It’s Time to Prepare For ‘Unbelievable’ Climate Impacts

Climate change fuels events that are unbelievable but they aren’t unknowable. It's time to prepare for them.
Hurricane Harvey near Landfall between Port Aransas and Port O'Connor, Texas, August 25, 2017 ((NOAA GOES Satellite image))
Credit: NOAA GOES Satellite image

Unbelievable. That was my response to the text from my brother saying Hurricane Harvey could dump up to 35 inches of rain at his house, northeast of our hometown of Corpus Christi.

Screenshot of texts between the author and her brother before Hurricane Harvey makes landfall

Like most Texans, I watched the news and social media obsessively that day. But I watched it from dual perspectives. Both left me anxious. As a sister and friend, I worried about the safety of my loved ones. As a climate scientist, I worried knowing our country is far from prepared for the climate impacts already here and that are coming our way in the future.

Hurricanes bring a trifecta of dangers: destructive winds, damaging storm surge, and devastating rainfall. Based on decades of scientific observation and research, we know that global warming increases moisture in the atmosphere and raises sea surface temperatures and sea-level. This makes rainfall and storm surge worse for any storm and increases the risk for communities. For example, my hometown of Corpus Christi has seen an approximately 8-inch sea level rise in my lifetime. This might not sound like much but consider that its official elevation is only 7 feet above sea-level. And the area regularly experiences storm tides in the 3 to 5-foot range.

The tools now available to Earth’s CSI—climate system investigators—are able to analyze components of extreme weather events to understand how climate change has influenced them. The post-mortems of Hurricane Harvey’s rainfall found that global warming made Harvey’s deluge both more likely and more intense. As Harvey plodded up the Texas Gulf Coast, the circulation of the storm acted like a giant bucket, scooping up water from the Gulf of Mexico and dumping it on Houston, Port Arthur and other Texas and Louisiana towns. Sitting in Washington D.C. feeling helpless, I watched the satellite images swirl, rainfall records shatter and my social media feeds fill with reports from friends of the rising waters around them.

Climate change fuels events that are unbelievable but they aren’t unknowable. And the impact of natural disasters depends on prior human decisions. To make informed policy judgements, decisionmakers need to understand the latest climate science, not ignore it.

Where and what we build are all influenced by government policies whether it is federal flood insurance coverage, state building codes or local planning decisions. Most of my family and friends came through Harvey without much damage but hundreds of thousands in the region weren’t as lucky. For many of those people, policy decisions increased their risk and could hinder their ability to improve their safety before the next storm.  Last year a NRDC report Seeking Higher Ground examined issues with the federal flood insurance program that inadvertently keep people from moving out of risky areas. Unless leaders take into account the effects of the warmer and wetter world we now inhabit, they will increasingly fail to provide one of the central pillars of government – public safety. 

Even if we can achieve common-sense reforms to key policies, the United States still needs to invest in climate preparation and resiliency to deal with current and future climate impacts. In 2008, as a staffer for then-Chairman Ed Markey, I helped develop H.R. 6186, the Investing in Climate Action and Protection Act, which included a National Climate Change Adaptation Program. With proceeds from carbon pricing, the legislation provided needed funds for federal, state, local and tribal climate protection efforts. A version of this program was incorporated into the Waxman-Markey comprehensive climate bill that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009. But after fossil fuel special interests stopped comprehensive climate legislation from getting to President Obama’s desk, the Congressional discussion of investing in climate protections practically disappeared. 

But there’s no denying the need—as Hurricane Harvey and other extreme weather events demonstrate. The interest exists too. The Obama administration’s National Disaster Resilience Competition attracted applications from across the country. Red states and blue states were united in their recognition of the need for assistance with climate protection.

After 2017’s historic record for weather and climate disasters, Congress is showing a few signs of renewed interest in climate preparedness. In February, a bipartisan majority supported $12 billion in disaster mitigation assistance as part of hurricane recovering funding. This is much needed, but we need these levels of investment year after year, before disasters happen, not in their aftermath.

Infrastructure proposals from the House and Senate Democrats include provisions that would improve climate resiliency around the country. Last month, Republican Congressmen Carlos Curbelo and Brian Fitzpatrick introduced legislation that would reduce carbon pollution and provide some funding for climate adaptation.

In contrast, President Trump rescinded flood protection standards days before Harvey made landfall, which would have guided rebuilding efforts. He’s also trying to roll back clean car and power plant standards designed to cut the carbon pollution that fuels climate change. Almost a year after Hurricane Harvey made landfall, Hurricane Lane is bearing down on Hawaii and smoke from western wildfires is choking nearby communities and reaching all the way to the East Coast. Yet instead of addressing the climate threats putting Americans at risk today and preparing for future ones, President Trump’s policies will make them worse. That’s not just unbelievable. It’s unconscionable.

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