The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hurricanes like Michael show why we can’t ignore climate change

The deadly storm came just days after a report on global warming.

People walk through rubble after Hurricane Michael in Mexico Beach, Fla., on Saturday. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

This past week was a grim one in climate history, by any measure.

First, an international group of scientists released a long-anticipated report detailing in excruciating detail the extra damages we can expect unless we slam our foot on the fossil fuel brakes right now. Then, just a few days later, record-breaking Hurricane Michael came barreling out of the Gulf of Mexico with a late-breaking intensification that transformed the Florida Panhandle into a landscape straight out of a horror movie.

The fact that both events occurred within a few days of each other is pure coincidence, of course. But it does leave the feeling that Nature just put one or more planetary-scale exclamation marks on the main takeaway from the IPCC report: Act now to reduce emissions, or suffer the consequences!

The real exclamation point from Michael, though, is the same one that came with its close relatives Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Maria and Florence — all supercharged by man-made climate change to some degree: We are exceptionally ill-prepared for the climate threats that are unfolding today, let alone those of the next decades. Rising seas caused by warming and rising oceans and melting ice are already bringing low-lying coastlines under threat from so-called “blue sky flooding.” And studies now show that there are plenty of reasons to think that hurricanes will get stronger, and wetter, under continued climate change, as the ocean and the overlying atmosphere warm.

As hurricane after hurricane illustrates in a deafening drumbeat of destruction, the most vulnerable populations pay the highest costs during these disasters — sometimes with their lives. Residents of poor neighborhoods, often members of ethnic and racial minorities, frequently cannot afford flood insurance, even if they live in low-lying, flood-prone areas. Evacuation requires transportation and lodging expenses, while recovery requires access to savings to pay upfront costs. Taxpayers are on the hook for rebuilding in flood-prone areas, even as private insurance companies continually increase premiums for many coastal properties in recognition of the shifting statistics of risk.

We already knew how to reduce damage from floods. We just didn't do it.

Unfortunately, as the climate report indicates, we need to be preparing for things to get worse. The full costs of relying on outdated estimates of coastal flooding risk can already be measured in the currency of lost lives, ruined local economies and deep, multigenerational scars gouged into our country’s social fabric. Scientists can provide decision-makers with estimates of the rates of sea-level rise over the next decades, including some worst-case scenarios. But a more complete understanding of the physical risks of coastal flooding is only the first step. We’ll also need to consider how the natural and built environments may compound or mitigate flood risks to communities. And policymakers must decide how to allocate finite public resources to protecting lives and property across communities marked by huge disparities in economic capacity and inherent resilience.

There is no doubt that we will be playing catch-up with our new climate reality for decades to come, even as it shifts under our feet, in a vicious and unforgiving game of cat and mouse. The new climate report outlines a path for an aggressive drawdown of atmospheric carbon dioxide levels that would avoid some of the worst damages associated with climate change, and we must get started in earnest on a host of no-regrets actions toward this end. We have some promising success stories from many American cities and states, but federal action is long overdue. Hurricane Michael pointedly reminds us that reducing emissions is only part of the climate change solution.

The real lesson from the recent spate of record-breaking heat waves, hurricanes and wildfires is that the highly polarizing political debates around emissions reductions have sidelined important conversations about protecting American lives, property and livelihoods from natural disasters fueled by climate change. Here’s hoping we can find common purpose in uniting to protect our front-line communities, including the vulnerable urban and rural poor, from the ravages of ongoing climate change.

Evidence-based policy is a critical ingredient for designing community-based climate solutions, as are healthy, rich partnerships between policymakers, community leaders, scientists, engineers, educators, businesses and artists. That is the future I want for my four children and all of America’s children. That is the future we can reach for, together, beginning today.

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