Support the news
Like what you read here? Sign up for our twice-weekly newsletter.
The photo taken at a nursing home of seniors sitting waist-deep in water went viral. So did the tweet from a desperate mother of two who couldn’t get through on 911. In the new normal, disaster preparedness includes having a Twitter following.
Does the future hold more crippling superstorms like Hurricane Harvey?
Experts have weighed in on the question of whether or not Harvey portends frequent storms, fueled by global warming, which will overwhelm the systems protecting people and infrastructure in coastal cities. You’ve already seen the careful phrasing: any single event cannot be attributed to climate change, but warmer oceans and rising sea levels create the conditions for wetter, more intense hurricanes and higher storm surges.
Some officials have discounted the connection between climate change and Harvey, which they’ve called an “800-year event.” But that disregards that the earth is significantly hotter now than it’s been in recent centuries. And although there have been many devastating hurricanes in the past, the historic magnitude of Harvey can’t be ignored. According to the National Weather Service, “the breadth and intensity of this rainfall are beyond anything experienced before.”
Downplaying the role of the warming planet carries an opportunity cost for the climate movement. Yes, the science is messy and the data will take time to analyze. Yes, of course, the safety and well-being of the victims are paramount, and the politicization of their hardship is inappropriate. But if you can’t draw attention to climate change while people are stranded on rooftops, then when? In a week or so, we’ll be back to Russia and tax cuts, and the moment will have passed.
Context is significant here. Harvey arrived in a year already notable for collapsing ice shelves, thawing permafrost, bleached coral reefs and record-breaking ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico.
And 2017 is also a year in which the Trump administration has waged war on climate science. Abandoning the Paris Agreement and killing the Clean Power Plan were just the beginning. This past spring, the Environmental Protection Agency purged its Science Advisory Board of members deemed not sufficiently friendly to industry. Just last week, the White House disbanded a federal advisory committee on climate change, a board whose job included performing climate-related risk assessments.
Particularly relevant was an executive order on infrastructure expenditures earlier this month that includes a rollback of requirements to plan for the effects of climate change and sea-level rise. While most of the Trump administration’s anti-climate antagonism has been directed against the effort to make the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy, this executive order targets adaptation — measures to deal with the effects of global warming that are already happening or for which it’s too late to prevent. After what’s happened in Texas this week, it’s baldly idiotic to weaken federal codes for roads, bridges, and other essential projects in vulnerable areas just to expedite construction.
But if you can’t draw attention to climate change while people are stranded on rooftops, then when?
Adaptation to conditions brought about by climate change needs to be a higher priority. Sprawling Houston, its ground sealed in asphalt and concrete, needs major investments in water management infrastructure to deal with future storms like Harvey, and they’re not alone.
Sadly, climate adaptation won’t be on the minds of people in southeast Texas for a long time. Nobody wants to have a conversation about climate change with a foot of mud in the living room and no flood insurance. As the nation marshals resources to help Houston recover, the watchword is compassion. Many of the victims are now living at the mercy of strangers. The governor has declared the arrival of the “new normal.”
But Harvey has given us a glimpse of what climate change can inflict — a dystopian vision of a world out of control, a world in which a mother is left to tweet out a plea for help in the glow of a cell phone. Perhaps these catastrophic outcomes have already become unavoidable, the damage to the planet being by now baked in. Even if that’s the case, the ethical response to Harvey is to forthrightly confront the reality of climate change. We’ve been warned.