Harvey and Irma. Memories of Katrina.
A few weeks ago, you’d be forgiven for thinking this sounds like the latest X Factor sibling duo, or the title of a faded debutante’s autobiography. But instead of providing light entertainment as daydreaming singing sensations, these unusual names have been titling far graver stories.
Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have wreaked unprecedented levels of damage across the North American islands and continent. Alongside this, forest fires, droughts and floods have caused devastation across western American, mainland Europe and South Asia. Death-tolls for these global disasters have ranged from the dozens to the thousands. The localised damage generated will cost more than the GDP of entire nations, and will have social and economic repercussions for generations to come. And to add to this concern? The leader of the most powerful nation in the world is refusing to link these natural disasters to climate change.
One man with a loud voice is threatening to detract from the only grimly positive prospect presented by these catastrophes: to demonstrate that climate change is happening, that we are already experiencing the impacts, and that we must not be distracted from global efforts to mitigate further warming of our climate.
Let’s focus for the purpose of this article on the damage inflicted on North America and the Caribbean by the two hurricanes, preceded with an oh-so-brief layman geography lesson.
Whilst sceptics can truthfully state that hurricanes are seasonal, and do naturally fluctuate in strength and frequency, the majority of us appreciate that there is unavoidable scientific evidence supporting that fact that the likelihood of similar natural disasters is strengthening as we continue to pump carbon dioxide into our atmosphere.
Our global temperature is rising. When things heat up they expand. When hot feet swell we wear flip flops, and when steel rails expand they warp and crack. It’s the same with water – with our oceans. Warmer water leads to thermal expansion, and a larger physical area being required to hold the same volume of water. And then let’s include the additional water being added into our oceans by melting polar ice caps. Hence, rising sea levels, flooding.
Warmer temperatures lead to warmer water, particularly at surface level in the tropics. This increases the likelihood of strong tropical storms forming. Warmer water has more energy, causes stronger updrafts, a greater pressure deficit, and consequently stronger, longer-lasting and more damaging storms.
The destruction that these two storms have caused is startling. $300 billion worth of damage is the latest estimate, which includes the cost of damage to homes, infrastructure and agricultural assets. That’s pretty much the same as the Gross Domestic Product of Denmark. What this number doesn’t begin to quantify however are the personal catastrophes experienced by those who live in the Caribbean islands and southern and coastal states of the USA. At time of writing, at least 114 lives have been lost, with hundreds of thousands homeless, forced to flee or evacuated. Survivors are now facing food and water shortages, widespread looting and disorder and a reliance on aid. Businesses and agriculture have been hit hard, including Florida’s citrus crop, a significant blow to the state’s economy.
Looking forward: how will these people rebuild their lives? Their homes? How will they be relocated, treated, and settled back into the normal lives that were so dramatically disrupted by one case of extreme weather? The cost of rehousing and rebuilding the infrastructure damaged is the subject only of expert estimates right now, but for island states such as Antigua and Barbuda which suffered a 95% destruction rate to all structures it is undeniably a monstrous financial burden that will require substantial input from the international community. Insurance companies are expected to pay out $100-$150 billion in losses, but this leaves a 50% shortfall – to be footed by whom?
Surely it makes economic sense to try and avoid the human-induced worsening of these natural disasters?
It would be nice to dole out a pragmatic, medical approach to this situation and say ‘prevention is better than cure!’ But truth be told, it’s too late for that. Two degrees of warming are widely considered irreversible and the consequences are predicted that extreme weather is going to increase in frequency and severity. If temperatures increase beyond the two degree mark, then the level of potential damage will be genuinely unprecedented – and the potential cost impact of mitigating this unheard of.
We know what is causing our planet, air and oceans to warm (well, 97% of us do). And whether or not climate change is considered to be an inconvenient truth or documented scientific consensus, we are reaching a period in which this trend is becoming too pricey to be ignore.
We have the technology to be able to drastically reduce carbon emissions. And with increased investment and technological development the potential to generate renewable energy is enormous. We can also ensure that the damage, loss of life and economic cost experienced by the victims of these disasters is not wasted. The power of nature to wreak damage upon our civilisations is something we must not underestimate, and increased awareness should go hand in hand with improved preparations for combating disasters and organising disaster response.
But more than that – recognising the devastating social and economic consequences that can arise in countries across the world as a result of our changing climate must be utilised to generate awareness about climate change. Ensuring that people understand the direct link between our changing climate and extreme weather can be one more step in building the required awareness of how our lifestyles must change, and that the political systems we rely upon have a duty to assist us with this.
Hopefully, as America is ‘being made great again’, thoughts will be paid to those who have lost their lives and livelihoods in direct consequence of a natural storm worsened by human emissions. And then, just maybe, a name could be re-signed on a Parisian dotted line…
Note: Having just written about the impact of natural disasters on the United States and surrounding nations, I think it’s equally if not more important to mention that, at time of writing, the flooding in India, Bangladesh and Nepal is reported to have caused the death of 1,200 people, with millions more people made homeless. And these three countries have ratified the Paris Agreement.