“Wow – Now experts are calling #Harvey a once-in-500-year flood!” (sic)
— Donald Trump
Resigned to temporary defeat, I stopped trying to work in my yard. Driven indoors by soaring midday temperatures in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and smoke from wildfires in the nearby Cascades, I sat at my computer and became further demoralized by reports of Hurricane Harvey striking Texas. “It’s happening everywhere,” I thought.
“It,” is the effects of climate change, ranging from the debilitating — it’s dangerous to work or even walk about in excessive heat — to the utterly destructive — extreme weather events that kill dozens or even thousands of people and cripple entire regions.
In late August, concurrent weather events smashed records worldwide. The Pacific Northwest heat wave hit 109 degrees; the record monsoon in India and Southeast Asia has killed more than 1,000 people so far; and, Harvey dumped 52 inches of rain on Houston in four days. For comparison, Corvallis, Oregon, gets about 44 inches of rainfall in an average year.
Naturally, many observers brought up the connection between Harvey’s severity and climate change. We’ll get to that shortly, but first, sadly, it’s necessary to debunk a ruse that climate-change “skeptics” usually resort to during such debates: namely, claiming that it’s inappropriate to discuss climate change during an emergency, when we should be focusing on the victims. This is a moralistic ploy that exploits the victims’ situation in order to draw attention away from the root causes of their suffering.
In fact, we can walk and chew gum at the same time. We can focus on helping the victims and on understanding their predicament so we can begin to forestall its repetition. There is no better time to discuss cause and effect than when the nation’s attention is focused on a crisis — which is exactly why some people would like to postpone that discussion… indefinitely.
Concerning connections: Climatologists have never claimed that global warming “causes” extreme weather events; just that it increases the odds of their occurring and the odds that they will be…extreme.
Due to climate change, the water and air in the Gulf region have warmed, this summer being one of the warmest on record. Warm air can carry more moisture than cooler air, and warm water helps energize hurricanes.
Each of the past three years has seen a “500-year storm” hit the Houston area. (A 500-year weather event is one that has a 500-to-1 chance of occurring in any given year.) The 2015 and 2016 storms weren’t hurricanes, proper; just exceptionally heavy, exceptionally unlikely storm systems that caused extensive flooding.
Vast, super-energized and carrying 33 trillion gallons of water at landfall, Hurricane Harvey has actually been deemed an 800- or 1,000-year storm. It would be hard to find a clearer example of the connection between a warming planet and extreme weather than that illustrated by the Gulf’s storm systems, especially Harvey.
It’s been said that the wealthy U.S. would remain relatively free from the ravages of climate change. But “relative” is a relative word. While Harvey took probably fewer than 100 lives, compared to thousands of lives lost in some extreme weather events in poorer, more crowded countries, Harvey’s economic toll is staggering. Reconstruction costs are estimated at up to $200 billion.
More important is the impact on humans. The aftermaths of floods are often worse than the events themselves. Eleven million Americans have been traumatized by Harvey, a single storm. What can they expect the future to bring?
Because the Gulf will keep getting warmer, some climatologists have already predicted that Harvey’s flood records soon will be broken. If they’re right, our $200 billion could go down the drain, and people could lose hope at our ecological house.