Hurricanes and Global Warming: Why Climate Change Can No Longer Be Ignored

Hurricanes and Global Warming: Why Climate Change Can No Longer Be Ignored

By: Abigail Lewis

            August of 2017 ended with countless reports on once-hurricane-then-tropical-storm Harvey and warnings of its successor, hurricane Irma. You could not turn on the radio or peruse the internet without seeing reports of celebrities donating generous amounts of money or calls to action asking for the general public to donate to help the people of Houston. Hurricanes can be devastating. Hurricanes harm humans and the environment. Hurricanes are expensive. And thanks to climate change, hurricanes are worsening. However, we are not helpless. America can act to help with the aftermath of Harvey and Irma, as well as to prevent devastation from future hurricanes.

Hurricanes cause great harm to humans as well as the environment. Hurricane Harvey resulted in mass flooding in Texas between Houston and Louisiana.[1] As of September 4, at least 60 people had been reported dead.[2] A chemical plant exploded, and others are leaking into the flood waters.[3] Sewers have flooded, releasing at least 12 sources-worth of excrement and other sewer contents into the flood waters.[4] Tens of thousands of people have had to wade through unsanitary and dangerous waters containing oil, chemicals, and feces to reach safety, triggering health and environmental problems.[5] Hundreds of thousands of people in the area who depend on private wells for their drinking water no longer have a safe source of water. The environmental toll of Harvey is not limited to water; millions of pounds of hazardous chemicals have been released into the air due to damaged oil refineries.[6] While our current knowledge of the extent of Harvey’s damage is limited due to its ongoing nature, we can look to the damage inflicted by devastating hurricanes of the not-so-distant past for a reference point. 

Hurricane Katrina is considered to be the worst natural disaster in the United States in recent history. Hurricane Katrina, hitting in August of 2005, resulted in severe flooding including 80% of New Orleans, damage to levees, and damage to shelters including the Superdome where 10,000 people waited out the storm. 1,833 people died either directly or indirectly from Katrina, most whom died in Louisiana. Of Louisiana deaths, 40% resulted from drowning, 25% resulted from injury or trauma, and 11% resulted from heart failure. Almost half of the people who died in Louisiana were over the age of 74. Of those who did not die, more than one million residents of the Gulf region became homeless.[7] We cannot continue to sit idly by as hurricanes like Harvey and Katrina destroy lives and entire cities.

            The severity of recent hurricanes has resulted in high costs to assist survivors and repair destroyed cities. Hurricane Katrina resulted in an estimated $108 billion in damage (not accounting for the expenses of assisting displaced people), making it the most expensive hurricane in America’s history. $41.1 billion of the costs were covered by various insurance companies. $16.3 billion was covered by the National Flood Insurance Program. $21.7 billion came from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), $1 billion of which were determined to be fraudulent. And the federal government spent $120.5 billion, the majority of which went to emergency relief operations.[8] Continuing to do nothing as amplified hurricanes cause billions of dollars in damage does not make economic sense.

            Why are Katrina, Harvey, and other hurricanes from recent years so devastating? An increase in warm ocean water, an essential ingredient in hurricanes, comes with the temperature increase of the planet in general. More warm moisture pumping into hurricane systems results in more rain—giving us situations like Harvey.[9] In addition, storm surges (the flood of ocean water rather than rain that accompanies hurricanes) are worsened by rising sea levels.[10] It is not speculation that global warming is worsening the severity of hurricanes and tropical storms—the Clausius-Clapeyron equation shows that as the world warms by half a degree Celsius, atmospheric moisture content needed for storm rainfall resulting from the evaporation of warm ocean waters increases by approximately 3%.[11] Harvey came to be when warmer-than-usual water from the Gulf of Mexico evaporated and joined the storm system, resulting in intensified rainfall. An absence of upper-atmosphere wind resulted in Harvey stalling over Texas and depositing record-breaking rain. Galveston Bay rose due to the massive amount of rain, leaving nowhere for the floodwaters to drain.[12] Climate change helped make this possible.

            However, leaders in Congress, along with our president, refuse to acknowledge the threat of climate change. Congress refuses to recognize that global warming contributes to the severity of natural disasters such as hurricanes, primarily by insisting that global warming does not exist.[13] There is a greater-than-95% probability that increased global warming is caused by human activities.[14] Congress is currently betting on a less-than-5% chance that the world’s leading scientists are wrong.

