Battening Down the Hatches

States are starting to prepare for climate change. In Congress, some 20 bills would help communities cope
Sean Gardner / Reuters

New Orleans utility Entergy (ETR) has looked into the future, and the Katrina-scarred company is worried by what it sees. More devastating hurricanes like Katrina. Heat waves. Seas rising as much as six feet, flooding everything south of Interstate 10, now 50 miles inland. "The consensus is pretty much in. Climate change is happening and we must plan for that," says Randy Helmick, Entergy's vice-president for transmission.

Entergy is one of the leaders in a growing effort to plan for a world reshaped by climate change. The utility is proposing steps such as strengthening transmission poles and shoring up substations. Alaska, Florida, Maryland, and other states have initiatives to cope with rising sea levels. "With 1,350 miles of coastline, we have to be concerned about this issue," says Florida Governor Charlie Crist. In the U.S. West, normally fractious agencies are banding together to protect water supplies threatened by droughts, smaller accumulations of snow, and altered rainfall patterns.

The idea of adaptation to climate change has even made it to Washington, where Congress is considering nearly two dozen bills with provisions for funding research and helping communities cope. "Climate change has a huge importance for the type of infrastructure we need to build, and for business and jobs," explains Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.).

Until recently, groups battling global warming viewed adaptation as a distraction from the real business of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or mitigation. But climate scientists now say it's too late to prevent significant warming. "We have only three options: mitigation, adaptation, and suffering," says Harvard professor John P. Holdren. "We will have to do all three."

POUNDING WAVES

For suffering, look to Alaska. Loss of sea ice near the shore has left coastal Inuit communities at the mercy of storms' pounding waves, which are eating away the land. In Newtok, "the situation is desperate," says Environmental Commissioner Larry Hartig. The town is being moved, and others will follow.

Hamlet J. "Chips" Barry III, manager of Denver Water, says he can no longer plan for tomorrow's water needs. "How are we going to handle this?" he asks. The new alliance of water agencies is trying to construct a more accurate picture of the future, while Denver aims to make the region's water system more resilient. Annapolis, Md., is spending $9 million to raise the city dock On Chesapeake Bay, and build flood walls. Florida is exploring the idea of man-made barrier islands to protect its coast.

The worry, though, is that these steps may be too little to address the potential changes. What if polar ice melts faster than expected, and the oceans rise 15 feet? "The choices made now may be good for the next 20 years, but in 50 years we might be sorry," says Kristie L. Ebi, who advises clients on the impact of climate change. "Right now we are pretty unprepared."

Several of the bills pending before Congress would create funds to promote adaptation. One, from Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), requires intelligence agencies to assess the global economic and political consequences of climate change. Other legislation would help local communities to come up with their own plans. The task is urgent, says Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer. "We need to come to grips with this now, and not when it's on our doorstep."

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