I thought the 2017 hurricane season – which isn’t over yet – was already much worse than usual, and the records confirm it. It’s only the sixth year since records have been kept that more than one Category 5 hurricane formed, and only the second year that more than one made landfall at Category 5 strength.
First, Hurricane Harvey swamped the Texas coast (and made Joel Osteen shut his doors to the displaced). Then Hurricane Irma wiped out the island of Barbuda and did heavy damage to the U.S. Virgin Islands and Florida, followed by the even more powerful Hurricane Maria smashing through the Caribbean. Puerto Rico suffered a one-two punch from Irma and Maria, and the entire island may be blacked out for months. The Arecibo radio telescope was damaged when a 96-foot antenna snapped and fell 500 feet, puncturing the main dish.
Between hurricanes pummeling the east coast and the huge wildfires raging in the west much later than fire season usually lasts, it’s almost enough to make an atheist think that someone is unhappy with the U.S. and is sending us a message. If Hillary Clinton had won the election, we can all imagine how the religious right’s doomsayers would be shrieking that the destruction being visited on this nation was a divine judgment.
But somehow, natural disasters only become signs of God’s displeasure when Democrats are in power. If Republicans are running the show, even an American city being submerged doesn’t hold any meaning to them. It’s like they suffer selective amnesia and forget about the Bible every four or eight years. (“Major cities being flooded? No, I can’t say that reminds me of anything.”)
But in spite of Christians’ acidic hypocrisy, it’s not wrong to fear this is a portent. No matter who we vote for, climate change has gathered momentum and may already be snowballing out of control. As bad as it is, the 2017 hurricane season could be a foretaste of what future weather will be like.
It’s not clear whether global warming will cause more hurricanes. Some models say it will make them less frequent, but will make the ones that do form more powerful. This is bad news by itself, since major hurricanes, above Category 3, do 85% of all storm damage.However, one of the more robust results from climate models is that warming will make hurricanes wetter, causing them to dump even more rain on the land and cause more and worse flooding. Hurricane Harvey, the biggest flood-producing storm in American history, fits this pattern to a T.
Whatever the exact symptoms, we can be certain that a warming world is only going to make future weather worse. We know that warm ocean waters are the energy source that powers hurricanes, and a baseline of sea-level rise will make storm surges higher and harder to withstand. The wealthy countries that are responsible for most of the climate-warming carbon pollution can spend more to mitigate the danger (like with giant seawalls) and to rebuild, so poor countries will take the brunt, but everyone who lives along the coast is going to suffer. And incompetent, science-denying political leadership makes it worse, both by bungling the cleanup and also by costing us precious time to adapt and reduce our carbon footprint.
In my darker moments, I wonder if this problem could be solved by a giant land swap. Those of us who accept the authority of science can move inland, out of the danger zone. In exchange, those who scorn science and believe that global warming is a vast liberal conspiracy are welcome to move into cheap, newly vacated beachfront property. It’s a tradeoff that both sides ought to be happy with. If climate deniers are so sure of themselves, they shouldn’t be afraid of a little salt water lapping at their thresholds.
But that doesn’t address the plight of the poor who have nowhere to go, and in any case, there’s no real escape wherever you live. Even if human civilization becomes more peaceful and materially prosperous, the Earth of the future is going to be harsher and more dangerous, its weather more destructive. Besides hurricanes, floods and wildfires, some parts of the planet may literally be too hot for human life. We have few grounds to be proud of the world we’re passing down to our children.
Image: Flooding in Houston, Texas caused by Hurricane Harvey, August 31, 2017. Public domain photo by South Carolina National Guard helicopter aquatic rescue team, via Wikimedia Commons.