In addition to denying the existence of a scientifically-accepted phenomenon, Congress decided to consider cutting funding from FEMA, the agency that played such a huge role in the aftermath of Katrina and which will play a huge role in the aftermaths of Harvey and Irma. Apparently, we can’t afford natural disasters right now, and natural disasters better respect the budget. H.R. 3354-Department of the Interior, Environment, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act would remove $876 million in funds from FEMA’s Disaster Relief Fund. This money is meant to go towards Trump’s boarder wall to keep out people from the country that is currently offering Houston aid.[15] Maybe it will be such a big-league wall that it will also keep out hurricanes. 

            America can act to help the victims of Harvey and to prevent further victimization from future severe storms. Congress needs to fund climate change research, stop denying human responsibility, and regulate the various emissions that contribute to global warming. In the meantime, Congress also needs to properly fund FEMA and other disaster relief programs, as well as fund research on how to better prepare for hurricanes and fund infrastructure to make those protections a reality. Finally, the American people need to stop voting climate change deniers into office. Climate change is not an issue that can be pushed to the back burner while we argue about the morality of undocumented immigration, reproductive rights, and the contents of Clinton and Trump Jr.’s emails. Support the lives of the millions of people who live in regions vulnerable to hurricanes. Support an end to climate change.

 

[1] Niraj Chokshi and Maggie Astor, Hurricane Harvey: The Devastation and What Comes Next, The New York Times (Aug. 28, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/28/us/hurricane-harvey-texas.html?mcubz=0.

[2] Claudia Lauer, Death Toll from Harvey Rises to at Least 60, ABC News (Sept. 4, 2017) http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/death-toll-harvey-rises-60-49617198.

[3] Chokshi, supra note 1; Justin Worland, Hurricane Harvey’s Environmental Toll Will Only Get Worse, The New York Times (Aug. 31, 2017) http://time.com/4923245/hurricane-harvey-arkema-group-explosion/.

[4] Worland, supra note 2.

[5] Chokshi, supra note 1; Worland, supra note 2; Hiroko Tabuchi and Sheila Kaplan, A Sea of Health and Environmental Hazards in Houston’s Floodwaters, The New York Times (Aug. 31, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/31/us/houston-contaminated-floodwaters.html?mcubz=0.

[6] Tabuchi, supra note 5.

[7] CNN Library, Hurricane Katrina Statistics Fast Facts, CNN (Aug. 28, 2017, 6:10 PM), http://www.cnn.com/2013/08/23/us/hurricane-katrina-statistics-fast-facts/index.html.

[8] Id.

[9] Lisa Friedman, How Hurricane Harvey Became So Destructive, The New York Times (Aug. 28, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/28/climate/how-hurricane-harvey-became-so-destructive.html.  

[10] John Schwartz, The Relationship Between Hurricanes and Climate Change, The New York Times (Aug. 25, 2017) https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/25/us/hurricane-harvey-climate-change-texas.html?mcubz=0 citing Andrew Dessler, professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University.

[11] Jonathan Watts, Is Tropical Storm Harvey Linked to Climate Change?, The Guardian (Aug. 29, 2017) https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/aug/29/how-did-climate-change-worsen-hurricane-harvey.

[12] Friedman, supra note 9. 

[13] Coral Davenport and Eric Lipton, How G.O.P. Leaders Came to View Climate Change as Fake Science, The New York Times (Jun. 3, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/03/us/politics/republican-leaders-climate-change.html?mcubz=0.

[14] Climate Change: How do we Know? Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/ (last updated Sept. 5, 2017).

[15] Sophie Tatum and Deirdre Walsh, Congress Switches Gears on Proposed FEMA Cuts Post-Harvey, CNN (Aug. 30, 2017) http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/30/politics/donald-trump-congress-fema-disaster-relief/index.html; Leyla Santiago, Mexico Readies Relief Aid for Texas Flood Victims, CNN http://www.cnn.com/2017/09/03/americas/mexico-aid-texas/index.html (last updated Sept. 4, 2017).

