News and PoliticsOpinion and Editorial

What Our Response to Harvey and Irma Tells Us

The wreckage soaked by rushing water throughout the streets, coating carnage from one of the more deadly storms to date. A formerly populated neighborhood turned desolate wasteland flooded by the sea. With no electricity or functioning roads, an American town is reduced to an apocalyptic nightmare. 82-year-old Vera Dupuis rummages through her belongings on the streets of northeast Jacksonville off the banks of the St. John’s River.

“We lost everything just about,” Dupuis told fox news, describing the same misfortune that hundreds of thousands of Americans felt after being hit hard by Hurricane Harvey and then Hurricane Irma.

A flooded neighborhood in northeast Jacksonville following Hurricane Irma — ABC7 New York

The two storms, with Harvey hitting Texas and Irma hitting the coast of Florida, have caused irreversible damage to countless Americans over the past couple weeks. A hurricane being deadly is no new phenomenon, as it was just over a decade ago that Americans recall watching the horrible results of Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana.

It was also only about five years ago that the East Coast was battered by Hurricane Sandy; but what is troubling is the size of the storms and how often they are now occurring. However, what is even more troubling than that is the U.S. response to them, as our government fails to take preventative steps to reverse this current trend. If we are to avoid the dangerous course we are on, then we need to address and combat the root cause of these disasters; climate change. If we don’t, we may soon be living an apocalyptic nightmare all the time.

How bad was Harvey and Irma?

At the end of it all, the two Hurricanes will cost the American taxpayers $290 billion. This comes from damages to houses, roads, businesses, key crops, etc. This is the first time that the U.S. was hit with back-to-back category-4 hurricanes in the same year, and the damages reflect that significance.

With Harvey causing 132 mph winds 200 miles in diameter, it claimed up to 60 lives. 336,000 Texas customers were left without power. The strength of the storm left houses, electricity and lives in its wake. Irma claimed 32 lives itself and left 5.7 million people without power. An estimated 6.5 million people were evacuated from their Florida homes. Texas was hit with 20 trillion gallons of rainfall, with Florida taking in 10 trillion gallons. Parts of both states were totally decimated. Human carnage and destruction is most of what remained.

Houston neighborhood near interstate 10 is flooded following Hurricane Harvey — CNBC

All of this, even with Florida not getting hit quite as hard as what was originally thought possible.

During his visit to the Florida Keys, Governor Rick Scott said, “”I didn’t see the damage I thought I would see.”

More on Scott later…

The storm was thought to head northward to Miami after it hit the Keys, but it instead moved further west. Those who lived more west were forced to evacuate, but it gave the storm time to weaken before it got to a population center. Potentially the deadliest part of the storm (the storm surge) was not as strong and didn’t do the damage that it could’ve if it moved more eastward.

Overall though, these Hurricanes did massive damage. Lives were taken and/or altered, belongings vanished, and essential utilities were destroyed. It is the kind of destruction that a citizenry should only be forced to bare on the rarest of occasions. With our changing climate though, these cataclysmic events are likely to come closer together and only get worse.

What is the link between Climate Change and these Hurricanes?

It is impossible to deny that our rising global climate is the biggest cause for the increase in degree and volume of Hurricanes we’re seeing. The average amount of tropical storms during Hurricane season (June 1-Nov. 30) is 12 storms. We have already had 11 this year, six of them Hurricanes, and the season isn’t even over. There is expected to be up to 19 tropical storms this year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They have described this is as “above normal.”

This shouldn’t be surprising. Scientists have been predicting this increase for years, with roughly 97% of peer-reviewed scientific studies backing up the notion that global warming is happening; they have been predicting that these storms are going to happen more often and be much stronger.

Adam Sobel, an atmospheric scientist who directs Columbia University’s Initiative on Extreme Weather and Climate, estimates that somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of the rainfall was due to climate change.

Diagram of location spots for Irma and Harvey — CNN 

How exactly does climate change impact hurricanes? Well, a hurricane is a formulation of multiple storms that develops above sea water that is heated to 26.5 degrees Celsius. This means that warmer seawater equals stronger storms. So with the increase in greenhouse gases in the air, the water becomes much more hot, leading to stronger hurricanes.

Also, with hotter temperatures overall, the atmosphere can hold much more water vapor, which is the reason there was so much rain and as a result so much flooding. The heating climate has also led to melting ice caps and higher sea levels. With ocean water much higher, winds are able to force more water out onto land. This is called, as previously mentioned, a storm surge.

With the science being overtly clear here, the next logical step is for the government to respond to protect its citizens, right? If they’re to prevent the rise in deadly hurricanes, they should be implementing policy to decrease the level of the aforementioned greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, water vapor) and stop the heating climate…right? Well, let us take a look at what our officials are doing to combat the climate crisis and hurricane epidemic.

What is the government’s response?

