Harvey, Fort McMurray(2016), Sandy(2012), Katrina(2005) are household names in North America. Three of these events are powerful hurricanes which brought destruction and death to the large urban centres of New Orleans, New York City and now Houston. The other –- the Fort McMurray wildfire — led to the evacuation of nearly 100,000 people, destroyed some 2,400 structures and cost insurers an estimated $9 billion.
As I followed the onslaught of hurricane Harvey, I couldn’t help but quietly ponder the fate of the human race. I share my questions/observations in this piece.
Photo: South Carolina National Guard, Public Domain, Flickr
Lessons Learned or Missed Opportunities?
Have we learned anything from witnessing such catastrophic events? Are we taking the necessary measures to prevent these from getting even worse in the future? Are we enacting progressive new climate policies to mitigate against the effects of climate change? And are we reacting in time to avert runaway warming of the planet? Or will we simply replicate the mistakes of the past, frozen in time due to the inertia of world leaders in addressing this most critical issue of our times?
One could argue that little if anything has changed in the last decades of witnessing disasters around the globe. For the most part we are seeing some tinkering with early warning systems and emergency response measures. Billions have been spent to rebuild and restore the pre-event status quo which in some cases made the impacts worse than they needed to be. But little has been done to address the root causes of extreme weather events. Few if any politicians have had the courage to talk about climate change. Now is never the time to talk about that they claim; it’s just not fair to discuss this right now while people are struggling and fighting for everything they hold dear, their very life.
The major news networks seem to shy away from that discussion preferring to focus on the human tragedy of the moment avoid linking record-breaking wildfires, storms, droughts, floods to climate change.
Now is the Time to Talk About It
In an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, Naomi Klein says “Now is exactly the time to talk about climate change, and all the other systemic injustices—from racial profiling to economic austerity—that turn disasters like Harvey into human catastrophes.”
Democracy Now, Published on Aug 30, 2017
Klein rightfully claims that we should be realistic and ask ourselves if anything could have been done to prevent it. And even more importantly, is there something we must do right now to make sure it doesn’t get worse. I agree with Klein that we need to ask ourselves the tough questions when we stare disaster in the face. This is not the time for politeness, good manners and being politically correct. It is exactly the time to talk about it so we can preparing in new ways.
Now, if you are denying the reality that the Earth is warming, then you are not going to prepare in the same way for what we are seeing now, for these unprecedented events. They will take you by surprise. If you deny the reality that the Earth is warming and that humans are a major contributor in this, then you will just go ahead and rebuild the oil capital of the United States exactly how it was, as if there’s no connection between this very industry that is being hit right now and the storm itself.
And so the public is left thinking that such disasters are normal, “without root causes” (Klein’s phrase). The notion that these are acts of god that humanity must helplessly confront is entirely false and over-simplistic. The fact is that climatologists and scientists have predicted these occurrences for decades.
Did Climate Change Cause Harvey?
Climate advocates are not saying that climate change caused Harvey. But climate change supercharges hurricanes, typhoons, floods, wildfires, droughts. Climate change is the fire accelerant adding “to a disaster that would have happened anyway,” says Klein.
TheGuardian reports categorically that “There are certain climate change-related factors that we can, with great confidence, say worsened the flooding.” These are sea level rise, higher sea surface temperatures attributable to global warming, and greater amounts of moisture in the atmosphere – 3-5% more. So Harvey, Sandy and Katrina were made more intense than they would have been in the absence of human-caused warming – stronger winds, more rainfall and bigger storm surge.
The Irony is Inescapable
Like millions of others, I’ve followed the coverage of the unprecedented rainfall and flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey and the human catastrophe unfolding in Houston. I can’t help but think back to the Fort McMurray wildfire disaster just 12 months ago – Canada’s worst climate-related disaster on record. At the time I wrote about the inescapable climate irony in Fort McMurray.
The piece was very controversial and I was much maligned for my apparent lack of sensitivity and my callousness at pointing out the connection between global warming and the wildfire at a time when people were fleeing for their life. Even Prime Minister Trudeau weighed in to chastise politicians who raised the same question, urging them to wait instead until later in order to have a more sober and reflected debate on the matter. That debate never happened by the way.
Fort McMurray is the undisputed capital of the Alberta Tar Sands, one of the dirtiest oils in the world producing high levels of carbon emissions which have contributed to overall global warming, which of course made the wildfire worse than it otherwise would have been. The climate irony of an intense fire fueled by global warming attacking the capital of Tar Sands production is just too much to ignore.
Houston is the epicentre of the US oil industry refining about 35 percent of American oil. The region comprises the largest concentration of petrochemical manufacturing in the world. Here too the irony of a category 4 hurricane causing destruction that may reach as high $200 billion does not go unnoticed. Let’s just connect the dots: Hurricane Harvey amplified by global warming caused by greenhouse gases originating from centres such as Houston.
Society is to blame
We have allowed places like the Tar Sands and Houston to become climate denial empires. Why even the Alberta Climate Plan allows the expansion of the Tar Sands until 2030 and Canada’s Prime Minister is a hopeless climate pretender promoting fossil fuel expansion as a way to pay for the transition to a clean energy future.
The US has pulled out of the Paris Accord and has no climate envoy while Houston promotes itself as a city with no limits. But nature does have limits.
The debate over climate and extreme weather is OVER.
“Climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Harvey,” stated Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann bluntly, in his Facebook post about the storm. Houston should become a global warning. “The devastation of Hurricane Harvey marks a turning point and raises the terrible possibility that we’ve entered the age of climate chaos,” claims Jeff Goodell writing in RollingStone. “The larger reality is, we’re moving into an era of unknown impacts, where it is impossible to say how fast our world will change, or how bad it will get…we have no analog for this.”
Many are wondering if Harvey is the new norm. The short answer is no. Until we deal with the problem at the source — the constantly increasing concentrations of more carbon into the atmosphere — we will need to cope with more severe climate events, more often and at greater costs.