An insensitive essay about hurricanes and climate change


President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

Who knew that Scott Pruitt has such empathy? In the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, the EPA head complained that it is “insensitive” on the part of folks like me to point out that climate change makes powerful hurricanes – like those just experienced – more frequent and more damaging. Maybe he’s worried that victims might be upset to learn that their government is not fulfilling its responsibility to protect them against extreme weather and other risks associated with climate change. Well, they should be upset, and this is a great time to talk about links between climate change and hurricanes, because while the victims will be recovering for years, the news cycle will soon move on.

So what does science tell us about climate change and hurricanes?

Basic theory and computer models of climate both find that the strongest and most destructive hurricanes will occur more frequently as a result of climate change. This has been observed in the Atlantic basin, where observational records are more complete than in other ocean basins.

Theory, models, and observations all indicate that there’s more extreme precipitation in a warmer climate. This means that hurricanes will tend to dump more rain as a result of climate change. The enormous precipitation totals from Hurricane Harvey are consistent with this expectation.

As sea levels continue to rise, damage from storm surges will get worse, because the ocean level is higher to begin with. Higher wind speeds of course will also contribute to higher storm surges.

Some scientists have theorized that climate change (specifically the rapid warming of Arctic) results in weaker “steering currents,” which can result in hurricanes lingering for a long time over one location. We saw this with Harvey in Texas, and it’s a big reason why the precipitation totals were so high and the storm was so damaging.

In summary, there is plenty of reason to expect that very damaging storms like those just seen will happen more often in the future.

So what should we be doing?

The experience in Houston, especially, showed that we need better preparedness. This means mundane things like building codes, evacuation routes, and other things that seem unimportant until the day you need them.

The National Flood Insurance Program urgently needs reform. Specifically, it needs to be put on a sound actuarial basis, where premiums reflect true risk. The Program is now $25 billion in debt because Congress has not allowed this. It might also be a good idea to exclude from the Program properties that have repeatedly flooded and collected benefits. The program will expire on December 8, which provides our legislators with a timely opportunity to address these issues.

President Obama’s executive order #13690, which sought to improve resilience to flood risk, should be restored. In a perfectly-timed move, Trump rescinded this order on August 15.

Of course, we also need to do everything possible to keep carbon out of the atmosphere. This means stopping deforestation and fossil fuel burning, and taking steps to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.

And while it doesn’t directly address climate change, it is important to support the victims of Harvey and Irma. If there’s ever a situation where we need “big government,” this is it, but federal aid is not enough to make victims whole. As more climate change-driven disasters unfold, we will need stronger communities that help each other in time of need.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.