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Eastern Kentucky Environmental and Health Crisis

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Eastern KY Environmental and Health Crisis

By: Madison Mantz

Despite the Commonwealth’s motto, “United we stand, divided we fall”, Kentucky is no stranger to division. Perhaps our most highlighted divide is within the realm of sports; the renowned Kentucky Wildcat or Louisville Cardinal rivalry that on game night, tears apart families. However, there is another stark division in Kentucky that has come to the forefront over the last year; the urban-rural divide. In the words of Louisville Metro Councilmember Brandon Coan, “Louisville is not Kentucky, sir.” Coan made this statement in response to California’s travel ban that was imposed on Kentucky and his sentiments were shared across social media as citizens decried the rest of the bluegrass state.[1] The thing is, the metropolitan areas of Kentucky, namely Louisville and Lexington, are very different than their less populated counterparts. Rural Kentucky, specifically rural Eastern Kentucky, faces several unique challenges and is currently in the midst of an Environmental and Health Crisis that is not plaguing urban Kentucky.

Just this Month, the Appalachian Regional Commission released a report depicting health disparities throughout the Appalachian region. The news was not good for Eastern Kentucky; one of the major findings was that although death comes earlier in Appalachia compared to the rest of nation, it comes even earlier in Eastern Kentucky (Central Appalachia)[2]. Check out these startling figures:

·      Heart Disease Mortality Rates

o   The Appalachian Region’s heart disease mortality rate (204 per 100,000) is 17 percent higher than the national rate (175 per 100,000). Central Appalachia’s heart disease mortality rate (249 per 100,000) is 42 percent higher than the national rate[3].

·      Cancer Mortality Rates

o   The Appalachian Region’s cancer mortality rate (184 per 100,000) is 10 percent higher than the national rate (168 per 100,000). Central Appalachia’s cancer mortality rate (222 per 100,000) is 32 percent higher than the national rate[4].

·      Years of Potential Life Lost (YPLL) (measure of premature mortality; indicative of less healthy communities)

o   The Appalachian Region’s YPLL is 25 percent higher than the rest of the nation. Central Appalachia’s YPLL is 69 percent higher than the national mark[5]. The study specifically stated, “Appalachian Kentucky (10,880 per 100,000 population) has the highest YPLL rate in the Region, a mark 34 percent higher than the rate in non-Appalachian Kentucky (8,095).”

It is overwhelmingly obvious from these results that something is causing the people of Central Appalachia, primarily Appalachian Eastern Kentucky, to die at a rate exponentially higher than the rest of the world. One can acknowledge several reasons for this discrepancy; including high poverty levels, below average healthcare, and raging tobacco usage. However, in an article entitled “Unintended Consequences of the Clean Air Act: Mortality Rates in Appalachian Coal Mining Communities”, Michael Hendryx and Benjamin Holland traced the connection to the practice of mountain-top removal mining[6]. Not only is mountain-top removal a practice concentrated in Central Appalachia, but it didn’t become popular until the 1990 Amendments to the Clean Air Act promoted it as a cleaner alternative to reduce pollution. This harsh process involves the use of heavy machinery and explosives to blast through hundreds of feet of rock to strike coal layers. Hendryx and Holland found that respiratory-related mortality rates increased post-1990 Amendment and grew in proportion to the growing industry of mountain-top removal[7]. Now, this is just one study, but doesn’t a connection such as this warrant further research?

The new administration apparently does not think so. The Interior Department has recently halted a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that sought to study the harmful health effects that living near surface mining may cause[8]. In the words of U.S. Representative John Yarmuth, “The fact that mountaintop removal permits have been approved when there has never been a federal study on the health effects of mountaintop removal mining is shameful enough. To now prevent this study from being completed would be reprehensible.”[9] Furthermore, with the data released by the Appalachian Regional Commission, this decision is even more outrageous.

Reprehensible, shameful, outrageous… these are all words that I feel should be used universally to describe the Central Appalachian crisis. People are dying at a rate far higher than the national average and resources aren’t being invested into getting to the bottom of the problem! Its really sickening. Yet, a widely expressed belief that I have seen on social media instead, is more along the lines of “backwoods Kentucky has made their bed and now they have to lay in it”. The irony is not lost on me that the very administration rural Kentucky helped elect is the one which seeks to evade the answers and keep it stagnant. While it may be true that Louisville and Lexington are the only areas in Kentucky that did not vote conservative in this past year’s election; this kind of divisive blame-game talk only augments the feelings of isolation and betrayal felt in more rural areas. From my experience, those are the very reasons that they wanted such a radical government departure in the first place.

