The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Hurricane Harvey is our new climate reality

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Soldiers with the Texas Army National Guard move through flooded Houston streets as floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey continue to rise, Monday, August 28, 2017. (Photo: U.S. Army photo by 1st Lt. Zachary West)

Addressing this humanitarian crisis should also include preventing the next one.

Faced with an immediate humanitarian crisis, it is truly amazing to see how quickly this country can mobilize. Over the past few days, as the flood waters rose in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, watching first responders and every day citizens carry out heroic rescue missions – many with their own boats – has been nothing short of inspiring. As one volunteer put it, “I’m going to go try and save some lives.”

After the vitriol and heightened divisions we’ve endured these past few weeks in the wake of Charlottesville, it is moving to see so many Americans united around a common cause. The depth of our compassion is undeniable in these moments, and unfortunately, we’re going to need more of it if we don’t address the underlying factors that led to such a devastating storm.

While no one is claiming that climate change is the sole cause of Hurricane Harvey, the climate change-related factors are undeniable. And more and more, it is going to be our new reality.

Over the weekend, Michael Mann, a renowned climate scientist at Penn State University, outlined a few indicators of how climate change worsened the flooding and laid the ground work for this historic disaster.

First, sea level rise made the storm surge higher and exposed more areas to flooding. Along the Texas coast, this means “the storm surge was a foot higher than it would have been decades ago.”

Second, the oceans have been absorbing more heat, elevating surface level temperatures by “0.5C or 1F over the past few decades.” This contributed to a higher atmospheric moisture content (about 3 percent higher), ensuring “potential for greater rainfalls and greater flooding.”

Third, human-caused climate change is creating “layers of warmth” deep in the ocean. The storm fed off this effect, creating the conditions for a rapid intensification. Harvey strengthened dramatically at record pace before it made landfall, and it was a much stronger storm with “stronger winds, more wind damage, and larger storm surge.”

Finally, what has made Harvey so dangerous is that after landfall, the storm has stubbornly hovered over the Houston area, prolonging the deluge of rain. This effect has been caused by “very weak prevailing winds…failing to steer the storm off to sea.” This “stationary” summer weather pattern, according to Mann, is a new weather phenomenon “favored by human-caused climate change.”

Collectively, these factors have created the perfect conditions for truly historic levels of devastation in America’s fourth largest city. Millions of people have had their lives turned upside down, and the road to recovery will be long and arduous. We must continue to support them in whatever ways we can.

The reality, however, is that these ‘perfect conditions’ will likely continue to embolden future extreme weather events, and none of us can claim to be surprised. We also cannot feel empathy toward those impacted by Harvey – or any future storm – without also have enough compassion to act now to help prevent it.

And in Houston, as we have seen in New Orleans and Biloxi after Katrina, and in disasters around the world, the poorest are always the most vulnerable and the hardest hit. They are the people who didn’t have enough money in their bank account to be able to choose to evacuate before the storm. They are the people who will not have the resources to clean up and rebuild. That’s true here in the richest country in the world, as well as the poorest. In just the last few weeks, heavy monsoons in Nepal, Bangladesh, and India have led to the worst flooding in decades, impacting more than 41 million people and claimed 1,200 lives.

For all the devastation that it has brought to our country, Harvey must be a wake-up call for all of us. We cannot go on with business as usual. As a country, we must stop the politicization of climate change and come together to find real solutions.

Addressing climate change is about saving lives, protecting those most vulnerable to its impacts, and doing everything we can to prevent, and be more resilient to, the next catastrophe – both at home and abroad.

Therefore, we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions now to avert the worst consequences of climate change, and invest in the resilience and adaption efforts of the most vulnerable among us. We need to approach the climate conversation with as much empathy and compassion as we do when we see its tangible impacts play out in a humanitarian crisis.

In the weeks to come, we will watch as Congress offers its thoughts, prayers, and (hopefully) votes to send millions to help flood victims. At the same time, we will likely also see Congress vote to cut funding for domestic and international climate change programs and delay reauthorization of the National Flood Insurance Program. Not to mention, the Trump administration’s intention to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, censorship of federal agencies from discussing climate change, and roll-back of requirements that ensure federal infrastructure projects are built to withstand sea-level rise and flooding.

We can’t have it both ways.

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