To some, the question: 'Hurricanes. Floods. Droughts. Why is it so?' is nonsensical. There have been hurricanes, floods and droughts since time immemorial. “It’s just nature at work” they say. They quote Dorothea Mackellar to ‘prove’ their point. To them, what climate scientists have to say is irrelevant.
Yet even some of them may wonder why recently we have had such a spate of exceptional adverse weather events, one after the other.
In late August there was Hurricane Harvey in Texas - the largest ever to devastate that state. It extended into Louisiana. There were 70 deaths. The cost of restoration will be many billions, and the time needed as much as a decade.
Hard on its heels came Hurricane Irma that wrought destruction throughout the Caribbean, Florida and beyond. It was the largest ever to arise in the Atlantic. It spawned Hurricanes Jose and Katia. 6.5 million people, about one-third of the state’s population, were ordered to evacuate southern Florida. Almost 6 million homes and businesses lost power, 38 were killed. The damage bill will run into billions, and restoration time will extend into many years.
Jonathan Watts, writing in The Guardian says:
‘In the US alone, the cost of the damage caused by the two hurricanes is estimated at $290bn — or 1.5% of GDP. The toll in the worst-hit Caribbean islands has not yet been calculated but it will be far greater relative to the size of the battered economies.' In parenthesis, he does though strike a positive note: ‘But while the problem has never looked grimmer, the most likely solution — a switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy — has rarely looked as desirable or financially feasible as it does now.’
More about this later.
Both Harvey and Irma attracted lots of airplay and commentary, some from climate scientists. Their comments made sense. Connecting these events to global warming, they explained that the warmer the atmosphere, the more the air is saturated with moisture, the more there is to precipitate.
In The Conversation Andrew King, Climate Extremes Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne writes: ‘We know that climate change is intensifying extreme rain events. We also know that climate change is worsening storm surges by raising the background sea level on which these events occur.'Writing in The Guardian on 29 August, George Monbiot deplores the fact that the media generally has not mentioned any connection between global warming and these extreme events, as if no connection exists! He goes onto say:
To claim there is no link between climate breakdown and the severity of Hurricane Harvey is like claiming there is no link between the warm summer we have experienced and the end of the last ice age. Every aspect of our weather is affected by the fact that global temperatures rose by about 4C between the ice age and the 19th century. And every aspect of our weather is affected by the 1C of global warming caused by human activities. While no weather event can be blamed solely on human-driven warming, none is unaffected by it.
We know that the severity and impact of hurricanes on coastal cities is exacerbated by at least two factors: higher sea levels, caused primarily by the thermal expansion of seawater; and greater storm intensity, caused by higher sea temperatures and the ability of warm air to hold more water than cold air.
But conservative groups with close links to the Trump administration and the fossil fuel industry attempted to ridicule the link between climate change and events such as Harvey.
Monbiot contradicts these attempts:
In Texas, the connection could scarcely be more apparent. The storm ripped through the oil fields, forcing rigs and refineries to shut down, including those owned by some of the 25 companies that have produced more than half the greenhouse gas emissions humans have released since the start of the Industrial Revolution…Like Trump, who denies human-driven global warming but who wants to build a wall around his golf resort in Ireland to protect it from the rising seas, these companies, some of which have spent millions sponsoring climate deniers, have progressively raised the height of their platforms in the Gulf of Mexico in response to warnings about higher seas and stronger storms. They have grown from 40ft above sea level in 1940, to 70ft in the 1990s, to 91ft today.
There has been less mention in the media of the devastating floods in India. In Mumbai an unrelenting downpour battered low-lying parts of the city in late August, with some areas receiving almost 12 inches of rain.
What did we hear on TV of the floods in SE Asia? They have been particularly devastating; in the past two months more than 1,200 people have been killed and 20 million others affected by floods in Nepal, India and Bangladesh.
Did you hear about the droughts in America? Writing in The Guardian Kathleen McLaughlin reports; ‘While much of the country’s attention in recent weeks has been on the hurricanes striking southern Texas and the Caribbean, a so-called “flash drought”, an unpredictable, sudden event brought on by sustained high temperatures and little rain, has seized a swathe of the country and left farmers with little remedy. Across Montana’s northern border and east into North Dakota, farms are turning out less wheat than last year, much of it poorer quality than normal…Farmers see vast cracked, grey, empty fields dotted with weeds and little patches of stunted wheat.’ Montana governor Steve Bullock declared the entire state a fire disaster: “Montana is in a severe drought and the conditions are ripe for continued severe fires through September.”
