6 November 2012 — If climate scientists are right, Hurricane Sandy is the harbinger of a future of more extreme weather events. As appalling as the damage was, Hurricane Sandy is part of a trend of severe weather extremes creating massive damage to infrastructure around the world. How prepared are we for the next cataclysmic shocks to our infrastructure? And are we ready to pay more to protect our systems?

These are not idle questions. This year alone, we have seen floods in Pakistan, Bangladesh and the Philippines, typhoons in China destroying at least 60,000 homes and the drought in the US devastating not only the farming sector but pounding infrastructure with planes getting stuck on asphalt melting in the extreme heat, highway sections expanding beyond their design limits creating hazardous speed bumps and trains getting derailed when tracks got stretched so far that they had kinks. And finally, of course, there were the devastating floods in Victoria and New South Wales at the beginning of this year.

We can expect more of the same next year and the year after that. It will continue. All this is part of a changing climate that’s giving us more freaky weather and increasing damage.

That said, it’s true that no single storm or drought can be attributed purely to climate change. Rupert Murdoch’s flagship, The Australian, true to form, says there is no link between Sandy and climate change. The Live Science says scientists claim it’s too early to make any judgments although others are more willing to say that global warming contributed to, but did not cause, the massive Category 1 storm and scientists say that hurricanes are caused by many diffuse factors, from the amount of precipitation to ocean temperatures.

Still, they say rising carbon emissions could make extreme weather events more likely. And many believe climate change created Sandy. As Scientific American tells us, Hurricane Sandy got large because it wandered north along the US coast, where ocean water is still warm this time of year, pumping energy into the swirling system.

But it got even larger when a cold jet stream made a sharp dip southward from Canada down into the eastern US.

And what caused that jet stream? Scientists say it was created by a climate phenomenon called the North Atlantic Oscillation, the state of atmospheric pressure in that region.

This state can be positive or negative, and it had changed from positive to negative two weeks before Sandy arrived. And scientists have done research showing that as more polar cap sea ice melts because of global warming, the NAO is more likely to be negative during the autumn and winter. A negative NAO creates a Sandy.

Sandy was very different from Hurricane Katrina which was more about race and class. The New Orleans’ poverty rate was nearly double the US national rate, and an astonishing 40 per cent of the city’s children were living in poverty. More than two-thirds of the city’s residents are African-American. It is a very different picture from New York and north eastern seaboard which has been the engine room of the US economy.

As Bill McKibben writes in the New York Review of Books, Sandy was relatively straightforward and very different. “It’s hit rich, poor, and middle class Americans with nearly equal power, though of course the affluent always have it easier in the aftermath of tragedy. Government officials prepared forthrightly for its arrival, and have refrained from paralysis and bickering in its wake. Which allows us to concentrate on the only really useful message it might deliver: that we live in a changed world, where we need both to adapt to the changes, and to prevent further changes so great that adaptation will be impossible”

Katrina cost the US economy $10 billion in today’s dollars and some insurance companies are estimating Sandy could cost as much as $50 billion. And the costs are still rising.

What made Sandy distinctive too was that scientists had for years been warning something like this could happen. Scientists were telling city and state officials that New York faced certain peril from rising sea levels, more frequent flooding and extreme weather patterns.

As Ben Strauss, director of the sea level rise program at the research group Climate Central in Princeton told  The New York Times, three of the biggest floods in lower Manhattan since 1900 have occurred over the last three years. Or as Eric Pooley, senior vice president of the Environmental Defence Fund told Bloomberg, now we have weather on steroids.

Scientific American says this has terrifying implications for infrastructure worldwide, particularly for cities built around ports. Most modern western cities were built around ports. These cities got their strength and power from being ports and taking in trade. The changing climate has left them exposed.

Is this all a quote from now on?

“Rotterdam, one of the great shipping capitals of the world, is in the Dutch lowlands, one of the most vulnerable regions to flooding. The Dutch have currently designed their flood protection on the assumption that sea level will rise 0.8 metres over the next century—which is well above the mainstream predictions. Should sea rise exceed those estimates, most likely the rises would be ignored for several years, or perhaps a decade, before the public could be persuaded to do something about the problem, and the government acted to bolster its defences against water. In the meantime, as shippers began to have problems managing the flow of goods or protecting ships from the weather, Rotterdam would lose business to other cities.

“Nearby Amsterdam, already the ‘Venice of the North’, would grow even more watery. Buildings that were built alongside canals and waterways would be prone to flooding. The city would get a reputation for being mouldy and wet and unpleasant, to the detriment of tourism. In the government, indecision would set in, and steps taken to support evacuees would be too little, too late. The result would be growing economic disruption, poverty, and social chaos.

