A marvelous letter by Sarah Lee appeared in the Mailbox on July 18. It envisions a response to climate crisis that would be a stimulus package for jobs across America. FEMA is at best re-active. A new jobs program centered on infra-structure could be pro-active and anticipatory.
To address one major theme calling upon us for attention, there's "good water" and "bad water" - with the good water easily converting to bad water if we don't do something about it.
We might think of the ice shelves at our two poles as "good water." They absorb heat and reflect sunlight to keep our planet's temperature predictable and, in many places, moderate. Yet as David Wallace-Wells writes, citing both Science and The Atlantic for November 3, 2016: "Every year, the average American emits enough carbon to melt 10,000 tons of ice in the Antarctic ice sheets - enough to add 10,000 cubic meters of water to the ocean. Every minute, each of us adds five gallons."
This is a matter of "good water" rapidly converting into "bad water" - in the sense that this water, now salted, is rising and threatening prime human habitation in many places. The low islands of Micronesia are all in jeopardy; so is the whole south of Bangladesh; so also is almost the entirety of Central America.
I suppose in each case we can villainize the victim if we feel like it. We're very good at that. Or we can enter the complaisant mindscape of the developers of the Miami shoreline: "We know that high-rises built on the shoreline command high prices for business-suites and apartments; so let's be practical and go on building them!"
An alternative is to anticipate.
Dikes are possible. While we have a lot more shoreline that's vulnerable than the Dutch have, there may still be places along our shoreline that are worth a seawall. In a lot of places, relocation to higher ground is probably the most obvious counter-measure. As Sarah Lee's letter implies, the time for nationwide planning is upon us. It is much easier, for instance, when the weather is moderate, to fix an asphalt road for hard use ahead than it is during a heat wave; it's easier to re-locate real estate when you're not knee-deep in water.
Reversing the direction of the discussion, there are many ways to turn potentially "bad water" into good. One of them would be to develop new-design nuclear power-plants dedicated to de-salinating water. I don't propose, of course, that these can lower the rising level of our world's ocean, but they can do much to address the water shortages that threaten California - and much of the rest of the world - today.
There's exceptional brain-power deliberately situated here at LLNL. The bulk of it is dedicated to maintenance and refinement of our nuclear arsenal. If, say, just ten percent of that bulk could be re-channeled, genuine national security could be greatly enhanced were it directed to designing new nuclear power-plants for de-salination. While environmental damages at Chernobyl and Fukushima have been catastrophic, estimates of human deaths at those two places seem to focus on what could have happened more than on what did happen. (Wallace-Wells says the official estimate for Chernobyl is 47 deaths, but adds that some individual estimates run as high as 4,000.) The human imagination has been seared by the accidents at these sites, yet when one looks realistically at the challenges that currently face the human species, and when one factors in what we've learned from past mistakes, it seems important to discuss the propriety of an Act Two for the domestic use of nuclear power.
Let me conclude by returning to Sarah Lee's point. It's high time for a national debate on the radical redesign of infra-structure in America. The election coming in 2020 presents a wonderful opportunity for us to begin this at the present moment. The candidates whom we should take seriously are those who are aware of this. We should not wait for permissions from them to start the discussion, but should demand the they keep up with us.