Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tornadoes: is it climate change or how we build?

The horror of yesterday's tornadoes south Oklahoma City is undeniable. It's hard to imagine the size or the impact of that monstrous storm system. Our hearts go out to the victims, especially the children who were trapped in their schools at the end of school day.

My students have been asking me if this is an example of climate change. I wish I were wise enough to give them an answer. Scientists have been predicting stronger storms, more intense droughts, and more frequent floods, all as a result of climate change. Whether or not we can point to these events as evidence of climate change the data are upon us. Warming oceans and seas, warming landmasses, and changes in climatological patterns are all part of the global climate change process. But I think it would be foolhardy to point a finger at yesterday's storms and say "Aha, this is climate change."

But what about the facts on the ground? What about the highways clogged with traffic, preventing emergency personnel from arriving at the scene? What about the widely spread out, if highly populous streets and communities of the region? What about the schools? Didn't they have basements for the students and teachers to take refuge in? Or were they part of a grand scale explosive exurban growth that pays little attention to the environment around us? For most of the sprawl that we see outside our cities is aimed at a bottom line economic: cheap housing for the most people possible with little regard for the landscape.

When I say landscape I don't mean the pretty up landscape hills and dales, mountains, horizons, river valleys. I'm talking about a landscape that we function in. A landscape of roads and miles weather systems. We flee the cities for "more land," but we do so at a cost. A hundred years ago an F5 tornado could have swung through what is now Moore, Oklahoma, with no one knowing the difference. Now that place is a landscape of strip malls, schools, housing developments, and cul-de-sacs. A kind of paradise I guess if you've got gas to go places and until a storm like yesterday's strikes.

We are all prone to disaster. Boston, where I live, was a sewage dump 100 years ago. Stockyards and slaughterhouses lined the Charles River, which was a stinking foetid mass of disease-carrying water. We figured out how to ameliorate that problem. And we brought more problems to the fore. Air pollution from cars, factories, and heating our houses nearly ruined the city. Later, racial strife, unemployment, and urban decay threatened to give Boston its final coup de grace. But somehow people stayed in town.

Today we are threatened by the same global climate change that may have spawned the Oklahoma City tornadoes. We are within a few feet of flooding by a swollen, restive ocean. And like Oklahoma City we have urban sprawl of our own. Don't imagine for a second that I've got my head in the sand about that. But we have something here that is both tangible and intangible. We have a critical mass of infrastructure, talent, and the will to make the city work, that holds us inside its boundaries. We understand that we pay taxes, state, municipal, and federal, so that we can thrive here in a particular kind of civilization. One that recognizes many kinds of people who may have little in common with one another. Boston has the worst climate in the world. We live in cramped close spaces within the barking distance of one another's dogs. And natural disasters can occur at any time. To anyone. But our built environment, at least here in town, more or less follows patterns that were understood by the first builders here.

There are places in and out of cities that are prone to danger. We need to think before we use more land for sprawl. Building subdivisions, strip malls, churches, and schools on the busiest thoroughfare of tornado alley is like building an atomic power plant on a fault line.

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