While two hurricanes of biblical proportions brewed in the Atlantic, the White House was Nero: fiddling as the city of Rome burned.
Or rather, President Trump was tweeting while Houston drowned. Environmental Protection Agency director Scott Pruitt, who said that it was not the time to discuss climate change, could not be more drastically wrong. When two “500-year” hurricanes strike in just two weeks, there is no better time to get serious about the changing odds of extreme weather events.
In the wake of cataclysms like Hurricanes Harvey or Irma, news outlets are apt to report on the aftermath as if it’s a gripping human drama. Reporting is focused on the heroism of rescuers, the bravery and spirit of survivors, and the compassion of citizens coming to the aid of their neighbors. Those stories deserve to be told in the fullest sense, but when “unprecedented” is increasingly the norm, no intelligent conversation about Harvey or Irma is complete without the inclusion of climate change. If we really value the bravery and resilience of disaster survivors, we owe it to them to think about individual and collective actions that could keep us safe from tomorrow’s storm.
Any debates about whether or not human activity amplifies the severity of extreme weather events are unproductive; we have unequivocal empirical evidence that increased emissions of heat-trapping gases increase the likelihood and scope of heat waves, extreme rainfall and storm surges. Without ambitious steps to reduce carbon emissions, a sea level rise of up to eight feet is possible this century. Additionally, the average surface temperature in the Gulf of Mexico never dropped below 73 degrees last year. We know that hurricanes get their energy from warm ocean waters, and a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture. Conditions favoring heavier rain and higher seas load the gun, and storms like Harvey and Irma pull the trigger for catastrophic deluges.
Some skeptics may posit that there is no way of scientifically proving that Harvey and Irma were definitively caused by climate change. By the same argument, there is no way of definitively proving that one case of lung cancer was caused by smoking, that one car accident was caused by alcohol or that one life was saved by a seatbelt. But once the risks of smoking and driving under the influence and the benefits of wearing a seatbelt were widely understood, most people changed their behavior and a lot of suffering was unquestionably avoided. Likewise, just a few weeks ago, Democrats and Republicans alike looked skyward to the solar eclipse because they believed the scientists who said that the moon would pass between Earth and the sun at the appropriate hour to be right. Why, then, is reticence so common when it comes to understanding how we must change our behavior to allay climate change’s worst outcomes and adapt to inevitable future weather patterns?
Furthermore, we need to acknowledge that apropos our susceptibility to cataclysmic outcomes from extreme weather, often the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves. Climate change is advancing quickly enough that right here, right now, we need to build and develop in a way that will provide resilience and be maximally adaptive. Where and how we build houses, roads, bridges, schools and other infrastructure matters. For instance, when the city of Houston had no choice but to periodically release its levees to avoid a more catastrophic break, outcomes would have been better if the water had been able to flow over open floodplains with good drainage rather than impervious concrete prairies. If we develop with an eye towards the future rather than towards short-run gains, we’ll be less subject to the whims of the weather.
There’s a fierce urgency now that the President and his environmental advisers fail to recognize, however. Of course, the administration’s most obvious assault on forward progress was its announcement that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords. But Trump has also rolled back an Obama-era regulation requiring that climate change and sea level rise be considered when roads and bridges are built with federal money. He disbanded the Advisory Committee for the National Climate Assessment, which helped policymakers incorporate climate analysis into their work. Leaving aside the fact that Pruitt has sued the EPA 13 times, we can expect little environmental leadership from the White House. Congress and state and local governments will inevitably have to pick up the slack.
Up until now, the consequences of climate change have been worse than even Al Gore’s most dire predictions in “An Inconvenient Truth.” If it continues unchecked, inevitably future conditions will exceed what we can imagine now, potentially including widespread crop failures, the hastened spread of infections diseases, and war precipitated by dwindling natural resources. Refusing to acknowledge the dangerous future we now stare down means that we will be tragically unprepared. Denying climate science is more than a political statement; it puts lives at risk around the globe. Our collective flourishing tomorrow is dependent on the decisions we make today.