Climate 411

Hurricane Harvey: Climate change, staggering costs, and people at the heart of it all

Texans are no stranger to the devastation of hurricanes. I still vividly remember, as a young child in Austin, being scared of Alicia in 1983 – and thankful that we lived at the top of the hill. Alicia caused nearly $2 billion in damages, a record at the time, and the category 3 storm was so destructive that its name was retired. But only a few years later, that record was broken in Texas by Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 ($5 billion), Hurricane Rita in 2005 ($24 billion), and Hurricane Ike in 2008 ($35 billion).

In fact, of the top ten costliest hurricanes of all time in the U.S., nine have been since 2004, and half have been in the past five years. Houston alone has endured three 500-year floods in the past three years. Each of these storms was devastating in its own right, but Harvey brought destruction to a new level.

As a native Texan, this is not the normal I knew. And for those outside Texas, think of the magnitude: You could fit the cities of Boston, Chicago, Manhattan, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Washington, D.C. into the geographical area of Houston. So how does Hurricane Harvey fit into the new normal? Here are three things we know for certain.

  1. Climate change increased the intensity and likelihood of the storm

2017 was a devastating year of natural disasters, by any measure, from wildfires in several western states to intense heatwaves in the Southwest to Harvey, followed closely by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Thanks to the improvement in climate models, scientists are now better equipped to attribute climate change effects to individual natural disasters.

A recent study by hurricane experts in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences found that Harvey’s unprecedented 51 inches of rainfall in the Houston area, as well as wind speeds in other parts of the state, were three times more likely and 15 percent more intense than without climate change. The study even called the rainfall “biblical” – as in, it has likely occurred only once since the time the Old Testament was written.

In Texas now, the odds of another Harvey-like rainfall could be nearly 1 in 5 per year by 2100 – put another way, rain of this magnitude could hit the state 18 times more often by the end of the century. Storms that have more than 20 inches of rain in Texas are about six times more likely now than they were at the end of the 20th century, just 18 years ago.

Climate change did not cause Hurricane Harvey, but it certainly made its impact much worse. Like an athlete on steroids, climate change enhances the performance of an already powerful force.

  1. The costs are and will continue to be enormous

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), the costs from all the 2017 natural disasters clock in at $306 billion – and Harvey comes out on top at $125 billion. Not only is that figure staggering on its face, but if the political leadership continues to go forward as business as usual, the costs of inaction will dwarf these.

Furthermore, these official numbers do not include things like economic impacts in the community, health costs from air and water pollution, mental health costs from the trauma of natural disasters, and repeatedly continuing to rebuild.

Beyond what’s traditionally reported – mainly about homes and businesses – a lot of sectors of the economy were affected by Harvey, such as:

  • Agriculture: Texas A&M University estimates crop and livestock losses at $200 million, with cotton and livestock representing $193 million of that. With Texas leading the nation in cattle and cotton production, those are serious numbers.
  • Fishing: While Gulf oysters took a hit from Harvey, the economic impacts to the fishing communities, especially many immigrant and immigrant-descendant families, along the coast will be felt for a long time. In addition to gear and infrastructure losses, the long-term effects on the marine ecosystem are still unknown. In particular, since oysters filter a lot of water, the loss of oyster populations may have an effect on the bays’ overall health.
  • Oil and gas: 20 percent of offshore oil and gas production was shut down.

If we do not act to mitigate further damage, while adapting our infrastructure and our systems to the reality of climate change, we will face dire financial consequences that may prove impossible to work around.

  1. The impact on people is much deeper than numbers and dollars

Climate change isn't just about studies and storm patterns, it means people are devastated. Some staggering stats from Harvey:

And for many, climate change will increasingly mean moving, not just rebuilding. Some towns and communities along the coast that have fewer resources than big cities like Houston, such as Rockport and Port Aransas, may never fully recover.

Plus, Houston’s no-zoning policy means a lot of pollution and petrochemical hazards are concentrated in one part of the city, which is largely populated by people of color or people with low incomes. Harvey unleashed a toxic stew in these neighborhoods and the communities, which already have fewer resources for rebuilding, may be permanently displaced. Storms don’t discriminate – some of the wealthiest areas in Houston were flooded – but climate change will hit vulnerable communities the hardest.

No time to lose

As Harris County Judge Ed Emmett put it, “Three 500-year floods in three years means either we’re free and clear for the next 1,500 years or something has seriously changed.” Unfortunately, the reality is the latter.

