Comparisons to Katrina were inevitable as Hurricane Sandy tore across the Eastern Seaboard. Eyewitnesses documented the storm’s effects via Twitter and Instagram, as schools and stock markets were closed, communities were evacuated, nearly 8 million were left without electricity, some 16,000 flights were canceled, an estimated $20 billion in property was damaged or destroyed, and dozens of people died, including the captain of the HMS Bounty, who went down with his ship off Cape Hatteras, N.C.
Storms are called acts of God for a reason. There was nothing in the short term that anyone could have done to stop Sandy. To the contrary—discounting the well-organized government response and many individual acts of heroism—humanity actually made the situation worse. How? Through neglect of our infrastructure and our ongoing failure to reduce carbon emissions, which aggravate climate change and encourage extreme weather events.
“Anyone who thinks that there is not a dramatic change in weather patterns is denying reality,” New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said at a press conference on the day after the storm. “We have a new reality, and old infrastructures and old systems.”
The U.S. military and the global insurance industry are in accord with Gov. Cuomo (as is the scientific establishment, not surprisingly). The U.S. Department of Defense and all four branches of service cite climate change as a threat to national security; insurers, for their part, consider it a threat to the bottom line.
Yet shortsighted commercial, political, and religious interests have made it their mission to discredit climatologists and other scientists, misinform the American people about the clear and present danger of climate change, and block national and international efforts to address the problem. And in so doing, they’ve gone far beyond the limits of healthy skepticism or reasonable doubt. The willful ignorance and self-interest of climate change denial threatens our republic just as profoundly as terrorism does.
The American Society of Civil Engineers’ 2009 Infrastructure Report Card gave the United States a grade of D, and estimated that it would cost $2.2 trillion over five years to set matters straight. Meanwhile, the U.S. spent an estimated $7.8 trillion on defense and homeland security in the decade following 9/11, including on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s not a matter of resources, it’s a matter of priorities. Imagine the United States engaged not in the War on Terror or the War on Drugs, but in a War on Climate Change, with architects proudly serving on the front line. In this alternate America, the adoption of sustainable technologies is a policy imperative, not a political football; support pours into R&D that can revolutionize the building sciences; and all new construction and major renovation would target the highest environmental standards and energy performance.
Authorities might even embrace the kind of brilliantly counterintuitive design thinking that architects, landscape architects, and urban planners exhibited in the 2010 Museum of Modern Art show Rising Currents: Projects for New York’s Waterfront. One team, led by Stephen Cassell, AIA, and Adam Yarinsky, FAIA, of Architecture Research Office and Susannah Drake, AIA, of dlandstudio, proposed replacing Lower Manhattan’s concrete periphery with wetlands and permeable concrete streets designed to absorb both rapid storm surge and slow sea-level rise. This biomimetic buffer would have come in handy when Sandy came calling.
Hopefully some good will come of this national catastrophe. Hurricane Sandy might just serve as a wake-up call to those who live in a state of denial about the consequences of climate change and the urgent necessity for investment in infrastructure. A policy swing toward scientific reality and environmental responsibility would have profoundly positive effects on our ecosystem and our economy. How many disasters will it take to make the case?