Three things we just learned about climate change and big storms: Can the lessons of Harvey save us?

As bad as Harvey was, the next big storm could be worse. Forget incremental responses — it's time for action

Published September 4, 2017 11:00AM (EDT)


A storm as momentous as Hurricane Harvey, which devastated southeast Texas last week, holds many lessons — almost too many, one might say. To keep things manageable, I can name three that could serve us very well.

First, "Did climate change cause Hurricane Harvey?" is the wrong question to ask, embedding a host of mistaken assumptions and leading us nowhere useful. The right question to ask, instead, is something more like “What does Harvey tell us about the kind of future we will be living in?" Asking the right question helps orient us toward moving forward.

Second, Trump's climate denial vs. reality of Hurricane Harvey is just the tip of the iceberg. The losses involved are constantly growing beyond our previous calculations, and could easily be enough to destroy America's capacity for world leadership, much as World War II destroyed Britain's. In addition, Trump's climate denial is just one facet of his budget and policy priorities which are clearly disastrous in light of Harvey, and Houston's role as a fossil fuel industry center represents another dimension of potential catastrophic loss — even if we dodge a bullet this time. 

The third big lesson was laid out in a Twitter thread by planetary futurist Alex Steffen: “What Houston shows us, yet again, is that we live in a world of predatory delay,” he wrote, defining that concept as “the blocking or slowing of needed change, in order to make money off unsustainable, unjust systems in the meantime.” Learning this lesson, he went on to say, “is key to understanding how we must act in order to save ourselves & acting accordingly.”

Let's take a closer look at each of these lessons in turn.

First, whether climate change caused Hurricane Harvey is the wrong way to think about extreme weather and climate change. To see what's wrong with this question, consider what leading climate scientist Michael Mann wrote for the Guardian: "It's a fact: climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly," in which he cites “certain climate change-related factors that we can, with great confidence, say worsened the flooding.” (Other scientists offered similar views, as noted in this round-up.)

These include sea-level rise of more than six inches and sea surface temperature rise of about 0.5 degrees Celsius (roughly 1 degree Fahrenheit), plus “a deep layer of warm water that Harvey was able to feed upon when it intensified at near record pace as it neared the coast.” The local surface temperature where Harvey intensified was also another 0.5 to 1 degrees Celsius warmer than average temperatures generally, “which translates to 1-1.5 [degrees] C warmer than 'average' temperatures a few decades ago,” Mann noted. “That means 3-5% more moisture in the atmosphere.”

There were also more tenuous factors — which is not say less important ones, necessarily. The stalling of the storm due to weak prevailing winds is a result of an expanded subtropical pressure system, with the jet stream displaced far to the north. There is also new evidence that such nearly “stationary” summer weather patterns, which lock in extreme weather (heat waves as well as storms) intensify as a result of climate change.

So there are multiple ways in which climate change could contribute to Harvey, but that's not the same thing as causation:

In conclusion, while we cannot say climate change “caused” Hurricane Harvey (that is an ill-posed question), we can say is that it exacerbated several characteristics of the storm in a way that greatly increased the risk of damage and loss of life. Climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Harvey.

This kind of conceptual caution — which is absolutely vital in the practice of science — can be unwise in public discourse, where it can easily be misconstrued: “Oh, so global warming didn't cause Hurricane Harvey! Nothing to worry about, then!”

The answer is not to get sloppy and abandon that caution, but to get more precise and persistent in advancing better questions to ask. That's what brings us to my proposed replacement, “What does Hurricane Harvey tell us about the kind of future we will live in?" This question takes the common human tragedy, and turns it into a shared quest for meaning and purpose, something that unites and transcends all the individual recovery struggles involved, as well as the efforts of those supporting them.

It's also the way that virtually all professions operate with respect to new information, regardless of whether they expect minor, incremental change, profound, earth-shattering change, or something in between. It's a question that orients us toward gathering and evaluating new information, reflecting on how it impacts us, seeking to integrate it with existing knowledge, and engaging in conversations with others about all the above. This is a profoundly open-ended, yet purposeful process, the exact opposite of a yes-or-no question about climate change and causation. 

It's also in tune with the spirit of Bayesian statistics, revising probabilities in light of new information. Mann is also co-author of a recent paper showing that a Bayesian statistical approach, updating statistical predictions with existing knowledge of the sort mentioned above, “will, under rather general assumptions, yield more accurate forecasts. ... We also argue that such an approach will better serve society, in providing a more effective means to alert decision-makers to potential and unfolding harms and avoid opportunity costs. In short, a Bayesian approach is preferable, both empirically and ethically.” (At Science Blogs, Greg Laden wrote a very lucid commentary, explaining the paper's core argument.)

The second big lesson is easy to state: Trump's climate denial vs. reality of Hurricane Harvey is just the tip of the iceberg — but, like an iceberg itself, is more complicated to explore. First, there's the problem of accurately assessing the risks involved. Like Sandy before it, Hurricane Harry is being reported as a 500-year flood event. But a 2015 paper accounting for climate change (which Mann also co-authored) showed Sandy to be about a 25-year flood event under current climate conditions:

The flood risk for New York City due to tropical cyclones and their resultant storm surges has increased significantly during the last millennium. Mean flood heights increased by >1.2 m from A.D. 850 to A.D. 2005 due to rising relative sea levels. Additionally, there were increases in the types of tropical cyclones that produce the greatest surges for the region. Subsequently, the 500-y[ear] flood height return periods have fallen to 24.4 y[ears] throughout the millennium.

The paper's calculations are specific to New York, but a roughly similar reduction in return periods should be expected to apply in the Gulf of Mexico as well, which makes much more sense in light of recent hurricane history there. Furthermore, the actual risks we face moving forward are almost certainly worse. The problem of extreme weather driven by climate change is a dynamic one, and getting worse the longer we delay action, both in directly fighting climate change and in adopting aggressive mitigation policies.

Indeed, projected future losses if we proceed along Trump's policy path could easily be enough to destroy America's capacity for world leadership, much as World War II destroyed Britain's. It didn't start with Trump, of course. George W. Bush's withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocols was a terrible setback, and Barack Obama was slow to reverse things, at first, disappointing world environmentalists at Copenhagen in 2009, when he had legislative majorities to take decisive action. But over time, especially as grassroots organizing — given worldwide coherence through in advance of Copenhagen—gained increasing support from below, Obama moved through executive orders, leaving office with a mixed record, but definitely headed in the right direction. Trump's withdrawal from the Paris accords is a replay of Bush's withdrawal from Kyotoon steroids. As UN Secretary-General António Guterres put it at the time:

The real danger is not the threat to one’s economy that comes from acting. It is, instead, the risk to one’s economy by failing to act.

The message is simple: The sustainability train has left the station. Get on board or get left behind. Those who fail to bet on the green economy will be living in a grey future.

Trump has a long history of making bad bets, and then getting others to pay for them. The cost this time could not be higher. Rather than restoring America's power, he is hastening its downfall, and Hurricane Harvey is but the latest harbinger of what lies ahead.

But Trump's climate denial is just one facet of his budget and policy priorities which are clearly disastrous in light of Harvey. These include proposed cuts to FEMA ($667 million), EPA ($2.6 billion, a 31.4 percent cut), NOAA, the Army Corps of Engineers ($1 billion, a 16.3 percent cut), the Department of Transportation ($2.4 billion, a 12.7 percent cut), and NOAA ($900 million, a 16 percent cut). In more detail there were cuts to FEMA of $581 million for federal disaster response, including:

  • Public Assistance Funding, supporting the rebuilding of public infrastructure — schools, hospitals, bridges, water treatment plants, etc., as well as debris removal and cleanup efforts.
  • Individual Assistance Funding, helping those who’ve lost their homes with food and temporary shelter.
  • Hazard Mitigation Grants, which provide support to fix vulnerabilities exposed in a disaster, such as relocating or elevating damaged homes.

As well as:

  • Complete elimination of funding for floodplain mapping ($190 million).
  • A $90 million cut in pre-disaster preparedness funding, which studies have shown would help avoid $360 million in future disaster costs.

This is in addition to Trump's overall orientation of eliminating federal programs in favor of unfunded state and local ones, which are inherently much less resilient and less capable of functioning in the face of future catastrophes. And, of course, there is also Trump's feckless threats to force a government shutdown over the funding for his proposed border wall.