We have the data. We know the stats. There is no excuse to not act on climate change. The leadership of Texas and the U.S. have a duty to protect the citizens and property of this state and country. Ignoring the new normal is reckless.

Photo source: U.S. Army

This post first appeared on EDF's Texas Clean Air Matters blog.

Posted in Extreme Weather, Greenhouse Gas Emissions / Comments are closed

Why Should Moms (and Dads) Care about Climate Change?

My daughter on a hike in the Texas Hill Country.

My daughter on a hike in the Texas Hill Country.

I am a mom. It’s not the only descriptor I use for myself, but it’s up there at the top. My daughter is three years old. She loves to play outside and hug trees and chase birds and go fishing with her daddy.

I am also a clean energy and climate advocate. My weekdays consist of trying to convince Texas policymakers to take action on climate change, and I sometimes think negotiating with statewide officials is harder than negotiating with a “threenager.”

As parents, our daily lives consist of a million things we have to do to keep the kids fed, dressed, and out of harm’s way. Can’t someone else worry about climate change? The problem with that perspective is, although moms and dads may differ politically, our desire to see our kids grow up happy and healthy is universal. But if enough of us make small changes in our lives and raise our voices on climate and clean energy issues, those actions can add up to a big solution.

Climate change and life as we know it

When a problem seems overwhelming, as climate change often does, it’s helpful to break it down into relatable pieces. Let’s think about how climate change affects our everyday activities with our children.

For example, my daughter and I start the day with breakfast. She has oatmeal with blueberries every day. Oats and blueberries are generally grown in cooler climates (Russia is by far the largest oat producer in the world). Crops depend on specific climatic conditions, and as the climate changes, we will likely have to move our centers of production, disrupting ecosystems and making further changes to our natural environment. It’s a complicated issue to break down because, in some cases, increased levels of carbon dioxide could increase crop yields, but at the expense of other crops. And as temperatures increase, we are likely to see more droughts and extreme weather, risking damage to our agricultural system. The fate of their favorite breakfast food relies on a healthy, dependable climate.

In the summer, sometimes we go to the pool. Will cities be able to justify keeping public pools open when there is chronic drought?

Other afternoons we may go the playground. Before heading out, I check the weather. In Texas that means hot and dry in the summer, but I also have to be concerned about Ozone Action Alerts – that is, days when air quality is dangerous for vulnerable populations, which includes children, whose lungs are still developing. Multiply that effect on children who are already suffering from health problems, such as asthma. On those days, it’s better for us to play inside. Climate change – which is closely tied to and influenced by air pollution and ozone – may mean we see more dangerous air quality days, and less opportunity to enjoy the playground.

These are just a few examples of how a changing climate spells differences for our kids’ everyday lives.

What action can you take?

  • Choose 5 reasonable actions: Parents can make choices that are less carbon-intensive – EPA has a great, practical webpage on things you can do to help with your impact on climate change. My advice: take a quick look and pick five things you and your family can do that are reasonable. Once you’ve got those nailed, try another five. It all adds up.
  • Show your political support: Your elected officials and their appointees need to know that parents are concerned about the air their children breathe and the water they drink and play in. Unfortunately, politicization of climate change has made every forward-moving action a struggle. But parents are constituents, and political leaders will listen if enough of their constituents come to them. For instance, you can support the Clean Power Plan, new standards that place limits on carbon pollution from existing power plants in the U.S. for the first time ever. Phasing out coal would be a positive step for the cardiovascular and respiratory health of our children.
  • Get organized with other parents who care: You can join Moms Clean Air Force, a special project of Environmental Defense Fund and a community of parents that organize and support action to protect little lungs from pollution. Moms Clean Air Force recently opened a Texas chapter, and you can find out more here.

Even though it is my job, sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the enormity of climate change. Then I look at my three year old, full of hope, energy, and imagination, and it is crystal clear to me why I should continue to care and fight for action on climate change. I need to show her that – even in the face of such odds – we all have an obligation to think bigger than ourselves.

Let this be the moment that you take action on issues that threaten your kids’ health and the health of the planet, whether through lifestyle changes, support of advocacy organizations like Moms Clean Air Force, or support of government action, like the Clean Power Plan.

Lately my daughter has been very interested in learning about space. When we ask her what her favorite planet is, she says, “Earth. Because it is our home and it has lots of water.” I owe it to her – and I believe every parent owes it to our children and all the children of this planet to protect it.

This post originally appeared on our Texas Clean Air Matters blog.

Posted in Clean Power Plan, Greenhouse Gas Emissions, Health, Policy / Comments are closed