MIT Researchers Develop Tool to Assess Regional Risks of Climate Change

By Peter Bernstein November 12, 2012

Several members of the TMC family spent this past weekend helping their friends and family in portions of our area that were devastated by Hurricane Sandy two weeks ago. In fact, I made a run to help out a family member in Jersey City, NJ, which is just opposite lower Manhattan.

While possessing power, and finally getting her light rail commutation capability back (literally as we pulled up to her apartment), reality is we drove through what is still basically a warzone. Refuge is within several blocks of the waterfront, power is out in places, inundated stores are shuttered, and residents of lower floors of buildings were disposing of their destroyed prized possessions.

In a word, it was heartbreaking.

We were there to help restock the fridge and provide cash since the ATM machines in the area remain down as does the ability of some open stores to process credit and debit card transactions. Plus, as the picture below shows, cellular service while available is makeshift.

Sandy was a “perfect storm.” It hit at high tide, during a full moon in the ideal place. However, there is consensus that as a result of climate change it unfortunately may not prove to be so exceptional going forward.   

All of this got me to thinking, is there work being done on providing better guidance on getting better prepared for such climate-based disaster? The answer is yes. MIT researchers have developed a new tool to help policymakers, city planners and others see the possible local effects of climate change.  As detailed recently, MIT’s new tool assesses regional projections of climate trends enable local planners to evaluate risks, and how these risks could shape crops, roads and energy infrastructure.

Adam Schlosser, assistant director for science research at MIT’s Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and research partner Ken Strzepek, have in essence pieced together a lot of “big data” to provide a solution to fit the needs of those attempting to do long-term risk management:

“Policymakers don’t like extremes or worst-case scenarios,” Strzepek says, “because they can’t afford to plan for the worst-case scenarios. They like to see what the likelihood is of different outcomes. That’s what we’re giving them.”

The method for determining future madness

The researchers quantify the likelihood of particular outcomes and add socioeconomic data, different emission levels and varying degrees of uncertainty. As the article describing this highlights: “Their technique combines climate-model projections and analysis from the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project used by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the MIT Integrated Global System Modeling framework. The MIT framework is itself a combined computer model that integrates an economic, human system with a natural, earth system.”“This approach allows us to widen the scope and flexibility of climate analysis,” Schlosser says. “It provides us with efficient capabilities to determine climate-change risks.”The researchers efforts are available for review on the Journal of Climate website in an article, “Quantifying the Likelihood of Regional Climate Change: A Hybridized Approach.” It describes how using this approach the researchers compared a business-as-usual case with a scenario that reduces emissions. They find that lowering emissions reduces the odds of regional warming and precipitation changes. In fact, for many places, the likelihood of the most extreme warming from the business-as-usual case could be eliminated almost entirely.

As noted in the piece, Schlosser and Strzepek are pursuing partnerships with communities to put their method to work. While efforts are being directed at developed countries, the pair are also focusing their out-reach to the less developed world where they believe that planning now to anticipate climate-based catastrophes could provide the greatest benefits.

As Schlosser stated: “Our approach allows decision-makers to cut down on the level of risk they’re taking when allocating their limited funds to development projects…This can help them see wherethere are economic benefits to taking a risk-averse approach today, before the damage is done.”

It may not be the inflatable plug for tunnels that are now being contemplated for low-lying entrances in New York as a stop-gap, or storm barriers to mitigate tides such as have been less than successfully used to save Venice, Italy (a friend of mine returned this week from Venice with a pair of waders and an appreciation of high-tide in Venice the past week), but having a reasoned view of what lies ahead is certainly better than being blind. And, having the ability to calculate risks based on probable outcomes is likely to be invaluable.

It’ll be interesting to see who partners with Schlosser and Strzepek. As somebody who has born witness to what a lack of preparation yields, one can only hope that attention will be paid to the two researchers. It may not be perfect information, and perfect information is not a way to prevent the perfect storm without execution of a well thought out plan, but this can certainly be an important element of such a plan.

Edited by Braden Becker
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