A Climate Assisted Catastrophe: The Climate Minute Podcast

Of course, our focus is on Houston, Texas and the devastation incurred from Hurricane Harvey. Due to the enormity of the event, we will cover this topic in two podcast sessions—this week we focus on the human scale of the suffering, what you can do to help, the climate change assist given to this storm, and the implications of what is happening. We state, unequivocally, that Hurricane Harvey and its destructive nature is the sort of extreme weather event that climate scientists have warned about for decades.

This past week, a human catastrophe like the country has never seen visited Houston, Texas. For details about the magnitude of the storm and multiple weather records broken (shattered, really), check out this report or this one. The devastation for the people in the city of Houston is unimaginable - their lives have been upset, they are out of their homes, they may not have access to their medicine, they have lost pets or worse. So we begin our discussion of Hurricane Harvey with a message of support, condolence, and we want the people of Houston to know that we hope—as Americans—we will all pull together to help the city. Houston has a long and hazardous road ahead of them. Here are several ways you can help:

Donate to NextGen America’s Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund. NextGen America will match your donation and is an excellent organization that “acts politically to prevent climate disaster, promote prosperity, and protect the fundamental rights of every American.” Click here and scroll down to the Hurricane Harvey Community Relief Fund. You can find Houston local charities here.

It is important to recognize the human scale of the suffering, but at the same time, we need to speak frankly about the underlying causes and the implications of what is happening. What we see unfolding in front of us is a climate event, and we need to make that point in real time. Eric Holthaus wrote an article for PoliticoThis is What Climate Change Looks Like.” Around the same time that Eric Holthaus published this article, David Leonhardt of the New York Times also published an article titled “Harvey, the Storm that Humans Helped Cause,” in which he explained the physics of why this happened—warmer weather causes heavier rainfall and the oceans are warmer due to ocean acidification traced to carbon pollution; therefore we have this deluge. We think it is a profound moral tragedy that both Politico and the New York Times are two publications that ran these great reports but also have had a history of running denialist screeds, in fact, the New York Times gave us Bret Stephens who pretends that this sort of stuff is not real. It is very, very real and profoundly deadly. One of the things we need to be clear on at the beginning is the connections between this storm and climate change.

Last week we marveled about how science predicted the eclipse down to the minute. Well, it turns out that science can predict a thing or two about storms. As Michael Mann put it in his article for the Guardian on August 28th, sea level is more than a half of a foot higher than the past few decades; that means the storm surge is also a half a foot higher. The sea surface temperatures have risen 0.5C (about 1F) over the past few decades. Mann discusses the “Clausius-Clapeyron equation,” which tells us that for each 0.5C rise in ocean temperatures we will have roughly a three percent increase in average atmospheric moisture. Specific to Harvey, sea surface temperatures were 0.5-1C warmer than current-day average temperatures, “which translates to 1-1.5C warmer than ‘average’ temperatures a few decades ago.” So based on the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, there was about three to five percent more moisture in the atmosphere.

In Mariah’s book, Protecting the Planet, she explains why climate change increases storms: warm air holds more water vapor than cold air. And warming oceans cause more water to evaporate into the atmosphere. In other words, the amount of water condensed into clouds in our skies is constantly increasing as our Earth warms. The conditions that must be present to create a storm are when a front of cold, dry air collides with a front of warm, wet air. When this happens, the clouds are like a sponge being squeezed. So with that three to five percent more moisture in the clouds over Houston, three to five percent more water was there to be squeezed out over the city. While the hurricane itself was not caused by climate change, the rising waters and rising temperatures caused by burning fossil fuels are a storm exacerbator. Climate change gives an assist to hurricanes, making the devastation that much worse. The strength of the resulting precipitation is dependent on the total amount of moisture trapped in the air. Harvey penetrated the unusually warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico to feed upon and then dump onto Texas.

The Atlantic makes the argument that the water in the western gulf is much warmer than normal. When the tropical storm came over the Gulf of Mexico, it fed off that warmth and progressed rapidly to a category 4 hurricane in forty-eight hours. What’s worse is that generally storms churn up cold water from the deep ocean and that drains their energy; in the case of Hurricane Harvey, the water it churned from the deep ocean was warm—due to climate change. This further strengthened and intensified the storm. Michael Mann said that climate change might also be the reason that the storm stalled near the coast, continuing to pummel Houston with rainfall. The storm stalled due to weak prevailing winds, which are unable to push the storm back to the sea. These are only a few of the very specific, technical reasons that cause scientists to say Hurricane Harvey was a climate-assisted catastrophe. Dave Roberts from Vox makes the same case—in an article worth the read—that climate change did not cause Hurricane Harvey but it was a big part of the story.  

