Climate change fueled Ian
The dead left in Hurricane Ian’s wake — already nearing 100 in official tallies — are still
being counted. So are the dollars it has cost. The furious storm figures to be one of the
deadliest in Florida’s recorded history and one of the most expensive, too.
Scientists and weather forecasters have emphasized that climate change made a
significant contribution to Ian’s awful power. In the last five years, the coastline of the
United States has been lashed by an unprecedented number of storms rated Category
4 or higher, and they all qualify as “rapid intensification events,” according to climate
scientists. In other words, the storms picked up power and speed quickly. A warmer
ocean fuels cyclones and hurricanes. Melting glaciers have also made sea levels rise,
increasing the dangers of storm surge.
Yet, there is a strange cognitive dissonance in the way that Americans view Ian’s
destruction. We wonder at Mother Nature’s wrath, but most of us fail to acknowledge
that she didn’t do this alone. She had a big assist from human activity.
Fossil fuels make a huge contribution to the global warming that is powering extreme
weather events — from hurricanes on the coasts to drought and fires out West to
flooding in Kentucky. Most of us watch the fires and floods on news footage with a
combination of sorrow and awe but with little sense that our daily habits have helped to
bring on these disasters.
We still demand cheap gasoline so we can drive as much as we like. Even politicians
who know better — such as President Joe Biden — fret over fuel prices. Biden and
fellows Democrats are newly worried because oil-producing nations, led by Russia and
Saudi Arabia, are planning to cut production, intentionally pushing up prices. That will
put intense pressure on the Biden administration because Americans believe we have
an inalienable right to cheap gas. (There must be an amendment in the US Constitution
that says so.)
Biden has done more than any president before him to ameliorate and cope with the
dire effects of climate change, pushing through Congress a $1trillion infrastructure bill
that includes billions for clean energy investments and to strengthen infrastructure to
withstand extreme weather events.
But the bill is a mere drop in the ocean given the speed with which the planet is heating
— and the reality that most of us are heedless about the dangers. Not only do we insist
on driving huge gas-guzzling vehicles, but we also flock to regions where we should no
longer live. Coastal areas in Florida and South Carolina, for example, continue to be
high-growth regions, although the hazards of living there are increasing.
And local leaders are well-aware of the dangers. Officials in Charleston, for example,
have plans to build a $1.1 billion sea wall to protect the low-lying city from storm surge.
But city leaders have also approved plans to build a 9,000-acre residential and
commercial development that would locate half the homes in a flood plain,
environmentalists point out.
As Chris DeScherer, an environmental lawyer in Charleston, told The Washington Post,
“. . .It makes little sense to put another small city within the flood plain. Are we going to
put a sea wall around that in a few years?”
Americans, especially, have grown accustomed to our conveniences and addicted to a
certain way of life. We prioritize today’s comforts over tomorrow’s possible calamities,
today’s ease over tomorrow’s likely emergencies.
As humans, we have difficulty assessing risks — particularly those that are slow-moving
disasters such as those brought on by climate change. As it happens, though, they are
coming more quickly.
In Kim Stanley Robinson’s wise science-fiction tome, “The Ministry for the Future,” set in
a near-future when the catastrophes of climate change are much more apparent, world
leaders finally become serious about protecting the planet only after a super-deadly
heat wave in India kills 20 million people. Even after that calamity, fossil fuel barons and
oil-rich nations are reluctant to concede the need to change their ways.
That seems about right. Many more people will die before we get around to any serious
attempts to confront human-caused climate change. Let’s just hope it’s not too late by