Pay heed to what nature is telling us

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at­ten­tion to what hap­pened to Houston. It is rare to be given such a vivid look at our col­lec­tive future.

Cli­mate change can­not be defini­tively blamed for Hur­ri­cane Har­vey, but it likely did make the storm more pow­er­ful. Global warm­ing did not con­jure the rains that flooded the na­tion’s fourth­largest city, but it likely did make them more tor­ren­tial. The spec­ta­cle of res­cue boats ply­ing the streets of a ma­jor me­trop­o­lis is some­thing we surely will see again. The ques­tion is how of­ten.

The re­la­tion­ship be­tween cli­mate and weather is un­de­ni­able but never spe­cific. Trop­i­cal cy­clones do not bat­ter Siberia’s arc­tic coast and heavy snow­falls do not blan­ket the beaches of Bar­ba­dos be­cause the cli­mates are dif­fer­ent. But no one bliz­zard or hur­ri­cane can be at­trib­uted to cli­mate change be­yond the shadow of a doubt — which opens any­one who raises the sub­ject at a time like this to the ac­cu­sa­tion of “politi­ciz­ing” a dis­as­ter.

The sci­ence ex­plain­ing cli­mate change is clear, how­ever, no mat­ter what de­niers such as Pres­i­dent Trump choose to be­lieve. And it will be po­lit­i­cal de­ci­sions that de­ter­mine how of­ten we wit­ness scenes of dev­as­ta­tion such as those in Houston.

Be­gin with the ba­sic fact of a warm­ing planet, due pri­mar­ily to green­house gas emis­sions from the burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els. The wa­ters of the Gulf of Mex­ico are un­usu­ally warm this sum­mer — be­tween two de­grees and three de­grees above nor­mal — which gave Har­vey ex­tra en­ergy and mois­ture.

Hur­ri­canes usu­ally weaken when they ap­proach a coast­line, but Har­vey was able to gain strength, mak­ing land­fall as a Cat­e­gory 4 storm. Ac­cord­ing to Penn State Univer­sity pro­fes­sor Michael Mann, one of the world’s lead­ing ex­perts on cli­mate change, Har­vey’s un­prece­dented rain­fall to­tals were likely boosted by global warm­ing in at least two ways. Higher at­mo­spheric and ocean tem­per­a­tures mean more evap­o­ra­tion, he wrote in The Guardian, which means more pre­cip­i­ta­tion. And the fact that the storm parked it­self so stub­bornly over Houston is due to a jet-stream pat­tern pre­dicted in sci­en­tists’ cli­mat­e­change mod­els.

Since 2005, we’ve had Ka­t­rina, Sandy and now Har­vey. The flood next time could come in Cor­pus Christi, Mo­bile, Pen­sacola, Tampa Bay, Naples, Mi­ami, Jack­sonville, Sa­van­nah, Charleston — no one knows where. But there is no doubt that it will come.

Hu­mankind has boosted the con­cen­tra­tion of car­bon diox­ide in the at­mos­phere by a shock­ing 40 per­cent since the be­gin­ning of the In­dus­trial Revo­lu­tion, when we started burn­ing fos­sil fu­els on a large scale. Even if car­bon emis­sions were mag­i­cally ended to­mor­row, warm­ing would con­tinue for many years. But we can — if we choose — keep cli­mate change from get­ting cat­a­stroph­i­cally out of hand.

The rest of the in­dus­tri­al­ized world has de­cided to move to­ward a clean-en­ergy future — and reap the eco­nomic ben­e­fits such a shift can en­tail. I’m bet­ting that Trump’s suc­ces­sor, whether a Demo­crat or a Repub­li­can, will re­verse his short­sighted, self­de­feat­ing de­ci­sion to with­draw from the Paris cli­mate ac­cord.

But in ad­di­tion to mit­i­gat­ing cli­mate change, we must adapt to the warm­ing we have made in­evitable. Houston of­fi­cials at least tried to learn one les­son: In 2005, as Hur­ri­cane Rita ap­proached, of­fi­cials or­dered an evac­u­a­tion that turned free­ways into park­ing lots; about 100 peo­ple died in the chaos. This time, res­i­dents were ad­vised to stay put — and, from what we know so far, there ap­pears to have been much less loss of life.

But bil­lions of dol­lars’ worth of pri­vate and pub­lic in­fra­struc­ture is be­ing de­stroyed. Since low-ly­ing coastal cities are not likely to pick up and move in­land, they are go­ing to need new nat­u­ral or ar­ti­fi­cial bar­ri­ers to pro­tect against storm surge (which might have been the big prob­lem with Har­vey, but wasn’t) and high-ca­pac­ity drainage sys­tems to al­le­vi­ate flood­ing (which was).

Such projects are hugely ex­pen­sive — but cheaper than re­pair­ing the dam­age from a city­wide flood.

Also, the na­tion needs a sus­tain­able way of pro­vid­ing flood in­sur­ance to those living in vul­ner­a­ble ar­eas. The cur­rent Na­tional Flood In­sur­ance Pro­gram charges rates that do not nearly cover its out­lays, and for years it re­lied on out-of-date maps that did not ac­cu­rately show flood risks.

Build­ings, mean­while, can be made more flood-proof. Pres­i­dent Obama signed an ex­ec­u­tive or­der re­quir­ing builders who re­ceive fed­eral funds for a project to ac­count for the risk of flood­ing in their con­struc­tion plans. Trump re­scinded the mea­sure, say­ing it was “job-killing.” How many peo­ple went to work in Houston today?

Folks, nature is telling us some­thing. How many “100-year” storms or “1,000-year” floods will it take for us to lis­ten? The Wash­ing­ton Post

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