The Undeniable, Commonsense Response to Harvey

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The Undeniable, Commonsense Response to Harvey

We must fight climate change today in order to protect people from such disasters tomorrow.

The fossil fuel pollution that’s driving global climate change is making weather disasters more destructive. Going forward, we need to cut our reliance on these dangerous fuels to prevent future storms and other climate hazards from becoming ever more catastrophic. (Photo: John Glaser/CSM via AP)

As the winds raged and the floodwaters rose in Houston and other Gulf Coast cities last week, the nation rightly focused on the human catastrophe—the lives lost, homes destroyed, and futures upended. In the hard weeks, months, and years to come, we’ll need a national response to assist community-led recovery and rebuilding efforts in effective, sustainable, and equitable ways.

A vital part of our collective response will be to listen to the voices across the country insisting that this tragedy is part of the price we’re all paying for global climate change

"The inescapable fact is, we must fight climate change today to protect our people from even greater suffering tomorrow. Our fate, in Houston as everywhere else, is bound up in the health of the planet."

Equally important is that we recognize the ways climate change has already set the table for more such disasters, requiring us to make our coastal communities more resilient and better prepared to deal with the consequences. That means, among other things, relocating or elevating hospitals and critical equipment in areas susceptible to flooding; designing stormwater systems to more effectively cope with rising waters; and helping move damaged and ruined homes from flood-prone parcels to higher ground rather than rebuilding on vulnerable areas.

Like a growing majority of Americans, I want us to do more, as a country, to protect current and future generations from the mounting dangers of this widening scourge. We see the damage spreading every day, with croplands turning to desert, wildfires threatening more and more of the West, coral reefs on the brink of collapse, and the worst mass extinction in millions of years picking up speed. 

The inescapable fact is, we must fight climate change today to protect our people from even greater suffering tomorrow. Our fate, in Houston as everywhere else, is bound up in the health of the planet.

Hurricane season always brings risk to America’s coasts. And now climate change is making storms more dangerous. Climate scientists will analyze what made Harvey so devastating, but at least three components will be on the prime suspect list.

First, Harvey brewed over the Gulf of Mexico’s waters, ranging between 2.5 and 7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the long-term average. It takes a lot of heat to warm an ocean. That heat pumped more energy into the gathering storm, increasing Harvey’s power when it hit.

Secondly, the added warmth also increased evaporation over those waters, putting additional moisture in the air. That gave Harvey more water to dump as rain than it would have otherwise.

Finally, sea level is rising nearly two inches per decade along the Texas Gulf Coast due to global warming and sinking land. This opens the gates to greater coastal flooding and makes it harder for floodwaters to drain back toward the ocean.

The fossil fuel pollution that’s driving global climate change is making weather disasters more destructive. Going forward, we need to cut our reliance on these dangerous fuels to prevent future storms and other climate hazards from becoming ever more catastrophic.

That’s not a political statement. It’s common sense.

Rhea Suh

Rhea Suh is president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

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