“The city of London doesn’t fare much better, under the researchers’ scenario. London years ago built the Thames Barrier, a series of gates that can be raised at high tide to prevent a storm surge from raising the level of the Thames upstream and to protect the floodplain upon which much of London stands. Engineers built the barrier after years of flood damage.

“Since the barrier was inaugurated in 1984, engineers have been upgrading it to handle a one-meter sea-level rise in coming years, in line with conventional climate-change projections. But an Antarctic event would make those plans wholly inadequate, and this would become apparent over a few decades. It might start with a big storm that breaches the Thames Barrier.

“That would the hasten UK’s plans to upgrade it, but sooner or later another storm would breach the upgrade. London would experience its Hurricane Katrina. Waters would rise and inundate the Houses of Parliament and Victoria, and they’d lap up against the walls of Buckingham Palace. The damage would be counted in the tens of billions of pounds. Sea level rise would outrace the ability of engineers to protect the London floodplain. Eventually, the UK would have to abandon large swaths of central London and relocate to higher ground. Or the city would have to rebuild itself as a twenty-first-century Venice, with canals and gondoliers with Cockney accents.”

All this has come at a tremendous cost for infrastructure. As Bloomberg points out, the number of natural disasters since 1996 costing $1 billion or more doubled compared with the previous 15-year period.

Australia, the driest continent on earth, is particularly vulnerable. Global reinsurer Munich Re says that financial losses from events related to weather in Australia have risen four-fold over the past 30 years and are likely to increase as climate change gets worse. During 1980-2011, there were 820 “loss events” from weather. These events claimed 1100 lives and cost $US20 billion in insured losses.

The costs from these extreme weather events can’t be underestimated. It’s estimated that just the Queensland Floods from two years ago, according to the Queensland government, will cost local government infrastructure $2 billion, with the total damage to public infrastructure across the state put at between $5 billion and $6 billion. The Australian Institute of Criminology estimates that bushfires cost us $77 million a year.

A report put out by the Climate Institute reveals that Australia’s electricity, transport, property and financial infrastructure is mostly underprepared for these sorts of events.

According to the report, Australia’s buildings are worth approximately $5.7 trillion and among these, an estimated $159 billion worth of buildings are vulnerable to sea level rise and storm surge.

This includes more than 8000 commercial, 6000 industrial and 274,000 residential buildings around the country. Buildings, particularly in southern Australia, also face higher bushfire risk.

Add to that the risk of degradation of foundations and materials, as higher temperatures and reduced rainfall cause soil to dry and move. We can expect more frequent and intense heatwaves to push up electricity prices, creating grid strain and blackouts, as well as put pressure on air conditioning systems.

And the kicker – we’re not ready. Regulations set down by state and local planning policies and the Building Code of Australia are ill-suited to the changes in risk profile, as they tend to rely on assessments of historic climate risks, not that kind of extreme weather patterns we’re seeing now.

The Climate Institute says: “Research for superannuation funds found climate change is already costing an estimated $US1.6 trillion globally per year, rising to over $US4 trillion by 2030. Infrastructure damage is the largest single cost incurred. Australia represents 2 per cent of the global re-insurance markets, but in the last five years it has incurred 6 per cent of the losses.”

Worse still, governments have done nothing about it. In fact, they have dumbed down their response to the problem, says the Institute.  “State governments in Victoria, NSW and most recently Queensland have wound back coastal planning controls, moves which should be urgently reconsidered.”

This clearly has to be an issue for the Council of Australian Governments. It’s a priority issue and COAG has to act quickly.

Apart from getting the building industry ready for extreme weather events, so that it will consider key climate impacts in the acquisition of new sites or assets, and in the design or upgrade of new and existing buildings, and fixing up regulations so that they are less fragmented, there is also question of back up and that’s something the environmentalists don’t have completely right.

They want sustainable cities with great public transport. That’s fine, everyone would like that. But as the Atlantic Magazine revealed, New York has one of the best subway systems in the world and 55 per cent of New York households don’t even own a car (you’d be mad to drive in New York). But the subways were completely flooded out and people were stranded. So what you need is a system with backup, and that will cost governments billions of dollars.

That has to mean higher or more taxes. The question is whether the public is prepared to cop that. Then again, with a future punctuated by more severe weather extremes and increasing damage driven by past and future emissions of heat-trapping gases, we mightn’t have a choice.

Leon Gettler is a freelance business journalist, author and podcaster. He works for a range of publications and produces two podcasts for RMIT every week: Talking Business and Talking Technology. He has an acute interest in the environment, its impact on business and the response of businesses and governments.