P!Npoints: Another Reason Climate Change should Top Lawmakers’ To-do Lists
Victor B. Flatt, and Jeffrey Stys explain how global warming impacts storm-zones
and the laws that govern them

Climate change will do more than raise the average temperature of the Earth. The energy added into the climate system will affect weather patterns in many parts of the world. While it is difficult for most climate scientists to specify whether any weather pattern is itself “caused” by climate change, increased violent weather is consistent with climate models. Moreover, there are changes which we know are related to climate alteration that intensify the harm extreme weather systems cause. Thermal expansion is one of the changes that could trigger this result. As the global temperature rises, the world’s oceans will absorb the added heat and expand. This, in turn, causes sea levels to rise.

In the last four years, the western Gulf of Mexico has experienced 4 major hurricanes: Katrina, Rita, Gustav, and Ike. Resulting damages totaled tens of billions of dollars as well as major loss of life. We know storm zones in Texas, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana or North and South Carolina will face hurricanes again, and that the sea level rise accompanying climate change will make future storms’ impact on lives, health and property, more pronounced.

While the world is frantically working on policies to lower and mitigate further climate change, it is too late to stop the climate from changing at all. Even if no more greenhouse gases were added to the atmosphere, average worldwide temperature, and thus sea level, will continue to rise for at least forty more years. This means that the world must prepare to deal with increased hurricanes, and other climate change weather damage.

Unfortunately, the policy response to this truth has been lagging. The concept of climate change adaptation has made it onto the national and international climate change agendas, but only in the broadest of terms, namely transferring money to areas damaged by climate change. Indeed, how areas harmed by climate change should be compensated, will be one of the major issues debated at the Copenhagen climate conference this month. But much more is required.

1 Victor B. Flatt is the Tom & Elizabeth Taft Distinguished Professor in Environmental Law and the Director of the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation, and Resources (CLEAR – www.law.unc.edu/centers/CLEAR) at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Law. Jeffrey Stys is a principal in Strategic Decision Associates, which has worked with CLEAR, the United Way, the City of Houston, the City of Galveston, and CNA on long term disaster recovery projects. (http://sdaconsultants.com/SDA.html)

At the Center for Law, Environment, Adaptation and Resources (CLEAR) at the University of North Carolina Law School, one of our main goals is to examine how laws should be altered to more efficiently deal with our future world, a world with a changed climate. At the top of this list is how to deal with weaknesses in our current legal and regulatory systems where extreme weather events, such as hurricanes, are concerned.

From the work of Jeffrey Stys, of Strategic Decision Associates, in managing long term recovery from Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Ike, we have determined what legal changes are needed to make our society more resilient to increased and more severe hurricanes and other violent weather. The most important of these changes is planning for long term disaster recovery before a disaster occurs. We currently have laws (weak though some are) that warn and evacuate individuals before and amidst disasters, and those that encourage mitigating harm during disasters. However, we have no comprehensive, long term recovery plans for impacted zones after natural disasters occur.

Stys has found that non-profits play a key role in disaster response and could greatly benefit from enhanced pre and post planning activities, in conjunction with local emergency management organizations. Recovery systems have to be created and nurtured during times of great upheaval and general confusion. Long term recovery should be systematic in design, with enhanced outcomes resulting from real collaboration from all stakeholders. These collaborations are not easy to create or sustain after a disaster has occurred, but they are also difficult to engage before disasters without focus and funding.

Non-profits often take leadership roles in long term recovery by assisting families in repairing homes and rebuilding lives. Human needs greatly increase after disasters and, and this is when non profits focus on meeting existing and new, storm-related needs. The focus on meeting immediate human needs means planning often falls by the wayside. In all recovery work, there are additional, supportive components of research, communications, financial management and advocacy. Using a common framework to identify necessary capabilities and key organizational responsibilities could greatly support community resiliency post disaster.

These experiences call for a way to assist local communities in planning for what happens after a disaster. The planning must be at a local level and involve multiple stakeholders. In particular, the important role and experience of non-profits must be merged with government and private sector groups. One (federal) size will not fit all, but neither will most cities and towns have access to the resources necessary to undertake the planning that answers:

  • How and whether a locality should rebuild
  • Who needs help
  • What legal waivers must be granted to start the recovery
  • How services will be provided in the interim
  • How money gets transferred in an orderly and yet speedy way, etc.

