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. As of September 4, at least 60 people had been reported dead. A chemical plant exploded, and others are leaking into the flood waters. Sewers have flooded, releasing at least 12 sources-worth of excrement and other sewer contents into the flood waters. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. In addition, storm surges (the flood of ocean water rather than rain that accompanies hurricanes) are worsened by rising sea levels. 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%. 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. 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. There is a greater-than-95% probability that increased global warming is caused by human activities. 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. 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.
 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.
 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.
 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/.
 Worland, supra note 2.
 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.
 Tabuchi, supra note 5.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Friedman, supra note 9.
 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.
 Climate Change: How do we Know? Global Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet https://climate.nasa.gov/evidence/ (last updated Sept. 5, 2017).
 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).