Skip to main content

Why we should expect more weather disasters

By Steven Cohen, Special to CNN
updated 8:48 AM EDT, Thu July 12, 2012
 A helicopter circles as it prepares to drop water on a fire near Horsetooth Reservoir on June 11 near Laporte, Colorado.
A helicopter circles as it prepares to drop water on a fire near Horsetooth Reservoir on June 11 near Laporte, Colorado.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NOAA reports the past 12 months were the hottest since record-keeping began
  • Steven Cohen says effects of extreme weather are indisputable, whatever the cause
  • More and more people live in places especially vulnerable to rough weather, he says
  • Cohen: Government and industry must prepare for the inevitability of weather disasters

Editor's note: Steven Cohen is executive director of The Earth Institute and professor in the practice of public affairs at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University.

(CNN) -- A recent report from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration provides hard data that the first six months of 2012 were the hottest since records began being kept in 1895.

According to NOAA: "The January-June period was the warmest first half of any year on record for the contiguous United States. The national temperature of 52.9°F was 4.5°F above the 20th century average."

While those of us who work in the field of environmental policy and sustainability management believe that human-induced climate change is partially responsible for these trends, let's ignore for a moment the causes of this problem and start thinking about what to do about the impact of extreme weather events.

Steven Cohen
Steven Cohen

Not only does NOAA report that we are experiencing more extreme weather events, but the UN's Internal Displacement Monitoring System reports that those events are having a greater impact than ever before. This is because the planet has more people than it used to. When I was growing up in the 1960s, we had about three billion people living on Earth. Today, we have more than seven billion.

People are living in places they did not live in before, and some of the places that we live are quite vulnerable to destructive weather. Additionally, with over half the planet residing in cities, we are living under conditions of higher population density. This means that when floods, fires, winds and earthquakes hit, more people are in harm's way.

Extreme weather: Expect to see more of it, scientists say

Dairy cows seek relief from extreme heat
Storms, heat causing problems nationwide

Even if the storms were not getting more intense, our growing population and patterns of development would guarantee that the costs of weather-related damage will continue to grow.

We see the impact of new patterns of land use out West where wildfires have been raging for weeks. Many of the homes that have been lost recently are in places where people didn't live a century ago.

In the beach community where I have a summer home on the south shore of Long Island, people are now building lavish homes close to the beach. In the old days, homes were built farther from the ocean to reduce the odds of damage from storms. We seem to think we are invulnerable to the forces of nature, at least until we learn the hard way that even modern buildings can be destroyed by storms, fires and earthquakes.

Think it's hot? Imagine living here

The policy implications of these trends are obvious.

We should pay more attention to natural processes when we decide where to build our homes, businesses and infrastructure. Here in New York, the parkways we built by streams and rivers flood and must be closed during many storms. (Commuters who drive on the Bronx River Parkway and the Saw Mill River Parkway know what I mean.)

It's 100 degrees outside (or worse). How's a fur-covered pup to cope? CNN iReporters from around the United States have been sharing photos of their best friends cooling off, and let's face it: They're too cute not to post.<br/><br/>Here, Prim the Afghan hound manages to look elegant while relaxing in a baby pool in Gahanna, Ohio. It's 100 degrees outside (or worse). How's a fur-covered pup to cope? CNN iReporters from around the United States have been sharing photos of their best friends cooling off, and let's face it: They're too cute not to post.

Here, Prim the Afghan hound manages to look elegant while relaxing in a baby pool in Gahanna, Ohio.
Dog days of summer
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
>
>>
Dog days of summer Dog days of summer
A firefighter works a burnout operation on the north flank of the Fontenelle Fire outside Big Piney, Wyoming, on Wednesday, July 4. More than 800 firefighters are working 15-hour shifts battling the fire that has exceeded 56,000 acres, according to fire information services. A firefighter works a burnout operation on the north flank of the Fontenelle Fire outside Big Piney, Wyoming, on Wednesday, July 4. More than 800 firefighters are working 15-hour shifts battling the fire that has exceeded 56,000 acres, according to fire information services.
Wildfires devastate Western states
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Wildfires devastate Western states Photos: Wildfires devastate Western states
Fatima Domingpe applies sunscreen to her face near the Mosaic Fountain in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, on Saturday, July 7. A record heat wave has been in the area for more than a week. Fatima Domingpe applies sunscreen to her face near the Mosaic Fountain in downtown Silver Spring, Maryland, on Saturday, July 7. A record heat wave has been in the area for more than a week.
Extreme heat strikes U.S.
HIDE CAPTION
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
>
>>
Photos: Extreme heat strikes U.S. Photos: Extreme heat strikes U.S.