Even in Australia the situation is grim. Writing in The Conversation, Andrew King, Climate Extremes Research Fellow at the University of Melbourne says: ‘Australia’s average daytime maximum temperatures were the highest on record for this winter, beating the previous record set in 2009 by 0.3℃. This means Australia has set new seasonal highs for maximum temperatures a remarkable ten times so far this century (across summer, autumn, winter and spring)…The increased frequency of heat records in Australia has already been linked to climate change. This warm, dry winter is laying the groundwork for dangerous fire conditions in spring and summer. We have already had early-season fires on the east coast and there are likely to be more to come.’
Sydney has had only one hotter day in the first half of September, and bushfires are already burning in NSW where authorities predict a dangerous fire season.
Writing in Women’s Agenda, editor Angela Priestley says: ‘Australia has not been immune to significant weather events. When the destructive and deadly Cyclone Debbie hit earlier this year, researchers suggested it was indicative of the fewer, but more intense, storms we can expect to see as a result of warming in the upper troposphere. A 2016 bleaching event affected the vast majority of the Great Barrier Reef. Australia has been described as sitting in what some experts dub as “disaster alley”, a region home to large coastal populations exposed to extreme weather events that are predicted to worsen in the years to come.’
I wonder how much more evidence is needed to establish in the climate deniers’ minds that there IS a connection between global warming and the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme weather events across the globe?
Despite the rapidly accumulating evidence that points to a connection, at their recent conference The Nationals not only endorsed coal as their preferred baseload energy source into the future, but also sought to have all subsidies removed from renewable energy initiatives. Also they are urging the Clean Energy Target, as recommended in the Finkel Review, be scrapped! Their perverse position, that flies in the face of the evidence, can be explained only on the basis of vested interest, or more grotesquely by entrenched belief that is simply not amenable to factual or logical imperatives. They are behaving like brazen children determined to run counter to social norms.
And now our PM, fettered by his conservative cabal, is talking up coal, ‘clean coal’ mind you, as the only way we can have energy security in the foreseeable future at times of peak load, paving the way for subsidies to so-called “low-emission, high-efficiency coal power stations”. Yet, as industry expert Alan Pears points out in The Conversation, Turnbull’s claim is debatable, and anyway it takes eight years before a new coal-fired station generates a cash flow, and thirty years to turn a profit, not a great prospect for investors! Nevertheless, the coal lobby and its parliamentary sycophants, lead by coal-lover Tony Abbott, have our PM in harness. Scripture tells us: ‘It's hard to kick against the pricks’; Turnbull knows this and has lamely given up.
What hope is there when our national leader so shamefully abandons the high principles on climate change he so strongly expressed in the past, only to enthusiastically embrace the most polluting fuel of all - coal - and represent it as our energy saviour, knowing full well the dire environmental consequences? He is ready too to abandon the Finkel recommendation for a Clean Energy Target, which his conservative rump, led by The Nationals is demanding.
What hope is there when POTUS Trump abandons the Paris Accord, appoints a climate change denier to head his Environmental Protection Authority, persists with his ‘climate change is a hoax’ rhetoric, denies any connection between recent devastating adverse weather events and global warming that will cost his government many, many billions? What hope is there when he strongly supports coal mining, and does everything he can to bring into disrepute climate science and climate scientists, who warn us daily of the risks we face unless we change our energy sources radically away from coal and other fossil fuels?
Hurricanes. Floods. Droughts. Why is it so? We know why it is so - climate scientists tell us every day. We know the solution - phasing out of fossil fuels and phasing in of non-polluting renewable sources of energy. But our leaders are blind, deaf and dumb, stubbornly resistant to taking these actions.
A new mental illness has emerged: Blind resistance to action on climate change, otherwise known as the BRTAOCC syndrome. It may soon make it into DSM-5: The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders . There are many who suffer from this syndrome. Here in Australia there is a cluster in our federal government headed by a spineless turncoat. Overseas there is the POTUS, the epitome of wilful ignorance.
Is there a cure? Will our leaders blindly lead us over the precipice? Will we follow like lemmings?
It seems that our only hope is ourselves. Our governments, our leaders, those we look to for guidance, are so obsessed by the politics of everything, so focussed on power and self-preservation, that the issue of climate change fades invisibly into the background.
In the US, the action of President Trump in abandoning the Paris Accord has precipitated contrary action by many State governors, major cities, large companies and individuals, who are determined not to abandon action to combat global warming. They are taking the action our leaders won’t. We, the ordinary people, must support them. We are the only ones who can save our planetary home.
The power of the people is our only hope. The future of our planet is in our hands.