Sep 4, 2017
Hurricane Harvey dropped trillions of gallons of water on the Texas Gulf Coast, more than twice as much as Hurricane Katrina in 2005. And it was the third so-called “500-year storm” to hit Houston in the last three years.
Calling Harvey a “500-year” storm doesn’t mean these floods can only happen once every 500 years. It means that scientists think the chance of a flood that large happening are 1 in 500 in any given year, according to a system the government developed in 1968 for flood insurance. But just last year, floods in Houston reached such an extreme that the Houston flood control district said they were experiencing a one in 10,000-year rain event. Obviously not, since Harvey was even bigger!
The acceleration of these storms has been going on for decades. In the 1990s there were 30% more of what scientists call “heavy precipitation events” than the average between 1900 and 1960. In the 2000s, there were 40% more. And so far, the 2010s look to have even more.
Warm weather makes storms bigger because warm water evaporates more easily, and warm air can hold more water. Think about a hand dryer in a bathroom – it dries your hands by blowing warm air, which then turns the water on your hands into vapor. Hurricanes pick up water in a similar way. The warmer the water, and the warmer the air, the more water they pick up.
And we are seeing warmer water and air right now than ever before. Last winter, the daily surface temperature of the Gulf of Mexico never dropped below 73 degrees – the first time in recorded history that had ever happened. Scientists studying the weather of the Gulf predicted that a huge storm like Harvey was increasingly likely because of these warm temperatures.
And this is not just a problem facing Houston, or even the United States. 2016 was the warmest year on record. The warmest year before that? 2015. The warmest year before that? 2014.
And weather disasters have accelerated around the world. South Asia right now is experiencing an unprecedented level of monsoon rains. These rains have put one third of Bangladesh under water. They caused a high-rise building in Mumbai to collapse, and they have already killed at least 1,200 people. Conversely, drought has spread across large regions of Africa, threatening millions of people with starvation – another consequence of climate change predicted by scientists.
Of course, any of these individual events could happen without the climate warming. Just like any individual person could get lung cancer without smoking. As the cigarette companies insisted for years, no individual case of cancer can be proven to have been caused by smoking. But the enormous accumulation of evidence showed that smoking caused cancer. And the enormous amount of evidence from around the world establishes the link between climate change and the increased frequency of these weather disasters.
A reasonable society would put its resources toward trying to reduce the causes of climate change. Such a society would research and put in place alternative ways of generating electricity and of producing and transporting people and goods. And a reasonable society would put in place every measure it could to protect people from massive storms like Harvey, rising sea levels, and the changing patterns of weather that we can see happening before our eyes.
But we do not live in a reasonable society. In this capitalist society, profit comes first. In fact, the vast majority of pollution that causes climate change is not produced by individuals. Most of this pollution comes from the decisions made by a small number of big companies about how to produce power and all kinds of goods, how to distribute them, what kinds of transportation and heating systems are available, and what types of systems are NOT available, like decent public transportation. These companies profit from the current system and they don’t want it to change. They put their profits before the safety of millions of people.
And the politicians who run this country go along with them. Some like Obama pay lip-service to the threat posed by climate change and enact very limited regulations that every scientist knows are completely insufficient. Others like Trump and the Republicans who run Texas deny the very science that shows what’s happening. Can anyone believe that politics as usual, with either the Democrats or the Republicans in charge, can provide us with any way of avoiding the disasters we all know are coming?
Humanity has the resources and the know-how to deal with climate change. But this will only happen if humanity replaces this willfully blind, outdated, and murderous capitalist system with a collective one, organized to meet the needs of the population, instead of to maximize the profits of a tiny few.