CLEAR believes that federal laws could be created to direct funding to those states and localities engaged in best practices that assist with long term recovery. These best practices entail engaging different communities, historic responders, human service providers, and government agencies in community-wide planning to create a vision of what the locality should look like after a disaster. Such planning would also address:

  • Where a community should focus resources
  • Where funding will come from in an altered tax base
  • Who will need immediate assistance
  • Who will need long term assistance
  • How services will be provided
  • What construction and land-use policies may be put in place, and
  • A general path for the recovery process

It could also include requirements to minimize harm going forward, and would facilitate recoveries that are environmentally friendly, efficient, and don’t have a disproportionate impact on any one community or economic strata.


P!N-Q&A: Will Global Warming Turn up the Heat on Hurricanes?
Will Halicks answers burning questions about the relationship between climate change and severe storms

With winter at the door and leftovers still cluttering the fridge, it might seem like an odd time to be thinking about global warming. But the end of hurricane season doesn’t mean bad weather is taking a vacation.

In fact, a recent study suggests that hurricane season in the north Atlantic might be getting longer. The current season runs from May to November. But as climate change brings longer periods of warm weather, the number – and ferocity – of storms could be growing.

Opinions vary among experts, and the heated debate over the link between climate change and storm severity shows little signs of cooling off. Below, PLAN!T NOW answers your questions about what global warming might mean for hurricanes.

Q: Should we be worried about more severe storms?


Dr. Mojib Latif, a professor of ocean dynamics at the University of Kiel in Germany, says it’s too soon to tell. Hurricane activity fluctuates greatly over time – the 1950s saw a spike in the number and strength of hurricanes that tapered off as quickly as it had come. Latif says it would be inaccurate to point to recent peaks in hurricane activity, even the ferocious 2005 season that included Katrina, as signs that something is changing.
“I think it is premature at this point to say that there is a discernible influence of global warming happening on hurricane statistics,” he says.

The Union of Concerned Scientists in Massachusetts reports differently. In a study published several months ago, the organization said the threat from climate change is real and immediate.

“With all other factors being equal, experts expect higher ocean temperatures to strengthen hurricanes, which can strike almost anywhere in the Southeast and Gulf Coast region, taking lives and causing enormous damage,” the study says.

Q: What kind of damage?

Flooding, for a start. Under the study’s high-emissions scenario, half of Florida’s existing beaches and almost all of its mangrove swamps into the zone most vulnerable to year-round flooding by 2060. Hurricane-related deaths in Florida each year could rise to 37, up from an average of eight annually.

The study says the annual costs of hurricanes under the high-emissions scenario could total more than $111 billion – that’s if our production of greenhouse gases continues to accelerate.

Q: What about a longer hurricane season?

Jeff Tapp, an associate professor at the University of Purdue, says the number of days in a year that favor severe storms could as much as double in places like New York in Atlanta.

“What we found is that increases in human-induced greenhouse gases will lead to more frequent severe storms in the United States,” he says. “This obviously impacts people in terms of hazards to their life and property.”

Q: Has climate change affected the landscape of storm zones in the Atlantic?

Latif, of the University of Kiel, says he has noted one major change: a storm in the southern Atlantic ocean, the only tropical ocean in the world that doesn’t experience severe storms.

“This is due to the upwelling of cold waters from deeper ocean levels,” Latif says. “This keeps the south Atlantic cold, and therefore we don’t experience hurricanes in this area.”

However, in 2006, a storm did appear in that region. And early this year, a subtropical cyclone hit the area as well. Although weaker than the 2006 storm, this year’s cyclone caused 14 deaths in South America and forced thousands of people to evacuate. A state of emergency was declared in four cities.

That was in January, well outside the current hurricane season.

“This may be a region which will favor hurricanes, in contrast to the last decades or centuries,” Latif says.

