The Climate Race

How do we live with a warmer planet?

Sam Eaton and Sarah Gardner Oct 30, 2009
The Climate Race

How do we live with a warmer planet?

Sam Eaton and Sarah Gardner Oct 30, 2009


KAI RYSSDAL: Six weeks from now the news will be, if not all climate change all the time, at least a whole lot of climate change a whole lot of the time. The U.N. is planning a big global warming conference in Copenhagen in the middle of December. Hopes for a comprehensive agreement out of that meeting are fading. But even if we stopped using fossil fuels today, stopped putting carbon into the atmosphere, scientists say the damage done by global warming will continue for years.

Today, sustainability reporters Sam Eaton and Sarah Gardner are here again to continue our series, “The Climate Race,” by explaining, Sam, how we’re getting ready to live in a warmer world?

SAM: That’s right, Kai. The word people are using is adaptation. Basically, taking steps to deal with the effects of climate change.

SARAH: And scientists tell us this is important because CO2 in the atmosphere can hang around for 100 years or more. And they tell us we have about a third more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere right now than we did before the Industrial Revolution.

SAM: Right, and all those gases have the potential to continue warming the planet regardless of what happens in Congress or Copenhagen.

SARAH: So we’re still facing the probability of more heat waves, bigger storms, higher sea levels off of our coasts. And, San, at least 10 states in this country are working on plans to deal with those risks.

SAM: And so are some cities. Here’s Rohit Aggarwala. He’s in charge of long-term planning for New York City.

ROHIT AGGARWALA: Climate change is real and it’s going to be increasingly real as we go through our future. But it’s not something to panic about, it’s something to face with a clear-eyed, hard-headed, thoughtful approach. And if we do it that way, we don’t have to panic.

SARAH: We’ll get back to the city in a few minutes. But first let’s go to the country. Farmers are on the front lines of climate change and they can adapt to a warmer climate, up to a point. Farmers can switch to planting crops that tolerate more heat, for example. And that might be necessary in the United States. Some new research is out that suggests global warming could seriously hurt corn production in the Midwest, for example.

But farmers can also change the way they grow food. This is especially important in places like the Southwest, where climate change could mean water shortages.

And, Sam, one farmer I met in Southern California may be ahead of his time.

CASEY HOUWELING: I’m Casey Houweling and the company that we operate here is Houweling Nurseries Oxnard, Inc., in Camarillo.

SARAH: Now, Houweling is a greenhouse farmer. He’s built two new high-tech greenhouses right across from a celery field here. They each cover 20 acres of land, growing hundreds of thousands of plants. And I got the grand tour.

HOUWELING: Yeah, this is a long English cucumber. Grows much faster than a tomato. Takes 10 days from flower till pick. Try ’em.

SARAH: I tried everything he grows, actually. Mini cukes, tomatoes on the vine, cocktail tomatoes.

SAM: OK, but greenhouses have been around for a long time. How are they going to help farmers adapt to climate change?

SARAH: First thing is, they use less water than field farming. There’s less evaporation because you’re inside, and there’s no runoff. Any water the plants don’t absorb is recycled and used to water the plants again.

Houweling even goes so far as to collect rainwater and condensation. He claims he uses a sixth of the water used in tomato fields. But here’s an extra bonus, Sam. If the climate is changing, moving indoors gives you stability.

Here’s Houweling again:

HOUWELING: You can control humidities, you can control temperatures, you can control CO2, and you keep your pests out. So you can control your quality to a much higher degree.

SARAH: By the way, Houweling is also producing electricity and heat for his greenhouses with solar power. He’s sort of a “green” pioneer in the greenhouse world.

SAM: It’s kind of ironic that actual greenhouses would help us deal with the effects of greenhouse gases. But there has to be a catch here, right?

SARAH: Well, you can’t grow all our food in greenhouses. It’s just not economical to grow crops like wheat and soybeans this way. These greenhouses that Houweling built set him back $50 million. And he figures it’ll take more than a decade to earn back his investment.

I talked to Merle Jensen, he’s a well-known expert in greenhouse farming. He says greenhouses like Houweling’s produce 20 times more crops per acre than traditional farming. But it’s a more expensive way to grow food and so the food is more expensive as well.

MERLE JENSEN: You know, that kind of investment, we’re talking more than a million dollars per acre. And what you saw at the facilities in California, they’re probably the highest tech greenhouses today in the world, and time will prove whether that is economical in the future.

SAM: And, you know, this highlights one of the key challenges in adapting to climate change. If we wait until those high-tech greenhouses are really needed, the cost of building everything all at once would be enormous.

New York City’s Rohit Agarwalla, who we heard from earlier, is working on a plan to gradually phase in changes to the city’s infrastructure, starting with facilities that are most at risk from climate change in the near-term.

AGGARWALA: We do make small investments now that can avoid large costs later on. The way I would suggest we need to think about climate change adaptation — it’s like insurance. You protect yourself against a certain amount of risk, you accept a certain amount of risk, because it would be too expensive to protect yourself against every possible risk.

SAM: And this is exactly what New York is doing. It’s about to spend $30 million moving crucial equipment at a sewage treatment plant in Queens to higher ground.

Vincent Sapienza, with the city’s wastewater treatment bureau, took me on a tour.

VINCENT SAPIENZA: We’re headed from ground level, which is just above sea level, down to the lower levels of the plant where there are the main sewage pumps.

SAM: Those pumps, each the size of a semi-truck are about four stories below sea level. And so are the electric motors that run them.

SAPIENZA: And that’s the concern. Because we are so close to the ocean here that within the next several years there can be a storm that inundates these motors.

SAM: And what’s important to note here is that this relatively small investment, $30 million, won’t actually keep the plant from flooding. That would cost billions. But moving those motors above sea level will keep them dry. Even if the plant floods, the pumps keep running.

Here’s Rohit Aggarwala again:

AGGARWALA: It’s not so much about protecting ourselves from climate change. It’s really about being resilient.

SARAH: So Sam, I’m assuming there are examples like this all across the city. How are they deciding what to fix? I mean budgets are tight these days.

SAM: They are. But the key here isn’t to do all of these projects at the same time. It’s to sort of institutionalize the idea of adaptation. That way as the city performs regular upgrades to things like water treatment plants, the subway, its airports, those projects are done with climate change projections in mind.

SARAH: But even that is going to add costs.

SAM: That’s true. And you look at some of the long-term climate projections and those costs only get bigger.

New York, for example, may eventually have to build a giant sea wall to protect it from rising sea levels, something that will probably run in the hundreds of billions of dollars. But to some that cost is an opportunity.

MARK FULTON: We don’t see it as an economy killer at all. We sort of see it as an economy maker.

SAM: That’s Mark Fulton. He leads climate change investment research for Deutsche Bank. I met up with him in front of Penn Station. And you can hear the sounds of our carbon-fueled economy all around us.

We came here to get a view of a giant carbon clock the bank recently installed here. It tracks the world’s emissions of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in real time. And the fact that this was put here by a bank says something. Deutsche Bank is investing billions of dollars in technology to help fight and cope with global warming.

FULTON: We really take a very different view ’cause we’re investors. So we’re looking at the other side of what people call a cost, which is an investment.

SAM: And this is why Deutsche Bank put the carbon clock up there in the first place. You look up at this clock and you can’t help being a little spooked. I mean, it’s going up about 800 tons a second.

And what frustrates Fulton is that so few people seem to notice it. He says climate change will transform the global economy, and the money to do it is there. The only question is whether we control that transformation, or it controls us.

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