A Grain Of Saul

A Grain Of Saul: The 2 Questions Every American Should Ask Themselves After Hurricane Harvey

Hint: "Did climate change cause Hurricane Harvey?" is not one of them.

A Grain of Saul is a weekly column that digs into some of the biggest issues we face as a nation and as an international community in search of reliable data, realistic solutions, and — most importantly — hope.  

By the time Harvey is complete, the destruction left behind will boggle the mind.

14 people have already been reported dead. FEMA estimates 30,000 people will be forced into shelters. Hundreds of thousands — if not millions — will suffer serious damage to their homes. 50 inches of rain will have fallen in Texas neighborhoods by Wednesday morning, an unfathomable amount of rain for a single week. Power outages will last for days or weeks across Texas. Rescue efforts could go on for another week and it will take years, maybe a decade, for cities like Houston to rebuild themselves. In all likelihood, Harvey will end up being one of the worst flooding disasters in the history of the United States.

So, what good can emerge from a tragedy of this magnitude?

There will be stories of heroes. In fact, there already are: the local Texas breweries helping out survivors, the Cajun Navy riding in from Louisiana, and Brandi Smith, the KHOU reporter who helped rescue a trapped truck driver from Harvey's floods, just to name a few.

But if we want real, lasting good to come from this horrible storm, there's one thing we must do: hear the environmental alarm bells Harvey is ringing.

Many "climate deniers" or staunch conservatives who oppose taking action on climate change will cleverly frame the question like this: "Did climate change cause Hurricane Harvey?" Some of the best scientists in the world will hesitate to answer this question affirmatively.  Others will admit they don't know. And it's true: it'd be incredibly challenging to take millions of years of climate history and decades of human emissions and then pinpoint them as the single cause of one storm, then conclude that climate change alone caused Hurricane Harvey.

But there are two questions we can answer, and two questions that are actually worth asking: "Did human-caused climate change make Harvey worse?" And: "Could Houston and Texas, in general, have been better prepared?"

HOUSTON, USA - AUGUST 27, 2017: A teenager rides a Paddle Board past car parking in Houston in Harvey's flood. Shutterstock / IrinaK

To both of those questions, the answer is a definitive yes. Climate scientist Michael E. Mann explained in laymen's terms how we know that climate change made Harvey worse in a Facebook post that every living person should read. 

For starters, sea surface temperatures have risen in the Gulf of Mexico region and across the globe, which — thanks to what's known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation — we know results in an increase in atmospheric moisture. Harvey grew in strength in an area off the Gulf Coast where the ocean has warmed as much as 1 degree Celsius.

"That large amount of moisture meant the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding," Mann wrote.

Then, once it made landfall, the absence of prevailing winds that typically push a hurricane back out to sea left tropical storm Harvey battering Texas for days (as of this writing on Tuesday morning, it is set to once again make landfall this afternoon — adding as much as 10 more inches of rain in some areas). Where are those prevailing winds? Well, as human-caused climate models have predicted, "stationary summer weather patterns" have left those winds far to the northern part of the United States.

Basically, climatologists are saying with high confidence that Harvey is more intense, has more rain, and is staying longer in one place because of human-caused climate change that we've both observed and predicted.

Then, of course, we know one of the most obvious factors involved: Over the last few decades, human destruction of the rain forest and production of heat-trapping gases have led to warmer waters and melting ice caps — which in turn caused seas to rise. In Texas and along the Gulf coast, that rise is happening faster than anywhere else in the country. The average storm surge in the area has increased by about seven inches in 30 years. The result is that storm surges, like the one we're watching in Houston, are starting far higher than they ever have, and what happens next is unthinkable flooding that looks like this:

That's just seven inches. By 2100, the low-end estimate from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says sea level rise in the Gulf of Mexico will reach 1.3 feet. The high end, if warming is not halted or slowed, is 31 feet. That's 372 inches, enough to envelop Galveston Island and most of the Texas coast. 

A Google maps image of Galveston Island and the Texas coast, which would likely disappear in worst case scenario climate change models. Google Maps

This is why a bipartisan group of Texas officials are pushing for a $15 billion to construct storm surge barriers throughout the state, a project Congress is unlikely to fund and something that seems even less likely to get support from the executive branch.

Which brings us to preparation: yes, Houston, the fourth most populous city in the country, was seriously unprepared for this storm and it was for years. 

ProPublica wrote extensively about this last year, and noted that Houston's "utter lack of zoning and relentless development in flood-prone areas" exacerbated some of the colossal issues we're seeing now. Not only have homes and buildings been built on top of flood plains, developers have paved over 166,000 acres of coastal prairie made up of the most absorbent grasses in Texas. Those grasses are literally Mother Nature's tool for managing floods, and instead of doing their job they are covered in cement (this is why, after Hurricane Sandy, the Governor's Office of Storm Recovery in Staten Island bought houses back from New Yorkers only to destroy them and let nature reclaim the land). According to ProPublica, 30 percent of wetlands in Houston were destroyed between 1992 and 2010 while 7,000 residential buildings in Harris County have been built in FEMA-designated flood zones.

Shutterstock /  Eric V Overton.

At the same time, developers in Houston have fought regulations while the evidence we need those regulations mounts. And guess what? They're winning. A week before Harvey, they scored one of their biggest political wins yet when the White House rolled back environmental rules on infrastructure development. Included in those rules was language that required developers to account for climate change and sea level rise when determining where and how to build infrastructure projects.

And these storms aren't just happening here: in southeast Asia, as we speak, the worst flooding in decades has already killed 1,200 people. Mumbai is underwater after 10 times the usual monsoon rains. 41 million people in three countries are being affected by the storms. Catastrophic climate change is not a hypothetical of the future. It is here.

The question is, what will we do? Will we heed the warning of storms like Harvey and take action? Will we vote in politicians who prioritize addressing and preparing for climate change? Will we push to regulate fossil fuel emissions and promote green energy? Will we regulate infrastructure projects so buildings and homes are safe from catastrophic flooding? Will we continue to fund programs that aide in disaster relief like FEMA and the Coast Guard? Will we pressure our elected officials to support these initiatives?

If, as a global community, we work together like the citizens of Houston and the people of Texas are today, stopping climate change could turn into what of mankind's greatest achievements. There's no doubt we could do it, but we better get started soon.  

For more, follow Isaac Saul on Twitter

Cover photo: Shutterstock.


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