Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Shardea Harrison looks on at her 3 week old baby Sarai Harrison being held by Dean Mize as he and Jason Legnon used his airboat to rescue them from their home after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on August 28, 2017 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Extreme Storms Like Harvey and Climate Change: 'This Is the New Reality'

"This is the new reality. And the challenge is how we address it. How rapidly we're going to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy."

Andrea Germanos

As Hurricane Harvey continues to batter Texas—and as the death toll from monsoon flooding in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh surpasses 1,200—experts are putting a spotlight on how climate change is linked to the "unprecedented" storm's devastation.

Trying to attribute Harvey to climate change "is an ill-posed question," argues Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Pennsylvania State University. "While we cannot say climate change 'caused' Hurricane Harvey," writes Mann at the Guardian, "we can say is that it exacerbated several characteristics of the storm in a way that greatly increased the risk of damage and loss of life."

One way, he explains, is because of sea level rise, which contributed to a higher storm surge. In addition, warmer than average sea surface temperatures led to more moisture in the air. "That large amount of moisture," writes Mann, "creates the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding. The combination of coastal flooding and heavy rainfall is responsible for the devastating flooding that Houston is experiencing."

Indeed, meteorologist Jeff Masters notes:

Here we are, in the midst of a mega-disaster on the scale only surpassed by Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina in recent decades, from a hurricane hazard we've never seen on such a large and destructive scale—torrential rain. The damages from Harvey will undoubtedly run into the tens of billions of dollars, making Harvey's rains the most destructive ever experienced from a hurricane.

In addition, Mann writes, "Harvey was able to feed upon" warmer waters deeper within the Gulf "when it intensified at near record pace as it neared the coast." Another potential link to climate change is how the storm is stalling near the coast, allowing it to continue to wreak havoc, in a pattern "associated with a greatly expanded subtropical high pressure system over much of the U.S. at the moment, with the jet stream pushed well to the north."

Climate journalist David Roberts also explores how climate change is "a huge part of the story" of Harvey, and explains why "without mitigation, adaptation [to climate change] is a cruel joke."

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, or mitigation, he writes,

generates benefits that are unavoidably egalitarian (distributed across the globe, to everyone who lives in the atmosphere) and progressive (the poor are most vulnerable, so they benefit first and most from harm prevention).

Adaption, in contrast, like erecting higher sea walls, is necessarily local and "regressive (wealthy people and places will adapt first, best, and most)."

Putting adaptation in the context of Harvey's "mind-boggling rainfall amounts," he writes:

What is good or adequate adaptation to 40 to 50 inches of rain falling on your head in 72 hours?

There's just no way to prepare for that and no painless way to respond to it. There's no adapting. There's destruction and suffering, followed by slow rebuilding.

According to David Helvarg, executive director of ocean conservation organization Blue Frontier, with Harvey, "we're seeing the impacts of climate change."

There was "a flooding event right there in Houston last year that the Houston flood control district said was a one in 10,000-year rain event. Well, it's a year later, and you're having another one," he said to Democracy Now! Monday.

In 2000, he added, he was speaking with a scientist from the NASA Ames laboratory at Columbia who was "explaining the big 1993 nor'easter. And she said that yeah, one-in-a-century storms like that are now going to become decadal, happen every decade or more frequently. And since then, I was down at Katrina. We had Sandy. Now we have this hurricane. We are seeing the impacts."

Referring to the historic flooding unleashed by Harvey, he said, "this is the new normal. This is the new reality. And the challenge is how we address it. How rapidly we're going to transition from fossil fuels to clean energy."

Linking the dots between the hurricane, the devastation in Asia, and climate change, economist Dean Baker writes: "The monsoon rains and cyclones [Bangladesh experiences] are likely to get worse in the years ahead, as one of the effects of global warming." And, given that the country is lacking vast resources, "many more people are likely to be dying from floods." As such, it behooves the U.S to take urgent climate action. He continues:

Emissions of the greenhouse gases responsible for global warming is often treated as a natural market outcome, whereas efforts to restrict emissions are viewed as government intervention. This is nonsense.

Allowing people to emit greenhouse gases without paying for the damage done is like allowing them to dump their sewage on their neighbor's lawn. Everyone understands that we are responsible for dealing with our own sewage and not imposing a cost on our neighbor. It's the same story with greenhouse gases.

It is understandable that a rich jerk like Donald Trump might not want to pay for the damage he does to the world, especially when the people most affected are dark-skinned, but it is not a serious position. The emissions from the United States and other wealthy countries will result in a lot of Harvey-like disasters in Bangladesh and elsewhere in the developing world. We have to take responsibility for this human catastrophe.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

'We Will Be on the Streets': Lula Vows Resolve as Brazil Heads Toward Runoff

"We don't have a break. We are going to work hard," said the leftist former president. "And we have 28 more days."

Jake Johnson ·

Brazil Votes Live: Lula Wins the First Round Over Far-Right Bolsonaro; Runoff Oct. 30

Lula took the lead as more rural votes counted but failed to reach 50%

Common Dreams staff ·

'Enough is Enough': Hundreds of Thousands March Across the UK

'As wages fall while profits soar, our message is clear... We are here to win.'

Common Dreams staff ·

California Gov. Newsom Proposes Windfall Profits Tax on Big Oil

Calls for windfall profits taxes have increased globally in recent weeks

Common Dreams staff ·

'Incredible': Omar and Khanna Staffers Join Levin's Office in Unionizing

"It is long past time the United States Congress became a unionized workplace, and that includes my own staff," said Rep. Ilhan Omar. "I am proud of all the people on my team who have played a leading role in the staff unionization effort. Solidarity forever."

Jessica Corbett ·

Common Dreams Logo