Lynne Carter is an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge and at the University of Arizona, the former assistant director of the Southern Climate Impacts Planning Program at Louisiana State University, and the chapter lead for the Southeast chapter of the 2018 U.S. National Climate Assessment.
After spending the weekend waiting anxiously for Hurricane Barry to make landfall, we might be tempted to take a sigh of relief that the storm’s impact wasn’t worse. But we shouldn’t get complacent: There are many potential results of climate change that might be less viscerally dramatic than a hurricane but are no less consequential for everyone and everything in their path.
While storms make for splashy news stories, it’s vital that we focus on both the causes of climate change and the proactive measures some communities are taking to prepare for the slower-moving consequences, in the hope we can inspire others to follow suit. We are not making nearly enough progress to avoid serious and debilitating climate impacts as we move toward the future. Focusing too narrowly on major storms risks making us feel powerless in the face of danger, rather than empowered to make the changes that could help reduce the extreme in extreme-weather events and adapt so those events will have less devastating impacts.
Major storms such as Barry dominate headlines for a reason. We see them coming; their consequences are immediate and high-stakes; recovery from them reveals the best and worst. But just because other consequences of climate change don’t lend themselves so neatly to storytelling doesn’t mean they are less important.
Five cities in the United States are already experiencing heat waves that are worsening in their timing, frequency, intensity and duration, and three of those are in the Southeast. Sixty-one percent of major Southeastern cities are experiencing heat waves with at least some of these worsening characteristics.
Extreme rainfall events in the region have become more frequent, and the amount of water dropped in an event has increased — and it doesn’t take a hurricane to cause one. Since 2014, we have seen a number of these events that approach levels that we would expect to see perhaps once in 500 or 1,000 years, resulting in billions of dollars in damages, including flooded homes, roads, farms and businesses and, worst of all, loss of life.
Coastal regions are at increased risk for flooding, often due to the combination of sinking land and rising sea levels. Some areas have a local sea-level rise of between one and three feet over the past 100 years (far greater than the global average), resulting in normal high tides becoming floods. The results of this flooding include road closures, saltwater intrusion into fresh water and wastewater systems, damage to infrastructure, and impacts to ports and other transportation systems.
But while hurricanes might make us feel overwhelmed, we are not powerless before any of these effects of climate change. We know that we can adapt to make the impacts of climate change more manageable. We also need to make it less daunting to take the necessary steps to actually reduce the problem. This can be done by finding ways to give off fewer warming emissions or to capture those emissions.
In Louisville, the metro government has carried out an urban heat management study and implemented 145,000 square feet of “cool roofs” to reduce the impacts of increasing heat. Many states and communities, including the Tennessee Department of Transportation and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, are now conducting extreme-weather vulnerability assessments and making plans to weatherproof their most at-risk transportation infrastructure. Eight parishes in the Teche-Vermilion watershed in the Acadiana region of Louisiana are collaborating to find flooding solutions across the entire system, and four counties in Southeast Florida formed a climate compact whose members have been working together since 2010.
Charleston, S.C., has developed a Sea Level Rise Strategy with reinvestment in infrastructure and a response plan. Miami Beach is undertaking a multi-year program to raise roads and seawalls and develop better drainage for stormwater. And many communities, including Norfolk and Biloxi, Miss., are undertaking comprehensive planning efforts to reduce future flooding impacts.
Activities such as these are part of an adaptive response to climate change that focuses on reducing the impacts through both incremental changes such as raising a house or building a seawall and transformational changes such as moving populations away from areas that flood regularly. While they might seem less immediately captivating than tracking storms, these adaptations have enormous consequences for where and how we live. Not all Americans will be hit by hurricanes, but all of us will deal with hotter summers and more volatile weather.
By highlighting proactive steps being taken to reduce emissions or to adapt to changing weather, we can remind us all that we are not hopeless or helpless in the face of climate change, and that we all can and must work to protect our communities. We cannot stop storms such as Barry. But there are real success stories out there, and we must demand that they are emulated and implemented at every level.