As the waters recede, as the winds die down, as the smoke clears, I wonder — What will it take? For I cannot imagine what it’s like to see everything you had swept away by flood, rain or fire — the loss of a loved one matched only by things which would keep their memory alive forever gone.
Twelve years ago, my wife, Mary, died of breast cancer. And I cherish the memories and the photographs, notes and so many other odds and ends that have kept her spirit in front of me. To lose even that, I cannot imagine.
I have worked on climate change for 25 years, and I wonder, what will it take?
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina devastates New Orleans, but there was more to come. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastates New York City. But there was more to come. August 2017 — Hurricane Harvey devastates Houston and other parts of Texas with record-breaking rainfall never before seen in the continental United States. But there was more to come. Hurricane Irma followed a week later, sweeping across the Caribbean Islands with death and destruction as its calling card. And finally, unleashing its fury on Florida. The National Hurricane Center said it was the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic. And there will be more to come.
What will it take? Yes, we’ve heard it before. No one storm can be tied to climate change. After all, no one case of lung cancer can be directly traced to smoking.
But consider this: The waters around Texas have risen half a foot during the Industrial Age, and the daily surface temperature of the Gulf of Mexico last winter never fell below 73 degrees — something which has never happened before. Higher sea levels, warmer water and air — a witch’s brew that can spell an even greater disaster given the right set of conditions.
And that is precisely what happened with Hurricane Harvey. Charles Greene, climate scientist at Cornell, stated, “Climate change played a role in intensifying the winds and rainfall associated with Hurricane Harvey.” Concurring with Mr. Greene, climate scientist Michael Mann put it this way: “The Laws of Thermodynamics are unforgiving.”
Listen to the description of the devastation:
Weather forecasters: Unprecedented. Beyond anything experienced. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: “One of the largest disasters America has ever faced.”
With projections of costs reaching $160 billion, it would indeed be the most expensive disaster in our history.
Here in the West, we were not spared the ravages of climate change. So pervasive were the wildfires, they virtually burned through the firefighting budget of the Forest Service. And the fires raged on. As the taste of smoke was everywhere, those with heart and lung conditions needed to limit their outdoor activities. As for the role of climate change, Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of Michigan, noted, “Humans are contributing to an ever-increasing degree to wildfires in the West, as they emit greenhouse gases and warm the planet and warm the West.”
And lest we conclude that climate change disasters are limited to our shores, we only need look halfway around the globe to South Asia, where flooding from monsoons killed at least 1,400 people. And it put 1/3 of Bangladesh under water with 70,000 homes damaged or destroyed. Including Nepal and India, over 41 million people were affected. Observed one Bangladeshi, “We’re used to flooding, but we’ve never seen anything like this in our lives.”
And Red Cross spokeswoman Corinne Amber, who took an aerial tour of Bangladesh, was stunned. “All I could see was water.”
Across the state, the climate movement is working diligently to pass a clean energy jobs bill to significantly reduce Oregon’s climate pollution. Yet, it saddens me that there still exists such a partisan divide, event vitriol, after all these years. What will it take to shed this ideological straitjacket and honestly and clearly look at climate change and its contribution to these disasters?
Is it conservative or liberal to feel for the loss of loved ones? Is it right wing or left wing to try and limit their economic suffering? Is it Libertarian or Socialist to recognize it is the core of our humanity to work for the common good and protect our common future? How bitterly ironic that in the months before Hurricane Harvey, a report in the journal Science warned that Texas and Florida would be particularly vulnerable to the economic consequences of climate change. So as the water recedes, the winds die down and the smoke clears, the question remains: How long must we ask “What will it take?” as we all await the next coming storm?