Summer of extremes: Hurricane Ida and climate security

Summer of extremes: Hurricane Ida and climate security
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Hurricane Ida, a Category 4 storm, hit hard, leaving devastation across Louisiana and parts of Mississippi. Winds of 150 miles per hour and storm surge of over 16 feet left over 1 million people without power. Sixteen years after Hurricane Katrina the region was only a bit better prepared for Ida.

The realities of climate change and more extreme weather leaves swaths of the South more vulnerable to climate risks. U.S. energy infrastructure was also in the eye of the damage. In preparation for Ida, 95 percent of oil and gas production was shut down across the Gulf of Mexico. This included oil refineries, chemical plants and two liquefied natural gas export terminals.

A question people are asking is how much did climate change have to do with what happened: It is contributed but not the cause. Climate change is making hurricanes worse, and with it, the threat to critical infrastructure which in the United States is located in some of the most climate and storm vulnerable places in the country. 

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This week it is Ida, but we’ve spent a summer seeing striking examples of climate change causing havoc and increasing risk and costs not only to consumers of energy but also to states and the federal government; we pay for climate risk after the damage is done, but are not investing in the climate resiliency required for 21st-century extremes.

Even a cursory review of summer headlines brings the urgency of climate change home. Wildfires continue to rage up and down the West Coast, there is an ongoing megadrought, flooding in the Midwest and heat records across the country. Each of the last four decades has been warmer than any decade that preceded it since 1850, and July was the hottest month on record. August will also be record-setting; parts of Italy just below 120 degrees Fahrenheit last month — let that sit for a minute, and that's just one of many unprecedented temperatures recorded this summer.

What seemed like distant risks are happening now, hitting closer and closer to home. Climate risk is now the new normal and climate extremes are moving from outlier events to becoming more frequent and costly. Scientists agree climate change is happening faster than anticipated, and extreme events are becoming more extreme due to climate-related change. The most recently published IPCC report calls climate change "code red for humanity," the boldest message in the report's history, which was first published in 1990. Since the publication of the first report, the world has witnessed a rapid rise in carbon emissions. In 2021 we are already at and surpassing 410 ppm. 

The report published three months in advance of the upcoming UN Conference of Parties 26 (COP 26) is meant to galvanize countries further to step up to the commitments made in 2015 in Paris. The past year has seen a proliferation of net-zero targets from countries, states, cities and companies worldwide. New clean energy policies, finance queuing up for renewable energy projects and infrastructure, and pressure for urgent action to reduce emissions represent a new era of climate statecraft and corporate operations. We are still tied to energy security realities, which are not becoming less pronounced but, in fact, more so under the demands of climate change. How do we build climate resiliency and confront rising demands for different forms of energy? 

We are going to have to pay a higher price.  The United States and the rest of the world still lags on addressing the true costs of climate change.  After the tragic events of 9/11 the United States and a host of other countries invested in counter-terrorism actions and activities with a price tag in the trillions of dollars, the U.S. alone spent over $3 trillion, and that’s probably a conservative number. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the truly global nature of its spread illustrated pandemics cannot be contained within borders, nor can the economic shocks. Climate change is also a global threat.  The desire to control and weaken the spread drove countries to garner the will to pay for protection, the IMF estimates approximately $16 trillion dollars have been spent addressing COVID-19, and it’s not over yet. 

The central conundrum is reconciling what needs to be done to adequately address climate change and the realities of a world still deeply unwilling to pay to fight it. Despite the ongoing growth of the energy transition, demand for oil, gas and even coal is expected to increase, making it harder and harder to achieve the required reductions in emissions. Oil and gas demand, it's still there, with this year's daily demand for oil hitting close to 100 million barrels a day. By 2022, the IEA expects oil and gas consumption to surpass 2021 levels, and demand continues to increase in India and China, two of the hungry giants for hydrocarbons.  

The climate crisis needs a global response like no other, and it is imperative we take a more proactive approach, rather than responding and reacting after the devastation hits. It requires an all-in strategy, taking on climate change with the understanding that it poses not just heavy infrastructure and energy security risks, but more importantly it is already leading to increased mortality in parts of the world and there is an urgency to address human security and how to avert future disruption and destruction.  Because the risks of climate change are so damaging to health and society, it is worth and becoming ever more urgent to divert vast resources to fight it, the question is will we. 

Carolyn Kissane, Ph.D., serves as the academic director of the graduate programs in Global Affairs and Global Security, Conflict and Cyber at the Center for Global Affairs and is a clinical professor at NYU School of Professional Studies, Center for Global Affairs. She is also the director of the SPS Energy, Climate Justice and Sustainability Lab.