We need to devote more public resources to pay for emergency response and reconstruction from weather-related catastrophes. In fact, we should no longer deal with these events as if they are emergencies, but start to see them as routine events, requiring standard, programmed responses. This includes setting aside funds for fires and floods each year, just as Northern cities budget for blizzard clean-up.

Extreme heat in your area? Share with us on CNN iReport

We will also need to require homeowners and businesses to purchase higher levels of insurance coverage for weather-related damage. In this era when people seek smaller government and lower taxes, private insurance will be needed to pay the costs of reconstruction.

These proposals and analyses do not require you to agree with the compelling scientific evidence that human activity is producing climate change. It could simply be a coincidence that the past six months were the hottest months on record.

On the other hand, even if you are not one of the more than 100 Ph.D. level climate scientists that work at Columbia University's Earth Institute and even if you do not understand the physics of climate change or the computer models predicting global warming, common sense alone might lead you to think that human beings and their machines are making the planet warmer.

News: Wildfire victims face more than one tragedy

If you doubt me, come to midtown Manhattan during an August heat wave and feel the blast of hot air from vents on buildings and the street. Feel the heat generated by the engines of a truck or car traveling down Broadway, and just multiply it by a billion, which according to Ward's Auto, is the number of motor vehicles now on the roads of our planet. Do you really think all these machines have no impact on this planet's resilient but still fragile ecosphere?

I do not want to turn off these machines. I like air conditioning, autos and digital media as much as anyone. But a prudent response to the extreme weather we are already experiencing would be to be to see it as a warning. We need to accelerate the transition to a sustainable, renewable economy. We need to build our communities' capacities to predict and respond to weather emergencies and to rebuild after they are over.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Steven Cohen.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
updated 12:45 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Tue July 29, 2014
Alan Elsner says Secretary Kerry's early cease-fire draft was leaked and presented as a final document, which served the interests of hard-liners on both sides who don't want the Gaza war to stop.
updated 7:58 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
updated 2:18 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Rick Francona says Israel seems determined to render Hamas militarily ineffective.
updated 1:43 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
updated 3:39 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
A crisis like the Gaza conflict or the surge of immigrants can be an opportunity for a lame duck president, writes Julian Zelizer
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Carol Costello says the league's light punishment sent the message that it didn't consider domestic violence a serious offense
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Danny Cevallos says saggy pants aren't the kind of fashion statement protected by the First Amendment.
updated 2:52 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Margaret Hoover says some GOP legislators support a state's right to allow same-sex marriage and the right of churches, synagogues and mosques not to perform the sacrament
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Megan McCracken and Jennifer Moreno say it's unacceptable for states to experiment with new execution procedures without full disclosure
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Priya Satia says today's drones for bombardment and surveillance have their roots in the deadly history of Western aerial control of the Middle East that began in World War One
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Mon July 28, 2014
Jeff Yang says it's great to see the comics make an effort at diversifying the halls of justice
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Rick Francona says the reported artillery firing from Russian territory is a sign Vladimir Putin has escalated the Ukraine battle
updated 2:22 PM EDT, Sun July 27, 2014
Paul Callan says the fact that appeals delay the death penalty doesn't make it an unconstitutional punishment, as one judge ruled
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Pilot Robert Mark says it's been tough for the airline industry after the plane crashes in Ukraine and Taiwan.
updated 11:10 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Jennifer DeVoe laments efforts to end subsidies that allow working Americans to finally afford health insurance.
updated 11:33 AM EDT, Sat July 26, 2014
Ruti Teitel says assigning a costly and humiliating "collective guilt" to Germany after WWI would end up teaching the global community hard lessons about who to blame for war crimes
updated 8:45 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
John Sutter responds to criticism of his column on the ethics of eating dog.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Frida Ghitis says it's tempting to ignore North Korea's antics as bluster but the cruel regime is dangerous.
updated 2:50 PM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
To the question "Is Putin evil?" Alexander Motyl says he is evil enough for condemnation by people of good will.
updated 2:03 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Laurie Garrett: Poor governance, ignorance, hysteria worsen the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone, Guinea, Liberia.
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:09 AM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT