Hurricane Harvey broke several U.S. weather records this week as it dumped over 17 trillion gallons of water on Texas. That’s the equivalent to 26 million Olympic sized swimming pools. Over 40 people have been killed and 100,000 homes damaged as flood waters rose as high as 51 inches in some parts of the state.
Although the full extent of the ruin will not be realised until the waters recede, some estimates are looking at a whopping $190 billion in damages. And, whilst Harvey has been described as an “unprecedented,” “historica,l” “once in a century event,” it is the third such storm to strike Houston in recent years, marking an undeniable pattern which is beginning to emerge across the entire globe: Climate Change.
And, while the world’s attention was largely focused on Houston, similar images of devastation unfolded in India, Bangladesh, and Nepal this week as over 1,200 people died after heavier-than-usual monsoon rains lashed the region, ushering in grave floods.
40 million people have been affected and up to 18,000 schools have been destroyed, leaving 1.8 million children unable to attend class. Meanwhile, torrential downpours in Sierra Leone last month triggered a massive mudslide which killed over 1,000 people.
Although experts are at pains to stress that climate change did not cause any of these storms, it did make each one of these events more powerful and more dangerous. According to a statement issued by the World Meteorological Organisation: “Climate change means that when we do have an event like Harvey, the rainfall amounts are likely to be higher than they would have been otherwise.”
Why? As the seas grow warmer, they evaporate more easily, providing more fuel for storm fronts. And, as the air above them heats up, it ends up holding more water vapor, with each 0.5 degree celsius in warming causing a three percent rise in atmospheric moisture content.
In Harvey’s case, the Gulf of Mexico’s surface temperature was over one degree higher than it was three decades ago. Moreover, the storm surge was greater because global sea levels have risen by 20 centimeters owing to the melting ice caps. This, in turn, has expanded the volume of seawater.
And, whilst Harvey has been billed as a once-in-a-lifetime event, such superstorms will only become the norm as the world continues to get warmer and warmer. In fact, the last three years have all been the hottest on record with temperatures now at levels not seen for some 110,000 years. And, as we continue to pollute our atmosphere with more and more carbon dioxide, it’s only going to get worse ― much worse.
According to the UN’s latest climate survey, the gold standard in global warming analysis, world temperatures will breach the four degrees celsius mark well before the turn of this century. This will usher in changes not seen since the last Ice Age, triggering a mass extinction event.
And, to make matters worse, 4C is only the median forecast: the upper end of the curve goes as high as 8C. At 4C, the deadly 2003 European heat wave, which killed 2,000 people a day, will be just a normal summer. At 7C of warming, it would be impossible to go outside, especially in the tropics where humidity routinely tops 90 percent.
Moreover, ever since Donald Trump took over the White House this year, our odds of surviving this crisis have considerably worsened. After describing global warming as a hoax invented by the Chinese to make America less competitive, the property tycoon pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord in June.
After 20 years of torturous UN talks, the Paris pact was hailed as a “historic” victory for mankind when it was signed by over 190 nations in 2015. After all, rich and poor countries alike were able to shrug off their many differences for the sake of posterity.
However, with the mere stroke of his pen, the Tweeter-in-Chief has managed to undo a lot of this progress. After all, if the U.S., the world’s biggest super power and second largest polluter, is going to shirk its responsibilities, then why shouldn’t everyone else?
Even as Trump stood in awe of the damage unleashed by Harvey this week: (“Nobody has ever seen this much water... The water has never been seen like this, to this extent,” he told a crowd in Texas) he is unlikely to vocalize the role that climate change played in exacerbating this disaster. He simply does not want to risk alienating his powerful base, nor the Republican Party, where climate denialism is as deeply entrenched as the belief in God.
Instead, the Narcissist-in-Chief was more interested in basking in the limelight that the storm had brought him as president: “You are special. What a crowd, what a turnout! We’ll congratulate each other when it’s all finished,” he said, whilst later in the day, he praised his administration’s response as “Incredible—everybody’s talking about it.”
However, until this White House sees Harvey as the new face of climate change, such mega storms will only continue to unfold, and with even greater ferocity in the future. As writer Naomi Klein points out, it is critical that we make the connection between “Texas as the oil capital of the United States” and the carnage unleashed within it by Harvey.
Otherwise, “if we simply treat it as an act of God that came out of nowhere, then we’re going to avoid a discussion of what could have been done to prevent this,” such as radically reining in global carbon emissions and reinstating and ramping up America’s commitment to the Paris Accord.
Although global warming started with the dawn of the Industrial Age over 150 years ago, more than half of that carbon dioxide has been released in the past 30 years: CO2 levels are now at their highest levels in four million years. That means that climate change has brought us to the brink of planetary collapse within the span of a single generation, and it has largely been caused by 100 companies including ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, and Chevron.
Klein says that if we did talk about Harvey in the context of climate change, then its important to mention “the financial responsibility that companies like ExxonMobil have for a storm like this.” The world’s largest oil giant knew about the devastating effects of climate change as early as 1981.
But, for the next three decades, it spent millions promoting climate denial in order to protect its bottom line. After all, it’s profits would have invariably suffered if the world started treating global warming seriously. According to Klein, “there is a legal discussion to be had here, and that’s the kind of discussion that we need to have.”
Moreover, as climate scepticism is deeply rooted within the Republican Party itself, it also needs to be held accountable. According to historian Naomi Oreskes, for the past two decades, the GOP has been “the greatest obstacle to American action on climate change. And, the only way to fix it, is to change the Republican party, or to vote Republicans out of office.”