As someone who grew up in a town of 1200 people, with one-stop light, on the border of West Virginia, I have grown up seeing opportunity dwindle along with the coal-mining industry. On the flip side, I have witnessed how hazardous and unsustainable it is, my next-door neighbor with black lung could tell you all about it. In times such as this when rural Kentucky is at its most vulnerable both environmentally and in regards to health, Kentucky sure could use a lot more unity and a lot less division.

 

[1] Jacob Ryan, ‘Louisville, Not Kentucky:’ Dissecting the Commonwealth’s Urban-Rural Divide, WFPL, (July 1, 2017), https://wfpl.org/louisville-not-kentucky-dissecting-commonwealths-urban-rural-divide/.

[2]Bill Estep, “Death comes sooner in Appalachia. But it comes much sooner in Eastern Kentucky.”, Lexington Herald Leader, (Aug. 24, 2017), http://www.kentucky.com/news/state/article169037857.html; referencing Health Disparities in Appalachia, Appalachian Regional Commission, (Aug. 2017), https://www.arc.gov/research/researchreportdetails.asp?REPORT_ID=138.

[3] PDA, INC., Health Disparities in Appalachia, Appalachian Regional Commission, (Aug. 2017), https://www.healthy-ky.org/res/images/resources/Health_Disparities_in_Appalachia_August_2017.pdf.

[4] Id.

[5] Id

[6] Michael Hendryx, Benjamin Holland; Unintended consequences of the Clean Air Act: Mortality rates in Appalachian coal mining communities, Environmental Science & Policy, (Sep. 2016), http://ac.els-cdn.com/S1462901116301137/1-s2.0-S1462901116301137-main.pdf?_tid=b78ccfe0-8e89-11e7-a755-00000aab0f26&acdnat=1504210960_85c664c1231d0bdd2c126c40fc054550.

[7] Id.

[8] James Bruggers, Trump Administration halts strip-mining health study across Central Appalachia, Courier-Journal (Aug. 21, 2017),  http://www.courier-journal.com/story/tech/science/environment/2017/08/21/trump-agency-halts-strip-mining-health-study-across-appalachia/586800001/.

[9] Id.

JAEL Vol. 8, No. 1 Now Available!

We are happy to announce the publication of the Journal of Animal and Environmental Law Vol. 8, No. 1!  This edition features many exciting pieces of legal scholarship.  Felicia Thomas explores legislative strategies to end orca captivity at the state level.  Alexander Blackwell takes an in-depth look at Kentucky's conservation laws.  Kayla Campbell explores legislative remedies to issues associated with "fake" service animals.  Finally, Evan Comer discusses substantive environmental rights through a comparative analysis of state constitutions.  

You can view JAEL vol. 8, no. 1 here.   

The articles are linked below:  

Felicia Thomas, Free Willy:  Phasing Out Captivity of Killer Whales with State Level Legislation and Public Support, 8 J. Animal and Environmental L. 1 (2016)

Alexander Blackwell, Conservation in Kentucky: Taking the Next Step, 8 J. Animal and Environmental L. 47 (2016).  

Kayla Campbell, Supporting the Adoption of Legislation Criminalizing "Fake" Service and Emotional Support Animals, 8 J. Animal and Environmental L. 71 (2016).

Evan Matthew Comer, Constitutional Rights and Environmental Justice:  A Comparative Analysis, 8 J. Animal and Environmental L. 91 (2016). 

Welcome to the Laws of Nature!

The Laws of Nature is a student-run blog sponsored by the Journal of Animal and Environmental Law.  Our blog is a new tool that JAEL will be using to engage the legal community on contemporary issues in the fields of environmental, animal, energy, and natural resources law.   

Apart from giving JAEL's amazingly talented students a chance to showcase their work to our audience, we also want this blog to be a chance for the legal community to interact with our authors (and with one another) on important current events, legal issues, Supreme Court cases, and much more.  

We invite you to stay tuned to this blog over the course of the year.  If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below!