The slow learner on cli­mate change


At least a decade ago, a re­tired gen­eral at the Bangladesh In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional and Strate­gic Stud­ies said to me that the rich coun­tries will never take cli­mate change se­ri­ously un­til some very big and ap­par­ently cli­matere­lated dis­as­ter hap­pens in a first­world coun­try.

Hur­ri­cane Har­vey was not that dis­as­ter.

At least 50 peo­ple have died in the Hous­ton floods, and the num­ber will un­doubt­edly go up.

In Bangladesh, at least 134 have died in mon­soon flood­ing that has sub­merged at least a third of the coun­try. But the lat­ter fact will have no im­pact on opin­ion in the de­vel­oped coun­tries – ‘‘it’s just the mon­soon again’’ – and the Texas dis­as­ter is not big enough to change minds in the United States. Nor should it.

Hur­ri­canes are an an­nual event in the Gulf of Mex­ico, and their causes are well un­der­stood. Global warm­ing has raised the amount of rain that this storm dumped on east Texas by 3-5 per­cent. (Higher sea sur­face tem­per­a­ture equals more evap­o­ra­tion.) It also prob­a­bly caused the changed wind pat­terns that kept Har­vey loi­ter­ing off the coast for so long.

But it did not cause Har­vey. The Hous­ton floods are caus­ing so much dis­rup­tion and mis­ery mainly be­cause of hu­man de­ci­sions: put­ting such a large pop­u­la­tion on a flood plain sub­ject to fre­quent hur­ri­canes, and then tak­ing in­ad­e­quate mea­sures to pro­tect those peo­ple from the in­evitable con­se­quences.

It’s the same story as Hur­ri­cane Ka­t­rina – and if more than a thou­sand dead in New Or­leans 12 years ago didn’t change the way Amer­i­cans deal with th­ese threats, the cur­rent pain in Hous­ton is cer­tainly not go­ing to do so ei­ther.

In­deed, just a cou­ple of weeks ago Pres­i­dent Trump scrapped Obama-era flood stan­dards re­quir­ing infrastructure projects to take ac­count of pre­dicted global warm­ing. There was no out­cry.

Cli­mate change is creep­ing in qui­etly, mak­ing nor­mal weather a bit more ex­treme each year, and Amer­i­cans haven’t no­ticed yet.

They get lots of help in main­tain­ing their ig­no­rance, of course. Right-wing ‘‘think tanks’’ like the In­sti­tute of En­ergy Re­search, the Heart­land In­sti­tute and the Com­pet­i­tive En­ter­prise In­sti­tute, fi­nanced by the likes of Exxon Mo­bil and the Koch brothers, have al­ready mo­bilised to deny any links be­tween the Hous­ton dis­as­ter and cli­mate change.

‘‘In­stead of wast­ing colos­sal sums of money on re­duc­ing green­house gas emis­sions, much smaller amounts should be spent on im­prov­ing the infrastructure that pro­tects the Gulf and At­lantic coasts,’’ said My­ron Ebell, direc­tor of en­vi­ron­men­tal pol­icy at the Com­pet­i­tive En­ter­prise In­sti­tute (and for­merly the head of Trump’s tran­si­tion team at the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, tasked with crip­pling it).

Mean­while, the rest of the world will have to cope with cli­mate change with­out Amer­i­can help. It can prob­a­bly man­age.

The Paris cli­mate sum­mit of De­cem­ber, 2015 pro­duced an agree­ment that was a good start in cop­ing with emis­sions.

New tech­nolo­gies of­fer more promis­ing routes for cut­ting emis­sions, and the world still has a chance of avoid run­away global warm­ing (plus 3-6 de­grees C).

Even if we can stop the warm­ing be­fore plus-2 de­grees C, how­ever, it’s too late al­ready to pre­vent ma­jor cli­mate change. There will be big­ger floods and longer droughts, food short­ages and floods of refugees, and coun­tries will have to work hard to limit the dam­age. In­clud­ing, even­tu­ally, the United States.

Talk­ing cli­mate change.

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