Mike Tidwell is director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and a member of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change
The people of Ellicott City need more than thoughts and prayers. They need more than Gov. Larry Hogan’s visits and standard emergency relief. They need the governor to actually hear the roar of 17 feet of water crashing through the city’s downtown on May 27 , hear the deafening pound of the rain, the crash of colliding cars, the wail of loved ones.
And then they need the governor to imagine those sounds spread all across Maryland and the world.
“How is this not climate change?” asked shopkeeper Mojan Bagha last week, surveying the devastation of his Oriental rug shop after the second 1,000-year flood struck Ellicott City in 22 months . “This much rain? It shouldn’t be happening.”
Hogan, a Republican, is not responsible for the mind-boggling rainfall and flooding. But I serve as an appointed member of the Maryland Commission on Climate Change, under the aegis of the governor’s staff, and I have seen firsthand the governor’s policies that make Maryland’s contribution to global warming worse. Despite a parade of scientists before our commission warning that fossil fuel combustion is leading to more devastating storms in our state, Hogan recently accelerated his policy of “kick-starting” greater combustion of fracked gas in Maryland while vetoing legislation promoting wind and solar power.
But let’s step back: Suburban development, while a factor, cannot begin to explain the scope of the Ellicott City calamity. Newly impervious streets did not cause a biblical 8.4 inches of rain to fall in just a few hours on May 27. And nothing on the ground can explain a similar record rain event in July 2016. The chance of two 1,000-year floods happening in two years? More than a million to one.
Of course, no single weather event can be definitively tied to climate change any more than a single cigarette can be associated with lung cancer. But the trends are scientifically established: The planet is warming, triggering greater ocean evaporation. The record-hot atmosphere is packed with that moisture, and sooner or later it comes down. Extreme precipitation events such as the Ellicott City floods are happening with 50 percent greater frequency along the East Coast, according to data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And a 2014 federal report says it is highly likely that heavy precipitation events will increase across the country because of climate change.
As Hogan knows — or at least his senior staff have been told by scientists in my presence — climate change is being exacerbated by emissions of methane gas from the drilling and combustion associated with fracking. Indeed, new isotope measurements show fossil fuels contribute significantly more to the record levels of methane in the atmosphere than previously understood — and natural gas is the biggest culprit. Each methane molecule has a heat-trapping potential up to 86 times greater than carbon dioxide. This is one of the reasons the Maryland legislature banned fracked-gas drilling in our state in 2017. Hogan signed that bill.
But even as Hogan has laced up his work boots and removed debris from Ellicott City’s streets, his administration has been actively helping Canadian gas companies sidestep the drilling ban by importing fracked gas and promoting its consumption. Hogan is partnering with fossil fuel giant TransCanada to pipe Pennsylvania fracked gas through Maryland. He has a $100 million plan to “kick-start” even more gas use and more pipelines across the state.
Hogan uses outdated data to claim that fracked gas is somehow a clean energy. He ignores the avalanche of new data — from Cornell University and others and presented to the Maryland Climate Commission — showing that fracked gas probably is worse for the climate than coal.
The people of Maryland will pay. The more slowly we react to global warming, the more floods will spread across the state. And Hogan will be left offering more meaningless speeches of care against a backdrop of gathering storm clouds.