The studies and interviews referenced in this article are all available online:

Climate Change in the United States: The Prohibitive Costs of Inaction
© August 2009, The Union of Concerned Scientist

Warmer temperatures could increase storm severity, expert says
© August 2009, Deutsche Welle

Global Warming Increasing Storm Severity
© redOrbit


P!Noverview: Rising Seas and Raging Storms
Anna Schwab of the Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters gives an overview of the climate change-severe storm link and shares information about an upcoming study

According to the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), there is direct and unequivocal evidence that global warming and climate change are occurring, that this warming effect is causing seawater to expand and glaciers and polar caps to melt, and that these effects are contributing directly to sea level rise.

While all areas of the earth are progressively affected by global warming, coastal zones are particularly vulnerable to climate variability. These communities will experience many of the consequences of the long-term climate change. One of the most devastating impacts, however, is in the short-term, namely- increased vulnerability to coastal storms.

Evidence indicates that tropical storms are increasing in intensity, subjecting coastal areas to more frequent, damaging hurricanes and other coastal hazards. As the intensity of tropical storms increases, the potential for higher wind speeds and elevated flood levels also increases. Among the most destructive perils is storm surge. As sea levels rise, storm surges will generate from an elevated base of water, causing even stronger wave action when storms make landfall. Increased rates of coastal erosion (also caused by sea level rise) will exacerbate vulnerability to storms, as natural barriers formed by beaches and dunes are weakened and removed.

The North Carolina Sea Level Rise Risk Management Study

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) identified North Carolina as one of three states with significant vulnerability to sea level rise. In response, a 2009 federal act provided funding to the state to perform a risk assessment and mitigation demonstration of potential impacts of sea level rise in North Carolina, associated with long-term climate change. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will use the study results to assess the long-term financial implications of climate change on natural disasters. FEMA will share information from the study with other states to inform their climate change mitigation efforts.

The risk management study is a collaboration of state and federal agencies, universities, research institutes, stakeholder associations, and the private sector with a vested interest in the potential impacts of sea level rise and associated increased flooding in the state of North Carolina. The Center for the Study of Natural Hazards and Disasters at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill is playing a major role in the development of study methodology, conducting research, and formulating recommendations for action.

In addition to identifying the hazards and risks associated with sea level rise, the study includes the creation of mitigation measures, beginning with an assessment of institutional capabilities to confront climate change and sea level rise.

Once the risk assessment and capability findings are gathered, they will be used to help shape the identification of hazard mitigation and adaptation strategies. In general, mitigation/adaptation strategies will be framed across the following dimensions:

  1. Prevention: planning, zoning and subdivision regulations, open space preservation, floodplain regulations, storm-water management, drainage system maintenance, capital improvements programming, shoreline setbacks;
  2. Property Protection: relocation, acquisition, elevation, critical facilities protection, insurance, retrofitting of hazard-prone structures;
  3. Natural Resource Protection: floodplain protection, beach and dune preservation, riparian buffers, conservation easements, erosion and sediment control, wetland preservation, slope stabilization;
  4. Structural Projects: reservoirs, seawalls, levees, channel modifications, beach nourishment;
  5. Public Information: outreach projects, hazard map information, real estate hazard disclosure, warning systems, library materials, hazard expos.

The study will conclude with a final report describing the identified hazards and risks, in addition to mapping products. A study template, data requirements, and guidance will be developed to assist future studies in other locations. A GIS analytical toolset may also be developed. Preferred mitigation and adaptation options will be identified and discussed with guidance on how they would apply to other environments.

**Excerpted from an article by Anna K. Schwab that appeared in Carolina Planning, Vol. 32, no. 2 (Summer 2007). Carolina Planning is a student-run publication of the Department of City and Regional Planning, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

"Surviving Disaster deconstructs how the brain responds to life-or-death events—so that we can all learn to do better. The documentary includes many characters from my book, in addition to other survivors of all kinds of trauma, from tsunami to car crashes. One young survivor describes in unflinching detail exactly what it felt like to get out of a house fire as a little girl in Texas. It is the kind of story you will never forget once you see it, and it is told with a purpose—to help the rest of us become smarter and stronger in our own homes and communities." - Amanda Ripley, author of THE UNTHINKABLE, Who Survives When Disaster Strikes.

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