Many have worried about the destruction of hurricane Sandy. But most well-meaning commentators – for instance, clearly Bloomberg and his magazine – have almost exclusively focused on the climate aspect and suggested climate policies as the most important part of the solution. The truth is that climate policies will only do very little, very expensively and very slowly. Can’t we do better for future generations?
Look at sea level rise (which gave by far the biggest damage in New York). If the EU carry through its climate plan (the 20–20–20 plan) it will cost about $250 billion a year (1.3% of GDP) for the rest of the century. The reduction in sea level rise will be about 0.9cm by the year 2100. (A third of an inch.) If the US made a similar plan (politically very unrealistic), the price and the effect would probably be on a similar scale. The total cost would be about $500 billion annually, and lower sea level rise by just 2 cm by the end of the century – less than an inch.
Consider an extremely unrealistic scenario: even if we almost immediately could get the entire world – including the Chinese and Indians – on board for drastic carbon cuts, and even if we would suck CO2 out of the atmosphere towards the end of the century, we could only reduce sea level rise between 18 and 45cm (7-18in) by the end of the century. The cost would be about 40,000 billion dollars towards the end of the century (about 13% of global GDP) but probably 10–100 times higher, because the cost calculations assume that politicians will choose the most rational policies across hundred years and across all continents, which all climate policies so far have disproven. (In reality we of course can’t spend more than 100%, which means that we will in fact be reducing CO2 much less)
New York City is concerned about the 3.3% chance each year for a category three hurricane hitting New York (entirely without global warming). This would cause sea surge of 14.8–25 feet or upwards of 762 cm (about 10 feet more than Sandy). This could put JFK airport under 6m (19ft) of water. Much of this could be handled by making seawalls, make New York subways with storm doors, and simple efforts such as subway vents above sidewalks, and porous pavements. The cost of these policies could possibly run to around $100 million a year (about 0.01% of New York City’s GDP).
The real question seems to me to be: if we want to help present and future generations with lower hurricane damages, should we primarily focus on: