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Hurricane Harvey and the inevitable question of climate change

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It’s been more than three days since Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas, but the record-shattering deluge it unleashed still isn’t over. Houston, America’s fourth-largest city, and parts of southeastern Texas are being pounded by continuing rains, and the storm has triggered a new emergency in the neighboring state of Louisiana. At least nine deaths related to the storm have been reported, tens of thousands have been driven from their homes, and federal authorities estimate that close to half a million people will seek disaster assistance.

Various U.S. government officials described the impact of Hurricane Harvey with apocalyptic superlatives. “We are seeing catastrophic flooding,” said Louis W. Uccellini, the director of the National Weather Service, who warned that the waters would be slow to recede. His agency’s models showed the Brazos River, which runs southwest of Houston, rising some 59 feet by Tuesday.

“A flood of this magnitude is an 800-year event, and it exceeds the design specification of our levees,” said Fort Bend County Judge Robert Hebert in a statement Monday.  William “Brock” Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, had similar comments: “We have not seen an event like this,” he said on Monday. “You could not draw this forecast up. You could not dream this forecast up.”

Right now, the focus is on ongoing relief and recovery efforts, boosted in part by a heartwarming mobilization of civilian volunteers. But the specter of climate change can’t be ignored. Climate change may not have “caused” Hurricane Harvey, but it seems likely that warming temperatures — the consequence of man-made greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere — exacerbated the storm conditions.

My colleague Chris Mooney outlined a number of ways in which this happens: Warmer temperatures in the ocean created an increase in atmospheric moisture, leading to the massive rainfall currently hitting southeastern Texas; rising sea levels contributed to a stronger storm surge that flooded Houston; a warmer climate makes storms more intense before they make landfall.

Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann also pointed to the influence of human-caused climate change on the storm’s unusual movement. Unlike most hurricanes, Harvey stalled near the coast instead of moving inland, meaning Houston was pounded by continuous downpours. Mann blamed that phenomenon on “weak prevailing winds, which are failing to steer the storm off to sea” — a consequence predicted by climate-change models.

Areas around the world are facing an increased threat of flooding. Here's why. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

According to climate scientists, such extreme weather events — the proverbial “once-in-a-century” hurricane — will become only more common as the planet warms. That forecast is all the more conspicuous when you consider President Trump’s pronounced climate skepticism and his administration’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris accord earlier this year.

Trump, as columnist Ryan Cooper noted for the Week, has indeed presided over something of a war on climate science within his administration. “Just days before Harvey hit, Trump announced that he was going to rescind an Obama executive order that would require buildings receiving federal funding to consider climate change and build above extreme flood levels,” wrote Cooper. “Since there is a big federal program to provide flood insurance to many such buildings (that is incidentally nearly bankrupt due to massive claims of late), this amounts to a government subsidy to build in flood-prone areas.”

The extent of the calamity also illustrates a more widespread global threat. Experts have warned for some time now about the perils facing Houston. But for every Houston or New Orleans, there are far more acute dangers facing teeming cities like Mumbai and Dhaka.

As is always the case, it’s the poor who face the greatest brunt of the calamity. In Houston, many of those trapped amid rising floodwaters did not have the means or ability to evacuate. And, again, it’s far worse elsewhere: In South Asia over the weekend, surging flood waters that followed monsoon rains killed more than 1,200 people, many of whom were rural farmers cut off from rescue teams. A recent study by the Asian Development Bank found that some 130 million people in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh could be at risk of being displaced by the end of the century as a result of climate change.

If governments have been slow to react to the complex economic and political challenges of climate change, insurance companies are not waiting any longer. “There are more thunderstorms in parts of Europe and the United States than in past decades,” said Ernst Rauch, the head of Munich Re’s Corporate Climate Centre, which monitors climate change risks, to Reuters. “They are more severe. We will not necessarily see an increase in frequency, but we can see an increase in intensity. If we see this, we would have to adjust our risk premium.”

No matter the politics of the U.S. president, the reality of the moment is that climate change is going to be more and more the elephant in the room.

“Our climate has been in a rough temperature equilibrium for about 10,000 years, while we developed agriculture and advanced civilization and Netflix,” explained Vox’s David Roberts. “Now our climate is about to rocket out of that equilibrium, in what is, geologically speaking, the blink of an eye. We’re not sure exactly what’s going to happen, but we have a decent idea, and we know it’s going to be weird. With more heat energy in the system, everything’s going to get crazier — more heat waves, more giant rainstorms, more droughts, more floods.”

And if the United States and others can’t come to grips with how to handle that “crazy,” the catastrophic scenes from Houston will almost certainly start to look more and more like the new normal.

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