The second moment of climate change: Fire, flood, and drought

A Thought Leader Series Piece

John Sabo TLS

By John Sabo

Note: John Sabo is the Global Institute of Sustainability's director of research development, where he leads a grant proposal team that since 2008, has brought in over $44 million in expenditures. Sabo also collaborates with scientists across the U.S. investigating the impacts of water shortages on the sustainability of human and natural systems.

The year 2013 will be remembered in the U.S. as a year of extremes: The effects of Hurricane Sandy continue to cripple New York City. Droughts across the Corn Belt are causing massive crop failure. Devastating fires destroyed hundreds of homes in Colorado for a second year in a row. Flash floods have claimed lives and businesses from coast to coast, including communities experiencing recent drought and fire. This year was exceptional. Or was it?

When most people think of climate change, they think of global warming—the trend of rising air temperatures that causes a shift in expected or long-term average climate conditions. There are valid exceptions to the trend of course. Many people observe their cities occasionally cooling, and therefore think global warming is not happening. Local observations that differ from the global average from time to time are an example of a second aspect of climate change that is equally, if not more important, than the global trend: Climate change exacerbates regional differences in climate as well as the swing between years of famine and years of plenty.

In statistical terminology, the climate change trend and increasing trend departures are explained as changes in the "moments" of our long-term climate record. Translation: Think of the bell curve from a large college class. The peak of the bell curve is the most common test score (e.g., a "C"). This peak is the first "moment" (also called the average), and climate scientists predict this moment will move to the right during warmer temperatures.

Now back to test scores. The width of the bell curve represents the variation in all test scores. A wider bell curve means less Cs and more As and Fs among college classmates, or in the case of climate, extremely high temperatures and extremely low temperatures. The width of the bell curve is the second "moment" (also called the variance), and is also predicted to increase during climate change.

Both predictions have been observed in our current climate record; the first moment (peak of bell curve) and second moment (width of bell curve) have both increased. The increase in the second moment is best exemplified by year 2013: our exceptional year of extremes.

Recent impact of climate change

A few examples illustrate this point:

This year, the state of New York is recovering from the largest Atlantic hurricane on record causing an estimated $65 billion in damage. The ensuing summer, a July heat wave pushed temperatures in downtown Manhattan to record levels. During the same summer, the fourth 100-year flood in ten years destroyed houses and claimed lives in the Mohawk and Hudson valleys.

In Phoenix, June temperatures skimmed 120 degrees Fahrenheit, among the hottest in 100 years. Mile-high dust storms uprooted trees and damaged houses for the third consecutive year, and to add insult to injury, flash floods followed the dust storms. In this same year, forest fires claimed the lives of 19 fire fighters in the small town of Yarnell, 60 miles outside of Phoenix.

Finally, in Colorado Springs, after over a decade of drought statewide, the Waldo Canyon (2012) and the Black Forest (2013) fires burned a combined 51 square-miles, destroyed 857 houses, and were the second and first most destructive fires on record in the state.  More recently, the town of Manitou experienced mud slides and flash floods that moved cars and homes after heavy rains fell on the Waldo Canyon burn site.

Cutting the cost of climate change

As we continue to experience climate change, adaptation to new climates will require us to embrace the second moment of extremes. Increased hurricane strength and higher storm surges characterize the second moment of climate change, from Lady Liberty to the Gulf Stream waters. The drought-fire-flood syndrome is the new norm from "amber waves of grain through purple mountain majesty," all the way to the redwood forest. How do we mitigate risk in a world where the second moment of climate change is increasing?

Embracing the second moment has great consequences for our economy and public policy. The second moment of climate change is and will continue to stress federal insurance programs for fire, floods, and crop failure, likely shifting the burden of reinsurance from the public to the private sector. This means it will be more expensive to rebuild in riskier fire- and flood-prone areas. The insurance premiums may rival crop revenue or the property value for a house in the woods; or these assets may simply not be insurable.

Coastal cities are no longer rebuilding over and over again, but incentivizing relocating out of the path of hurricanes. In New York, Governor Cuomo offered to pay citizens not to rebuild parts of Staten Island neighborhoods most devastated by Hurricane Sandy. A one-time adjustment with a no-rebuild stipulation prevents future claims and costs.

In other parts of the U.S. where the drought-fire-flood syndrome prevails, we should adopt similar forward-thinking. We should be giving bigger settlements to farmers who choose not to replant a series of failed crops and to homeowners who choose to move to the proverbial higher ground. A higher one-time payment with a no-rebuild or no-replant clause could incentivize and expedite the transition from high- to low-risk housing and farming.

Doing this, we can increase our resilience to the second moment of climate change.

About the author: John Sabo has a doctorate in ecology from the University of California, Berkeley and a master’s in fisheries from the University of Washington. Especially interested in water issues, Sabo researches the links between the extreme events in the water cycle and species diversity in rivers and deserts. Currently, he is studying connections between droughts, floods, and food security in the developing world.