The initial response to aid those suffering in Florida and Texas has been business as usual. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is pouring in billions and Governor Rick Scott is asking for more from Washington. This is going to be difficult as FEMA is slowly being depleted of its resources and money after these disasters.

It also doesn’t help that President Donald Trump signed an executive order, just days before the formation of Harvey, that overturned a policy introduced by former President Barack Obama that would have helped businesses and home be more resilient against the risk of floods.

All of this simply deals with hurricane relief though. Where our government is failing, and has been failing, is in hurricane prevention. This stems from the overall lack of desire to lower C02 and methane production in the country. Elected representatives are paid hefty sums via campaign contributions by oil, coal, and gas companies that stand to benefit financially from the emission of greenhouse gases.

The 113th congress (2013-14) was given roughly $350 million in campaign contributions by the energy industry. The same industry was given back roughly $41.8 billion in production and exploration subsidies. That is an 11,900% rate of return on investment into our elected leaders. And those companies take those same subsidies and pollute our air, heat our climate, and cause stronger storms and more human loss. They do so to continue their production of huge sums of money at the expense of the taxpayer…who in the end has to pay again to clean up the destruction. Seems like a raw deal for the people at the hands of the government.

The White House does not seem to want to admit how obviously climate change has affected the formation of these storms.

Homeland Security advisor Tom Bossert even told reporters on Monday that, “Causality is something outside of my ability to analyze right now.” He went on to say, “There’s a cyclical nature to a lot of these hurricanes. We continue to take seriously the climate change, not the cause of it, but the things we observe.”

The President has yet to address climate change’s impact on all of this, which isn’t surprising considering his Secretary of State is the former CEO of oil & gas company ExxonMobil, Rex Tillerson, and his EPA Administrator is Scott Pruitt, former Oklahoma Congressman and Attorney General who made a name for himself by opposing environmental reforms on business.

President Trump arriving in Naples, Florida to view the destruction — ABC News

Oh, and remember when I said we would get back to Florida’s esteemed governor Rick Scott? Being the Governor of a state along the coast, and the state that is most likely to be impacted by rising sea levels and tropical storms, he has a ton of skin in the game. But, instead of aggressively fighting back against our climate crisis, he rejects even the notion of its existence.

In 2015 Scott’s appointee to the head of Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), banned even the use of the word “climate change,” among other DEP officials.

Christopher Byrd, an attorney with the DEP’s Office of General Counsel in Tallahassee from 2008-2013, said, “We were told not to use the terms ‘climate change,’ ‘global warming’ or ‘sustainability.’”

Governor Rick Scott meets with Bonita Mayor Pete Simmons and other local law enforcement in a flooded area of the city — WGCU Northwest Florida 

Even with its citizens fleeing the state and water flooding cities and towns, the Florida state government does not appear to be acting in any meaningful way to stop this absolute crisis. The federal government, does not seem to be doing much either.

So… What now?

It is a troubling time for civilization. We have a natural crisis of proportions that mankind has never seen before… and that is not an overstatement. We are heading into uncharted territory, as the predictions that scientists and climate activists have been making for over a decade are coming true. Cities are under water and death and destruction are here… yet we don’t seem to be doing much about it.

These hurricanes aren’t going to slow down. There is going to be more and more and they are going to get worse and worse. These two hurricanes are not a blip on the radar; they are part of our new norm.

The scariest part is, even if we as a global society were to stop emitting greenhouse gases completely right away (something we are far from doing), carbon dioxide would still heat up the earth for years. The intergovernmental panel on climate change estimates that even a two degree Celsius increase from pre-industrial times would be catastrophic for the global climate structure. This would require us to limit our carbon emissions to 1,000 billion tons. We are already halfway there.

Another study conducted by author Thomas Frölicher, who conducted the work as a postdoctoral researcher in Princeton’s Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, shows that we would actually need to keep carbon emission below 750 billion tons to avoid the two-degree increase. This means we are even closer to hitting 2 degrees Celsius than we thought.

These studies indicate that even with a mass reduction of harmful gas emission, much bigger than what we are doing right now, the earth is still going to heat for a long time. Meaning disaster is almost inevitable.

Interstate 10 is blocked off due to major flood waters — San Antonio Express-News 

The only viable solution is a massive-scale change in our economy, business, political system, and energy usage. These changes include huge reduction in fossil fuel subsidies, a formation of a cap and trade system that forces companies that exceed a certain amount of emission to pay a tax, a carbon tax that prices fossil fuels out of the market, an upheaval of the political funding system that currently allows corporations to charge the American taxpayer for their pollution, and a massive funding effort into the research/development of clean renewable energy.

Without these actions there will be more Harveys and Irmas and more loss of life. Though it may be too late to stop future hurricanes from growing in volume and capacity, something has to be done to save the future of our civilization from going away completely. The lack of response by our government though, is the most distressing part of this all. An institutional change has been long overdue.