We must learn to live with the butterfly in the storm

Carolinas: as you face and later recover from Florence, let’s think adaptation

It has always seemed ironic to me, for something as sublimely beautiful as a butterfly to be used as a metaphor for something as ugly and destructive as a natural disaster. But there it is.

The Butterfly Effect.

It is part of Edward Lorenz’s chaos theory, which applies to sensitive dynamic systems, like extreme weather events, when small movements or forcers in one area — the flapping of a butterfly wing, so to speak — lead to unpredictable changes in another.

Sure enough, weather systems are chaotic things. Witness Florence this week. I’m writing this on Thursday, a day from landfall in the Carolinas, and we still don’t know where exactly it will hit, at what category wind speed, whether it will linger a while along the coast wreaking havoc, if it will then go south and u-turn north or north and curve west, how much rain it will dump, how high a storm surge it will bring.

We do know this, though: the damage will be huge, and bigger still for the region not having prepared better in recent years.

We cannot prevent these climate events, but the science is clear: they’re coming more fast and furious than ever before. And each one is chaotic and unpredictable.

So the challenge is also clear: we must adapt and build resilience to whatever comes, instead of adding to the natural chaos with the human chaos that happens when we fail to prepare.

Because the opposite of chaos, what counters disorder, is order, and that is a choice we can make, to face the unpredictability of natural disasters with the best possible planning we can muster.

It is a choice many along the highly vulnerable Atlantic coast of North and South Carolina have begun making, as the faster and more furious nature of climate change became too painful to ignore.

Note the sequence of Carolina hurricanes in this rundown by The Wall Street Journal. After decades of sporadic storms came the string: Diana 1984, Hugo 1989, Fran 1996, Floyd 1999, Isabel 2003, Irene 2011, Matthew 2016, Florence 2018. The longest between hits: eight years. The other in-betweens averaged 4.3 years.

Certainly can’t blame these brave souls in Charleston for starting a visionary adaptation process, or this community in Myrtle Beach for doing the same, against the wishes of their state governments that insist on ostrich laws such as this one banning the use of climate data for development planning.

Those decrees are based on a false choice: that climate studies such as this one cast a heavy cloud on coastal property values that in turn hurt potential construction projects. But what the studies really show is that those new projects will either be rendered useless by extreme climate, or the capital required later to protect them will make the entire investment a truly stupid proposition.

The first folks opposed to those laws ought to be the developers themselves!

Which brings us back to our stunning butterflies, busy as they are, their wings influencing extreme events everywhere on Earth.

As we deal with the immediacy of Florence on our corner of the world, the planet is exploding with equally chaotic hurricanes and typhoons all around, as well as extreme heat and wildfires no matter where you look.

There is little rest. No place is exempt from the fury and the frequency. Ask the Carolinas. The new normal is here. Not in the future. It is here. Today. Learn the science, and then go with it. Flow with the chaos, as you counter it with smart adaptation planning. Learn the ways of the butterfly, inside the cone.

After all, that’s where we’re all living now.

Posted also in The Resilience Journal, my blog on climate adaptation.

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