Fear of Florence should fuel ac­tion on cli­mate

USA TODAY International Edition - - NEWS | OPINION -

An alien in­tel­li­gence vis­it­ing our planet this week would be shocked by how peo­ple can at once be fear­ful and feck­less about the con­se­quences of a warm­ing planet.

While there is no ev­i­dence that cli­mate change cre­ates any given storm — such as Hur­ri­cane Florence, ruth­lessly bear­ing down on the East Coast — there is no sci­en­tific de­bate that the planet is warm­ing and that seas are ris­ing due in part to melt­ing ice sheets.

And there is rea­son­ably strong sci­en­tific con­sen­sus that warmer air holds more wa­ter va­por, pro­duc­ing more rain, and that higher ocean tem­per­a­tures fuel a cy­clone’s power. In ad­di­tion, it’s in­dis­putable that ris­ing sea lev­els worsen one cru­cial de­struc­tive el­e­ment of any hur­ri­cane — the storm surge of sea wa­ter that sweeps in­land wreak­ing havoc.

De­spite this grow­ing body of knowl­edge, and even as Florence makes its ter­ri­fy­ing de­but, news ar­rived this week that the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is seek­ing to ease drilling-in­dus­try re­stric­tions and al­low even more heat­trap­ping gases into the at­mos­phere.

Even as the na­tion braces for what could be one of the most de­struc­tive man­i­fes­ta­tions of a warm­ing planet — a hur­ri­cane of po­ten­tially his­toric pro­por­tions — poli­cies are be­ing drafted that could ren­der the planet even more vul­ner­a­ble.

Isn’t this the def­i­ni­tion of in­san­ity? The rule changes pro­posed by the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency, first re­ported this week by The New York Times, would weaken Obama-era re­stric­tions aimed at pre­vent­ing oil- and gas-drilling op­er­a­tions from leak­ing meth­ane, a pol­lu­tant 25 times more ef­fec­tive than car­bon diox­ide at trap­ping heat in the at­mos­phere.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump has la­beled cli­mate change a hoax, and eas­ing meth­ane re­stric­tions is his lat­est ef­fort to dis­man­tle Pres­i­dent Barack Obama's frame­work for fight­ing cli­mate change. Af­ter an­nounc­ing that the United States would with­draw from the Paris cli­mate ac­cord, Trump has pro­posed rolling back ve­hi­cle fuel-ef­fi­ciency stan­dards and junk­ing Obama’s Clean Power Plan for cut­ting green­house gas emis­sions from elec­tric­ity gen­er­at­ing plants.

All of this is be­ing done un­der the man­tle of dereg­u­la­tion. Eas­ing re­stric­tions on the meth­ane leak­ing into the at­mos­phere will save the oil and gas in­dus­try $484 mil­lion by 2025, ac­cord­ing to an EPA es­ti­mate.

But con­sider this:

❚ Three of the five costli­est hur­ri­canes in U.S. his­tory were last year (Har­vey, Irma and Maria) and caused a com­bined $265 bil­lion in dam­age.

❚ Irma and Har­vey rep­re­sented the first time in 166 years of record-keep­ing that two Cat­e­gory 4 hur­ri­canes made U.S. land­fall in one year.

❚ Har­vey dumped more than 60 inches in Texas, and two stud­ies have de­ter­mined that global warm­ing hiked that rain­fall by 15%-38%.

Fore­cast­ers now fear that Florence could prove to be the Har­vey of the East Coast.

And there’s the price in lives lost. Maria killed at least 3,000 peo­ple in Puerto Rico, earn­ing it a place as Amer­ica’s sec­ond dead­li­est storm since a hur­ri­cane killed 8,000 to 12,000 peo­ple in Galve­ston, Texas, in 1900.

Sur­veys this year show that three out of four Amer­i­cans now be­lieve that global warm­ing is real, and large ma­jori­ties agree that hu­mans are at least par­tially re­spon­si­ble with the burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els and the re­lease of heat­trap­ping gases into the at­mos­phere.

As the fury of Hur­ri­cane Florence de­scends on the south­east­ern USA, its fe­roc­ity juiced by warm wa­ters and a warm­ing at­mos­phere, Amer­i­cans may be­gin ques­tion­ing the wis­dom of poli­cies that can only make such catas­tro­phes worse.

NOAA VIA GETTY IMAGES

Hur­ri­cane Florence on Wed­nes­day.

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