Did cli­mate change in­ten­sify Har­vey?

USA TODAY US Edition - - NEWS -

Even as flood­wa­ters raged this week in Texas and Louisiana, so did the de­bate over the pos­si­ble link be­tween Hur­ri­cane Har­vey and man-made cli­mate change.

Cli­mate ac­tivists pointed to the his­toric rain­fall and epic flood­ing as ex­actly the type of ex­treme event fore­cast to oc­cur as the globe warms. Skep­tics cited a long list of trop­i­cal storms that slammed Texas even be­fore the buildup of green­house gases in the at­mos­phere.

So who’s right?

In some ways, the ques­tion is pre­ma­ture, even un­seemly, while search and res­cue ef­forts con­tinue. And a de­fin­i­tive an­swer won’t come un­til sci­en­tists con­duct post-storm “at­tri­bu­tion” stud­ies. In all like­li­hood, though, the con­clu­sion will be that cli­mate change didn’t cause Har­vey, but it al­most surely made the storm worse.

Har­vey pro­duced 40- to 50inch rain­fall to­tals that left parts of Houston look­ing like Venice and ri­valed snow­fall ac­cu­mu­la­tions from bl­iz­zards in the North­east. It was, in fact, the most ex­treme rain­fall event on the con­ti­nen­tal United States in recorded his­tory.

Such events are con­sis­tent with the ba­sic sci­ence of cli­mate change: Warmer than nor­mal wa­ter tem­per­a­tures, in places such as the Gulf of Mex­ico, pro­vide heat en­ergy that fu­els the for­ma­tion and rapid strength­en­ing of trop­i­cal storms. Warmer air holds more wa­ter va­por, which in turn pro­duces more rain­fall. And ris­ing sea lev­els ex­ac­er­bate storm surge and in­land flood­ing.

Ac­cord­ing to the Na­tional Cli­mate As­sess­ment, “Heavy down­pours are in­creas­ing na­tion­ally (in re­cent decades), with the largest in­creases in the Mid­west and North­east. In­creases in ex­treme pre­cip­i­ta­tion are pro­jected for all U.S. re­gions.”

This isn’t just hap­pen­ing in North Amer­ica.

Even as Har­vey riv­eted the na­tion’s at­ten­tion this week, the death toll topped 1,000 from un­usu­ally se­vere mon­soonal rains half a world away in Bangladesh, In­dia and Nepal.

In the com­ing days and weeks, ex­pect to hear politi­cians de­scribe Har­vey as an “act of God” that had lit­tle or noth­ing to do with hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change. Even if cli­mate change is real, they’ll add, a se­ri­ous ef­fort to curb green­house gas emis­sions, through a car­bon tax or other means, would be too ex­pen­sive.

On Wed­nes­day, the pri­vate com­pany Ac­cuWeather es­ti­mated that Har­vey could end up cost­ing $190 bil­lion, mak­ing it the prici­est nat­u­ral dis­as­ter in U.S. his­tory, equal to the com­bined cost of Hur­ri­canes Ka­t­rina and Sandy.

With that kind of price tag atop a tor­rent of hu­man mis­ery, the ques­tion isn’t whether the na­tion can af­ford to get se­ri­ous about global warm­ing. We can’t af­ford not to.


Deputy sher­iff Rick John­son


Houston SWAT of­fi­cer Daryl Hudeck


From left, con­sta­bles Paul Fer­nan­dez, Michael Tran and Radha Pa­tel

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