We have not been happy with the way the media, in general, has downplayed the climate aspect of this and keep saying how unprecedented and shocking this storm is, despite that climate models have predicted it to some degree. James Hansen refers to “scientific reticence” by which he means climate scientists are reluctant to say that any one storm was exacerbated by climate change. That reticence by scientists ends up being reflected in the mainstream media. Joe Romm of ThinkProgress compared climate change to a baseball player on steroids. If a baseball player has more home runs when he is on steroids, you can’t necessarily prove that any single home run was directly caused by the steroids, but him being on steroids helps the likelihood that he would hit home runs artificially. So from this perspective, we can say that carbon pollution is a human growth hormone for storms. As David Leonhardt says, “Out of an abundance of academic caution — a caution that is in many ways admirable — scientists (and journalists) have obscured climate change’s true effects.”

We are of two minds on this issue, on the one hand, the scientific reticence that exists in the climate science community needs to stop now. Climate scientists need to lose whatever fear they may have of directly saying what Kevin Trenberth previously said, that all storms are impacted by climate change because we have changed the climate. On the other hand, we don’t want to blame climate scientists for being prudent in what they say. There is plenty of concrete evidence that the news media steps over when they want to talk about how much it is raining in Houston. The scientists and media should at least state clearly that Hurricane Harvey is something that is consistent with the biggest story of the century, namely climate change.

In these big natural disasters, you see that the poor, the sick, and the elderly are often the ones who get slammed the hardest. If you have money, you can evacuate early and stay at a hotel to wait out the storm, but if you don’t have a car and you rely on public transportation, or you are in a hospital, and the hospital floods or their generators break down…you will be impacted the most. PodSaveAmerica (we highly recommend!) said that we are very good at acute compassion in these disasters, but climate change amelioration requires long-term decency. In Houston, a lot of resources are going into helping people; it is wonderful and inspiring. But we have a long-term decency that we have to uphold to make sure this doesn’t happen again to people in the future. And that is where it is important to recognize this as a climate change assisted disaster and to understand and talk about and make motions toward climate amelioration. Two of the things that popped up here is that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) were going to maintain the border checkpoints so that undocumented people that were trying to escape the rain would still be apprehended. The mayor of Houston said you should go to a shelter whether you are documented or undocumented and called for some softening of immigration laws during the tragedy. Even still, many undocumented people were afraid to be rescued, yet another example of how the poor get hit the hardest. Naomi Klein writes in the Intercept that, “We need to seize the moment to lay out intersectional solutions, ones that dramatically lower emissions while battling all forms of inequality and injustice.” Naomi Klein also said in an interview on Democracy Now that this is the time when people need to discuss the multiple threats that the fossil fuel industry poses to humanity. We need to look at the current pollution, but also the petrochemicals being placed near disadvantaged communities, the fact that disadvantaged communities will be suffering for decades to come from increased cancer and gastrointestinal diseases that will be brought about from all of these chemicals flowing through Houston. Climate change is not just a great exacerbator of extreme weather it is also the great exacerbator of disparities such as income disparities and cultural disparities.

We are in the midst of a catastrophe happening in Houston. It is a somber time. But there is also the intellectual recognition that it is not an act of God. So we hope the talk that this is a climate event—something that requires thought—grows. We hope that the country recognizes Hurricane Harvey as climate-assisted and engages with the long-term decency to avoid the future environmental injustices that play into climate-assisted natural disasters. It is time for us to say Houston is flattened; it should come back as a model sustainable city, powered by green energy, and fair and clean for all; here is how we can do it right this time. Let’s hope that we can turn this into a constructive event. To have a positive shock doctrine is going to require an amassing of political will, which we have not seen in recent years, but hopefully, we will see in the aftermath of this.

Upcoming Events:

September 13, 2017, 7 pm Mariah Tinger, author of Protecting the Planet: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change, will be discussing climate and climate leaders in her book talk and signing at Trident Booksellers and Café on Newbury Street.

September 19, 2017, 1-5 pm Lobby your legislators at the Renewable Portfolio Standard – Bill Hearing. Find more information on the MCAN FB page.

Because we recognize the necessity of personal accountability for our actions, because we accept responsibility for building a durable future and because we believe it is our patriotic duty as citizens to speak out, we must insist that the United States put a price on carbon.

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