in the years to come.