Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and the storm of climate denial
Satellite photo of Hurricane Irma. | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

As Texas deals with the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, Florida braces itself for Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Jose strengthens in the Atlantic Ocean, the effects of climate change are once again on display. The Trump administration continues to deny what scientists have been saying for decades: that global warming would increase these types of weather extremes, with devastating results. Those results are plain to see, and there’s still more to come.

Harvey pummeled the city of Houston, displacing over one million people and causing at least 71 confirmed deaths. Irma’s damage cannot yet be fully quantified, but it is already the strongest Atlantic hurricane in history, wending its way through Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Hispaniola, and currently on target to strike southern Florida. Already, it has wreaked catastrophic damage on Eastern Carribean islands, including Barbuda, which has been rendered uninhabitable. Jose, while still classified as a Category 1 storm, is growing stronger, and is expected to continue to do so over the next 48 hours.

What do these hurricanes have in common? All three were bolstered by conditions established due to the effects of climate change. According to Dann Mitchell, researcher at the University of Bristol, to say that global warming produced the tropical storms is inaccurate. What it has done, however, is turn them into more destructive forces than they would otherwise have been. “We must probe how climate change alters extreme weather,” he advised. “Aside from the warming atmosphere, rising sea level and surface ocean warming have likely contributed to the impact of both Harvey and Irma.”

Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric scientist at MIT, also agreed that conditions were, unfortunately, just right for these storms – particularly, for Irma, which “had everything going for it. The water was warm, the layer of warm water was deep, and there was almost no wind sheer, which tends to be very destructive to hurricanes. [Irma] can live up to its potential, if you will.” As for Harvey, in 1990 it would have been a 100-year storm, said Emanuel. In today’s climate conditions, it’s a 15-year storm. As these storms go, this is the new state of affairs.

“It’s important to note that climate change has already caused higher sea levels, so any storm surge is happening on top of a higher initial level, leading to more coastal flooding,” said Chris Holloway, a tropical storm expert at the University of Reading. “Also, climate change leads to increased rainfall for a storm of given strength, leading to increased freshwater flooding. Climate change also likely increases the probability of storms reaching an extremely high intensity.”

Climate change, of course, is not the only contributing factor. Outdated infrastructure – and a deliberate lack of funding to bring it into the 21st century – is also to blame, as is the ongoing denial of global warming by politicians, particularly the GOP, who are part of a presidential administration that has been stacked with climate change skeptics and friends of the fossil fuel industry.

It’s worth noting that the Houston-Harvey situation was very much a conditional one. A lack of rain-absorbing green space and poor zoning laws were important factors, as was Houston’s outdated and poorly regulated drainage system, which is designed to clear out just 12 to 13 inches of rain in a 24-hour period, rendering it incredibly obsolete and ridiculously inappropriate for what is regarded as the most flood-prone city in the U.S.

What happened in Texas is but one example of the crumbling infrastructure in this country. Long before Harvey came along, domestic infrastructure had consistently received a “D” grade from the American Society of Civil Engineers for the last 19 years, showing that there has been no progress made in rebuilding or improving anything. It’s estimated that at least $4.6 trillion would be required to sufficiently address this crisis over the 2017-2025 period.

Rather than fund infrastructure improvement, President Trump has mostly withdrawn what protections former president Barack Obama was able to put into place. He rescinded an Obama administration mandate that called for federal agencies to consider the impacts of climate change when building infrastructure. Now, construction projects can take place along the coasts without considering the impacts of sea level rise, which will further place people in harm’s way when more hurricanes hit.

“This is climate science denial at its most dangerous, as Trump is putting vulnerable communities at risk by throwing out any guarantee that our infrastructure will be safe,” said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. “He decries our failing and crumbling infrastructure, but rather than continue policy that would fix some of the problems, he’s decided to pour taxpayer dollars into the rising seas.”

Jeffrey Kargel, of the Department of Hydrology & Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Arizona, said that the current administration must question its denial of climate change in order to begin to make the U.S. resilient enough to deal with extreme weather events. “Right now,” he remarked, “the rapid pace of climate change is set by government policies in the U.S. and many other countries. We cannot turn it around in a few years or even a decade, but we can still worsen it.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Blake Skylar
Blake Skylar

Blake is a production manager, responsible for the daily assembly of the PW home page. He also writes on environment and culture. He has covered issues including the BP oil spill and the UN Climate Conference in Paris. His coverage has earned him awards from the Illinois Woman’s Press Association and the International Labor Communications Association.

He is currently in Weehawken, in his home state of New Jersey. He likes cats, wine, books, music, and nature. He writes a blog that can be found at blakedeppe.com.

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