Letter from the US: Hurricanes, global warming and dire projections for the near future

October 21, 2018

Two big hurricanes hit southeastern United States in September-October. The first, Florence, devastated North and South Carolina with torrential rain, up to 40 inches in some locations over a few days. It caused huge flooding as rivers overflowed for weeks.

The second, Michael, hit Florida with very high winds. Near the coast, on the east side of the eye, sustained winds were 155 miles per hour when the storm made landfall. Together with the ocean storm surge, it made the coast look like it had been devastated in a bombing raid.

Michael was the third largest hurricane to hit the continental US in history. It then moved onto Georgia and then through the Carolinas, before going out into the Atlantic, with strong if diminishing winds and rain, causing great damage along its path.

At one point, Florence had winds of 140 mph before unrelated atmospheric shear winds diminished the hurricane winds before the storm hit land. But then it stalled, moving very slowly through North and South Carolina, which is why it left such a deluge of rain.

Both storms were intensified by rising ocean temperatures in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Global warming also intensifies storms by increasing the amount of water the atmosphere can hold. It also is creating a rise in sea levels, increasing ocean surges.

The day before Michael tore into Florida, a major new United Nations report was released. It projected severe damage from climate change would occur much sooner than previous scientific studies indicated.

Scientific projections on climate change have been getting progressively more dire, with this latest one the most alarming.

Climate deniers

The governors of Florida, Georgia, North and South Carolina are all climate change deniers, as is the occupant of the White House.

A 2012 law in North Carolina, and subsequent actions by the state government, ordered state and local agencies that regulate coastal development to ignore scientific models showing an acceleration of the rise of sea level. Real estate moguls cheered.

For his part, President Donald Trump has ordered federal agencies not to even mention climate change or global warming in reports. The Environmental Protection Agency has become the Environmental Destruction Agency.

In August last year, the Trump administration rescinded an Obama-era executive order that required consideration of climate science in the design of federally funded projects.

In some cases, that had meant mandatory elevation of buildings in flood-prone areas. In March, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is supposed to oversee recovery after hurricanes, released a four-year strategic plan that stripped previous mentions of climate change and sea level rise.

FEMA has been mired in charges of corruption, and its administrator, Brock Long, has come under fire for using government vehicles for personal travel.

An expose in the New York Times described how bureaucratic rules prevent FEMA from adequately dealing with how its aid money is spent. Local authorities use such funds on pet projects with nothing to do with planning for climate change.

FEMA has been woefully inadequate in dealing with hurricanes, from its bungling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 that hit New Orleans with a loss of 1800 lives, to its complete failure when Maria devastated Puerto Rico last year, leading to about 5000 deaths.

Trump, for his part, continues to claim there were only 17 or so deaths from Hurricane Maria, and that larger estimates are lies fabricated by his enemies.

As was true last year when Hurricane Harvey devastated Texas, and Hurricane Maria smashed the US colony of Puerto Rico, it is poorer sectors of the working class, African Americans and Latinos that are hardest hit.

One aspect of this is that authorities called for evacuations with bullhorns, but ignored the fact that many poorer workers do not have cars or other means of evacuating. Even if they do have cars, those who are caring for sick or elderly relatives do not have the means to take them to safety.

Cuba’s example

Compare this to how Cuba, a poor country which is often hit by hurricanes, handles evacuations. They don’t just shout at people to leave, they send in buses and ambulances so they can.

Another comparison is between Cuba and Puerto Rico, both of which became US colonies when Washington took them from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Cuba broke free from the US in its 1959 socialist revolution, that enabled it to place priority on health and safety while Puerto Rico remained a colony, smashed by Maria with inadequate aid from Washington.

People in the cities and towns along the scenic coasts of the US generally have higher incomes than rural areas. They get federal aid more swiftly and generously.

A report in the New York Times on this disparity noted one instance: “Erica and Kevin Graham embody the kind of families common in flood-prone inland communities. The couple, residents of Flair Bluff, N.C., were left wading through flood waters once again last month when Hurricane Florence caused the Lumber River to inundate their home.

“That very same home flooded two years ago during Hurricane Mathew. Yet the couple said they were still waiting for the bulk of federal recovery-assistance money for the 2016 storm, which would have allowed them to either elevate their house above flood level or relocate to higher ground.”

The new UN report, compiled by hundreds of scientists from around the world, studied the effects of different levels of the increase in average global warming. Since the 19th century, global temperature has increased by 1 degree Celsius. The report projects that between the years 2032 and 2050, average global temperature will reach 1.5 degrees at current levels of greenhouse gas emissions due to the burning of fossil fuels.

This should cause serious alarm. As early as 13 years from now, the world could suffer much more extreme hurricanes, floods, heat waves, droughts and fires. The new report is based on new evidence caused by the fact we are already in the age of global warming.

Given the failure of the world’s nations to curb the production of greenhouse gases, this projection is all but inevitable. The realistic perspective is that temperature rise will continue to rise, to 2 degrees and more, unless such emissions are sharply reduced — and soon.


Likely effects

The report lists the likely effects of a rise to 1.5 degrees and 2 degrees. Some of these are: at 1.5 degrees there will be diminishing summer Artic sea ice with loss of habitat for polar bears, whales and other creatures. At 2 degrees, ice-free Artic summers are 10 times more likely.

Severe heat waves will affect 14% of the world’s population at least every five years at 1.5 degrees. That jumps to 37% when the temperature increase is 2 degrees.

At 1.5 degrees, more than 350 million people will be exposed to severe drought. At 2 degrees, 411 million people.

For the rich ecosystems of coral reefs, there will be “very frequent mass mortalities” at 1.5 degrees, and at 2 degrees they will “mostly disappear”.

Sea level rise, already underway, will increase dramatically and continue for centuries, according to the report.

Another danger is that “tipping points”, impossible to predict, of various effects of global warming are possible. This refers to when quantitative increase reaches a qualitative change, with a runaway result.

We already live in a global warming-affected world. Just in the US, we see increasingly powerful hurricanes in the east, and increasingly destructive wildfires in the west.

Time to take action is running out. “My view is that 2 degrees is aspirational and 1.5 degrees is ridiculously aspirational,” said Gary Yohe, an environmental economist at Wesleyan University.

“They are good targets to aim for, but we need to face the fact that we might not hit them and start thinking more seriously about what a 2.5 degree or 3 degree world might look like.”    

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