An inconvenient hurricane
Sarah Cate Baker | Tuesday, September 5, 2017
Hurricane Harvey is a national tragedy. By Sunday the death toll from the storm had risen to 50 and one million people have been displaced. Somewhere around 100,000 homes have been affected, of which 40,000 are completely destroyed. The Consumerist reports that 80 percent of homeowners facing the damage do not have flood insurance, and there are no clear answers as to how the $190 billion in damages will be paid. Harvey is a national tragedy, and it’s wrong to politicize a tragedy – right?
Not in this case. In this case, politicizing a tragedy is the only way to stop future tragedies from happening.
Extreme weather cannot be prevented — the next hurricane to hit the United States (possibly Irma, currently brewing in the southern Atlantic) will hit the U.S. regardless of how we politicize Harvey. But it is important that we use the lessons from Harvey to prepare for its successor. And with all extreme weather, that preparation absolutely must include changing our approach to global climate change.
It used to be very difficult to say whether if and how specific weather events were impacted by global climate change. It is now getting easier. When it comes to hurricanes there is a clear connection: hurricanes draw their destructive energy from heat in ocean waters, and as ocean temperatures rise, there is more heat to be drawn. Further, a warmer atmosphere holds more water vapor — about 7 percent more for every additional degree Celsius — which equates to increased potential for rainfall during a storm. Because the atmosphere is not heating equally atmospheric wind currents are changing as well. For example, some science suggests that the jet stream is slowing down. These changing wind patterns may help explain why severe storms are moving in ways that are contrary to our current models — like Sandy, which travelled in a straight-shot towards New Jersey when it should have curved backwards towards the Atlantic.
When it comes to Hurricane Harvey, these factors seemed to have created a perfect storm. Harvey intensified rapidly on Wednesday and Thursday as it travelled over the Gulf of Mexico, which just experienced one of is warmest winters on record; it dumped nearly record-breaking amounts of rain on its Houston victims, a city which also just experienced nearly record-breaking summer heat; it lingered above Houston instead of moving inland because there were very little atmospheric wind currents to drive it. The warmer waters, warmer air, and loss of wind current can be explained, at least in part, by global climate change.
It is inaccurate to say that Hurricane Harvey was caused by global climate change. But it is irresponsible not to consider the man-made factors that increased its destructive power, and it is unethical not to try to remediate these factors to prevent future devastation.
And it when it comes to remediating climate change issues, it is necessary to get political. As an individual I can recycle, but I cannot singlehandedly stop chemical runoff from entering my country’s lakes and rivers, nor can I put an immediate stop to the deforestation that threatens wildlife or instantly end the fracking that threatens people. Stopping this environmental destruction requires the use of politics. Chemical run-off is controlled by policies that force industry standards of environmentalism; deforestation is prevented by creating national parks and reserves; fracking is an ongoing problem that will not end until our lawmakers make it illegal. It is true that each individual must do their part to combat global climate change and that these efforts do add up. It is naive to think that this will be enough.
If we want to control global climate change, we will have to get political. We will need large-scale solutions for a large-scale problem, and large-scale change necessitates government intervention. We cannot create change if we do not get our lawmakers on board.
It might feel wrong to politicize a tragedy. It might seem insensitive, it might feel like taking advantage of someone else’s misfortune. It doesn’t matter. This tragedy must be politicized — otherwise, we are going to keep seeing more tragedies just like it.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.