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Hurricane harbingers

Climate change exacerbates catastrophic storms from Donegal to Houston, South Asia to the Carribean. The political reaction is unstrategic and unrealistic.

The scale of what climate change will inflict is so enormous that any attempt to even sketch out the consequences of what is actually happening is casually dismissed as tree-hugging hysteria, particularly by authorities who systemically deny that we should take on our fair share of the international burden of carbon reduction. Nevertheless, a projected $200bn in damage and 60 dead after Hurricane Harvey bespeaks its own agenda.

For example while the Irish discourse has embraced, mostly reactively, the havoc wrought in Donegal and in Houston, Texas, our imaginations often do not embrace the parallels between the two, and indeed with the severe flooding in South Asia that has claimed over 1200 lives and the Category 5 Hurricane Irma that is smashing through the Carribean as we speak. It is clear that extreme weather events are occurring globally with increasing frequency as a result of climate change, or climate breakdown as some would describe it. They are having devastating impacts for population centres and, even if international commentary tends to focus on the impact for richer countries, particularly the US, it is usually the poorest who are worst affected.

Government can’t cope with relief needs

Pre-existing expectations that the State will provide first responders and financially compensate all flood victims are deluded.

In response to the flooding which deluged Texas just as the waters were receding from devastated Inishowen, Brock Long, the head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA], the agency charged with overseeing the government’s response to natural disasters and other emergencies like terrorist attacks, asserted that citizens themselves must now become the first responders and that training must be put in place in every community to provide support in disasters that can totally overwhelm any response that any US state could provide. FEMA offers a certified course for volunteers in Community Emergency Response Teams. Long said after his recent appointment that “I don’t think the taxpayer should reward risk going forward”. Harvey will heap more strain on the National Flood Insurance Program, which FEMA administers to help rebuild flood-damaged homes, which is more than $24bn in debt, and due to expire at the end of September.

Houston, Texas, before and after the flooding of Hurricane Harvey

Cuts in emergency relief

Trump and almost the entire Republican party are philosophically adverse to recognising that climate played any role in the flooding. Provocateuse Ann Coulter even drooled that it was more likely caused by election of a lesbian mayor in Houston (whose mayor, Sylvester Turner is in fact a man).

Emergencies seem to take a toll on pre-factual ideologies so, in dramatic essays in political hypocrisy, Texas’s Republican Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, who both voted against disaster funding for New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy, demanded federal aid to their home state. Moreover, although President Trump is now calling  for nearly $8bn in Federal relief, his  proposed fiscal 2018 budget promises wide ranging macho cuts, including for FEMA, the National Weather Service and federal flood insurance programmes.

His budget proposes:

  • $667m cut from FEMA. The budget would also require 25% cost matching for preparedness grants.
  • $62m cut from the National Weather Service, or about 6% of its 2017 budget. The proposed cuts include $5m the agency plans to spend updating its weather models and another $5m on experimental forecasts aimed at allowing it to predict changing weather 30 days in the future rather than the current 16 days.
  • $190m cut from the National Flood Insurance Program to update maps which show which areas of the US are susceptible to flooding, which can affect flood insurance premiums and construction patterns in coastal areas.

How climate change drove Harvey

Climate change didn’t cause Harvey, a Category 4 Hurricane, but it made the storm worse. The storm was the most extreme rainfall event on the continental United States in recorded history.

Three arguments are put forward associating the intensity and duration of Storm Harvey with climate change.

First, it happened to pass over a region of extremely warm ocean water called an eddy. This spot of hot water was 1 to 2 degrees Centigrade warmer than the Gulf of Mexico around it, which itself was already 1 to 2 degrees higher than average, reaching 30 degrees in places. The hotter the water, the more energy it sucks into a storm. Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed New Orleans in 2005, also mushroomed to Category 4 because it, too, passed over a hot eddy in the Gulf. (Intriguingly, as Hurricane Irma barrels in, on Florida, a week after Harvey, the twelve year hiatus between storms of this scale was unprecedented in US history).

Second, storm surges were greater because sea levels have risen 20cm as a result of more than 100 years of human created greenhouse gas emissions. This has melted glaciers and thermally expanded the volume of seawater.

Third, atmospheric circulation patterns have been altered by the rise in global mean surface temperature. Scientific models indicate that a general slowdown of atmospheric summer circulation in the mid-latitudes is as a result of strong warming in the Arctic. This can make weather systems move less and stay longer in a given location. Once Harvey struck it stayed in place. Human psychology tends to insulate us against a sense of repeating catastophe. While cynical authorities pander to the most short- term and myopic of voter concerns we have to brace ourselves for an alphabet of apocalyptic storms.

Tony Lowes is a director of Friends of the Irish Environment: www.friendsoftheirishenvironment.org

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