Granite Geek: How to Cope with Climate Change

Sep 20, 2016

If you’re looking to build a home or if you’re a civil engineer trying to plan for some big new project, you’re going to want to know what the future will be like for that plot of land you’d like to build on. Climate change makes that difficult. It’s hard to predict, for example, what rainfall will be, or whether ocean levels will rise. How, then, do we proceed with investments in our personal or collective futures? Granite Geek David Brooks has been thinking about this question and writing about it in his column for The Concord Monitor. He spoke with NHPR’s All Things Considered host Peter Biello in advance of Science Café scheduled for Tuesday, September 20th at 6 p.m. at the Draft Sports Bar in Concord.

When climate change activists talk about the changing planet, they talk with a great deal of certainty about rising temperatures, rising seas, changing weather patterns. But now you’re writing about uncertainty. What are we uncertain about?

As you say, the degree and the specificity over relatively short periods of time and relatively small areas is still uncertain. Is it going to be three degrees warmer in 10 years here in Concord, or five degrees warmer, or one degree warmer? It’s uncertain.

But what is certain—and it’s not just activists, it’s anyone paying attention—is that we’re already in and we’re going to get in more of a sort of warmer, wetter, wilder world in terms of the things we’ve sort of counted on for mother nature. A number of them are going to get more so. So if you’re planning, you better be planning for more.

From let’s say a city planner’s perspective, this makes it incredibly difficult to plan. I’ll mention, as an example, a wastewater treatment plant, since Portsmouth is upgrading its own right now, but that’s just one example of something that might be held up because of uncertainty surrounding climate change.

The one example I like to use is culverts. That’s the world’s most boring topic. Yet it’s vital because if your culvert washes out, suddenly you can’t get into town.

The road is gone.

How big should a culvert be? We have sizes that have been developed. We have stream flow measurements and then therefore the culvert should be able to handle so many gallons per second. And then all of a sudden those are no longer relevant. Tropical Storm Irene showed us that.

So when you put in a culvert, should you be spending five times as much for a five-times bigger culvert? Town budgets might not be able to handle that. But what’s the point in building a culvert that’s going to be washed out three times in the next decade? That’s the kind of debate that we’re going to be talking about. How do we cope? How do we plan for a climate change world?

Right, the topic is: “Coping with Climate Change.” I wanted to ask you, what are some ways people might end up coping with climate change?

One of the things that Rhett Lamb (Planning Director, city of Keene) talked about FEMA standards for flood plains. You’re supposed to build x height above where the water’s going to be. Well, cities could start requiring developers to build it an extra foot higher than that or two extra feet higher than that if they think there’s a good chance within the life of a building that the water will be there. That will add to the cost. That will make it slightly more likely that the building developer will say “Forget it” and go away and build somewhere else. That’s the kind of debate that’s going on right now.

As I semi-facetiously said in the column: you know, your cross-country skis are getting beat up. Are you going to replace them? Or should you give up on the prospect of cross-country skiing out your back door anymore?

That’s a small example of a coping mechanism. A larger example may be for people living on the Seacoast or near a body of water. Should those people be browsing real estate guides for inland properties?

The Seacoast is where change is going to happen the most and the fastest. It’s been rather controversial to claim that you should be selling and abandoning the Seacoast of New Hampshire if you own oceanfront property. Not everybody would agree with that. It’s unclear how much the ocean will rise, how much the storm surge will increase.

One of the things, you know, is the melting Greenland ice sheet might actually temporarily lower the ocean level around here because right now the ice sheets on Greenland are so huge they have gravity and actually attract ocean water towards them and raise the water level in our portion of our Atlantic Ocean.

If they melt and get less gravity, water won’t be pulled toward them that much. So even though the ocean might be going up overall, here in the northeast it might not be going up as much.

That sounds like just another factor that makes it more difficult to predict what’s going to happen in the short term.

It is, but that’s no reason to say, “Well, you can’t  tell me for certain so I’m not going to think about it. La la la.” Stick my fingers in my ear. We’d be fools to not start planning for things now.

Sounds like a terrifying Science Café to me.

But don’t forget: this is a bar, so there’s beer.

Science Café with David Brooks takes places at the Draft Sports Bar in Concord on Tuesday, September 20th at 6:00 p.m. Learn more about Science Café.