Finally, Houston's role as a fossil fuel industry center adds another dimension of potential catastrophic loss to the equation. The potential loss of oil and gas can be economically damaging in the short- and medium-run, especially because of our exaggerated dependence on fossil fuels. As I write, this threat seems to have been largely avoided — this time around. But there's always a next time, and we might not always be so lucky.

The immediate Houston area has not been so lucky on another count, the direct environmental damage from flares, spills, ruptures, derailments, etc., that inevitably accompany such massive storms. An early report cited the figure of one million pounds of harmful air pollution released from petrochemical plants. There are also the explosions at the Arkema chemical plant, whose owners successfully lobbied Trump to block new safety rules, with the help of Texas Republicans.

The money that will be invested in rebuilding Houston's lost or damaged fossil fuel capacity would be much better spent on building new renewable energy capacity instead. Likewise, Houston's continued sprawling, wasteful, unregulated development represents another bad bet on the future. There are lessons aplenty here, just waiting to be learned, all of which reflect on the central one: Continued climate denial blinds us to the countless ways in which we could remake our world and make a better future possible, if only we had the political will and wisdom to do so.

This brings us to the third big lesson, articulated by Alex Steffen, that “we live in a world of predatory delay” characterized by the blocking of necessary change in order to profit off unjust, unsustainable systems for as long as possible. To begin with, Steffen notes:

For delay to be truly predatory, those engaged in it need to know two things: That they're hurting others and that there are other options.

Revelations from Inside Climate News that Exxon knew about climate change decades ago, and that the electric utility industry knew as well, make clear that there's nothing new about predatory delay. It's just much more obvious and blatant than ever before.

The basic problem isn't technological but moral, Steffen argues:

When folks know they're unnecessarily causing damage, they have a moral choice to make: Do they find another way to make money — or dig in?

A generation has failed this moral test. Old people have mostly chosen to dig in their heels — and lie to themselves about what they're doing.

Whether we're talking about the housing crisis, the climate crisis, the defense of auto dependence or the impoverishment of America's kids ...

It's all one big dynamic. Older people getting rich — unprecedentedly rich — by dismissing their obligations to society & young people's future.

So what began long ago as a passive moral failure to do the right thing has metastasized into active malevolence:

And in all of these cases, the desire to not be called out on their predatory behavior has lead to the embrace of alternative facts.

"Climate science isn't certain."

"Building housing doesn't make housing more accessible."

"Cars are here to stay."

"I pay too many taxes."

The result has been what we all can see: A nation whose neglected systems are coming unglued at the seams as it heads into planetary crisis.

This is precisely what we're seeing in Houston with Hurricane Harvey. Is it really any wonder why Bernie Sanders, who talked about climate change in the same moral terms as inequality, touched such a nerve with younger voters last year? Steffen goes on to argue that voices of “gradualism, incrementalism and a 'realism' that ignores physical reality,” are delusional, if not purposefully deceitful. “We need to remake the systems around us at breakneck speed,” he says. “Every day, our challenges become increasingly harder to solve — speed is everything.”

Seeing the problem as predatory delay recasts everything ib a different light. The supposed virtues of moderation are but a huckster's ruse. Those familiar with Martin Luther King Jr.'s actual words will hear a distinct echo here. In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King wrote:

First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."

King knew quite well that, 100 years after the Civil War, waiting was the last thing he and his people could afford to do. We are all King's people today. Steffen puts it this way:

When the status quo is both destructive and deceptive, those working to create needed change owe those benefiting from delay exactly nothing

There is no moral equivalence in the choice of disruptive rapid action and comfortable delay followed by disaster,

Those of us who are ready to create a sustainable, equitable future have the wildest permission imaginable to deliver it however we can.

The time has long passed when we should presume good faith and honest intentions from those who embrace lies to perpetuate predatory delay. ...

Whether we accept it — whether we treat predatory delay as normal behavior or call it out and demand bold, rapid change instead — is up to us.

All meaningful sustainability work is now disruptive.

This is the final, most important lesson of Hurricane Harvey. The status quo is destroying humanity's future. There is nothing reasonable in being reasonable about it anymore. There is no such thing as a “more convenient season” when every season brings a new catastrophe that is but a sliver of the catastrophic future that is coming, unless we take action now.

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

MORE FROM Paul Rosenberg