Storm clouds loom over the Houston skyline after the passage of Hurricane Harvey. Photo: Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

By Elizabeth Kolbert
4 September 2017

(The New Yorker) – On 29 August 2005, at six-ten in the morning, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on the border of Mississippi and Louisiana, just east of New Orleans. Katrina had spent days wobbling over the Gulf of Mexico, and by the time it reached the coast it was classified as a strong Category 3 storm. As it pressed inland, its winds, which were clocked at up to a hundred and twenty-five miles an hour, pushed water from the Gulf westward into Lake Pontchartrain, and north, up a mostly abandoned shipping canal. The levees that were supposed to protect New Orleans failed, and low-lying neighborhoods were inundated. That day in Louisiana, at least six hundred and fifty people died.

Katrina was widely described as a “wake-up call” for a country in denial about climate change. President George W. Bush and his Vice-President, Dick Cheney, during their first term, had withdrawn the United States from a global climate agreement and dismissed the findings of the government’s own climate scientists. Now, a few months into their second term, the nation was facing just the sort of disaster that the scientists had warned about. Even if global warming hadn’t caused Katrina, clearly it had intensified the damage: with higher sea levels come higher storm surges. And, with sea surface temperatures rising, there was more energy to fuel hurricanes, and more evaporation, which inevitably produces more rain. “How many killer hurricanes will it take before America gets serious about global warming?” the journalist Mark Hertsgaard asked at the time.

Last week, as Hurricane Harvey lingered over Houston, dumping so much water on the city that the National Weather Service struggled to find ways to describe the deluge, this question sloshed back to mind. Again, climate change can’t be said to have caused Harvey, but it unquestionably made the storm more destructive. When Harvey passed over the western part of the Gulf, the surface waters in the region were as much as seven degrees warmer than the long-term average. “The Atlantic was primed for an event like this,” Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told The Guardian.

Harvey was less lethal than Katrina; as of this writing, forty-six storm-related deaths have been confirmed. But in financial terms the storm’s costs are likely to be as high or even higher. One estimate put the price of repairing homes, roads, businesses, and the petrochemical plants that line the Houston Ship Channel at a hundred and ninety billion dollars. And that estimate was made before storm-damaged plants started to explode.

As misguided as the Bush Administration was about climate change, Donald Trump has taken willful ignorance to a whole new level. The President has called climate change an “expensive hoax” dreamed up by the Chinese. After much posturing, he announced in June that he was withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate accord. With less fanfare, he has rolled back Obama Administration regulations limiting greenhouse-gas emissions from both old and new power plants and from oil and gas wells. (Regarding the wells, a federal appeals court recently ruled against the White House, saying that it could not simply suspend the regulations.) Trump also revoked a 2013 executive order directing federal agencies to prepare for the impacts of warming and tossed out a plan, issued the same year, that outlined steps that the U.S. would take to combat climate change.

Then, just ten days before Harvey hit, the President rescinded a 2015 executive order requiring public-infrastructure projects in flood-prone areas to be designed with sea-level rise in mind. This move is likely to have particularly unfortunate consequences for Houston, a city with no zoning code, where thousands of buildings constructed on floodplains but lacking flood insurance are now filled with soggy debris. Last Monday, as rainfall totals in Houston were topping forty inches, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told Congress that he was planning to eliminate his department’s special envoy for climate change.

Many members of Congress share Trump’s climate-change delusions, especially in the Texas delegation. Lamar Smith, a Republican who represents parts of San Antonio, chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Smith has spent the better part of his career harassing climate scientists, and in a recent op-ed for the Daily Signal, a Web site sponsored by the conservative Heritage Foundation, he celebrated the effects of global warming, arguing that they were producing “beneficial changes to the earth’s geography.” At a town-hall meeting in April, Joe Barton, a Republican who represents parts of Fort Worth and is the vice-chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, repeated the old denier canard that clouds are the cause of climate change. And, in June, House Republicans introduced a bill to prevent federal agencies such as the Department of Energy from considering the societal costs of carbon pollution when fashioning regulations. Among the co-sponsors were three Texas representatives. [more]

Hurricane Harvey and the Storms to Come

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