PORT ARTHUR, Texas, 31 August 2017: A flooded street is seen after the area was inundated with flooding from Hurricane Harvey on 31 August 2017 in Port Arthur, Texas. At least 37 deaths related to the storm have been reported since Harvey made it's first landfall north of Corpus Christi, 25 August 2017. Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

By Seth Cline
22 September 2017

(US News) – To some, climate change is a vague idea, a hazy future. In parts of the South, it's become a devastating reality.

"When you drive down the street there's piles and piles of furniture, clothing, shoes, sound systems, just about anything you find inside a home," Hilton Kelley, an environmental activist and former actor, says of Port Arthur, Texas, in Harvey's aftermath. "It really looks like a war zone in many of our neighborhoods."

For the residents of Port Arthur and nearby Houston, Hurricane Harvey was just the latest battle in the region's ongoing conflict with an increasingly volatile Mother Nature.

"Katrina, we should've learned from that. If we didn't learn from that we should've learned from Rita. If we didn't learn from Rita, we should've learned from Ike. If we didn't learn from Ike, we should've learned from Gustav," says Kelley of the area's stormy history. "How many hurricanes do you have to go through in 15 years to realize that this is the new norm?"

Port Arthur, like the South as a whole, is both uniquely located to feel climate change's effects and uniquely vulnerable to its dangers, experts say. From Florida and the Gulf Coast to Kentucky and Southern Appalachia, the rising temperatures and more frequent extreme weather that come with climate change threatens to disrupt local economies and endanger working class communities.

"The southern U.S. is basically ground zero for climate change," says Dr. Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University and the so-called "father of environmental justice."

There's the South's geography, for one. Surrounded on one side by rising seas and susceptible to the heat waves and droughts of the lower latitudes, it's suffered more billion-dollar weather and climate disasters than any other U.S. region going back to 1980. Texas alone has seen 94 of such events in that time frame, nearly 25 more than any other state.

"In Texas you get everything. You get ice storms and blizzards and tornadoes and flash flooding and haboobs and of course hurricanes," says Katharine Hayhoe, a professor at Texas Tech University who contributed to the 2014 National Climate Assessment.

But geographic hazards are only part of what makes the South particularly at risk to climate change, Hayhoe says. There's also the sheer number of people affected, and how vulnerable they are.

Despite the hazards, states like Texas have taken few steps to reduce risk. Although Texas leads the U.S. in terms of dollars paid for flood claims, it ranks among the worst in flood-control spending and doesn't require its communities to enroll in FEMA's National Flood Insurance Program. Suburban sprawl has led to new houses and developments being built on flood plains, and complicated emergency response. And migration to Texas and the South generally have only increased the region's exposure, particularly for those pushed to the low-lying and less desirable areas.

"These weather and climate extremes broaden the gaps between haves and have-nots. If you have insurance versus if you don't, if you can evacuate or you can't," Hayhoe says. "There's a socioeconomic component to individual vulnerability."

That vulnerability is a major reason why the South is set to be America's biggest loser in the coming battles with a changing climate. An study published this summer in the journal Science, which used innovative methods to estimate climate change's economic costs by region, predicted that climate change would hit the South the hardest: desecrating crop yields, increasing mortality rates, and exacerbating income inequality in what is already the country's poorest region.

Harbingers of those dire predictions can already be seen in this year's hurricane season. [more]

Climate Change's Southern Salvo


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