Hurricanes, global warming, and dire projections for the near future

Nov. 2018 Hurricane Michael WIlliams, Springfield, Fla.

A resident of Springfield, Fla., whose car has been trapped by trees that were toppled by Hurricane Michael, requests help on Oct. 11, 2018 (AP photo)

By BARRY SHEPPARD

Two big hurricanes hit southeastern United States in September-October. The first was named Florence, which devastated North and South Carolina with torrential rains, up to 40 inches in some locations over a few days, causing massive flooding as rivers overflowed for weeks.

The second was Michael, which 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, which, together with the ocean storm surge, made the coast look like it had been devastated in a bombing raid. It was the third largest hurricane to hit the continental U.S. in history.

Michael then moved into 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 came onto land. But then it stalled, moving very slowly through North and South Carolina, which is why it left the deluge of rain.

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

Ironically, the day before Michael tore into Florida, a major new United Nations report was released that 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, and this latest one is the most alarming (see below).

The governors of Florida, Georgia, and North and South Carolina are all climate change deniers, as is their Commander in Chief, the occupant of the White House. In North Carolina, a 2012 law, 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.

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 2017, 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 away previous mention 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, with local authorities using such funds on pet projects having nothing to do with planning for the effects of climate change.

FEMA has been woefully inadequate in dealing with hurricanes, from its bungling of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which hit New Orleans with a loss of 1800 lives, to its complete failure when Maria devastated Puerto Rico, with about 5000 deaths. (Trump continues to claim that there were only 17 or so deaths, 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 U.S. colony of Puerto Rico, it is poorer sectors of the working class, African Americans and Latinos, but poorer whites too, that are hardest hit. One aspect of this is that authorities called for evacuations with bullhorns, but ignored 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.

Compare this to how Cuba, a poor country that 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 U.S. colonies when Washington took them from Spain in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Cuba broke free from the U.S. in its 1959 socialist revolution, which 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 U.S. 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 to elevate their house above flood level or relocate to higher ground.”

The new UN report, issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 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 us to be very alarmed. 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 better evidence as we are already in the age of global warming scientists are studying.

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 will continue to rise, to 2 degrees and more, unless such emissions are sharply reduced, and soon.

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 Arctic sea ice with loss of habitat for polar bears, whales and other creatures. At 2 degrees, ice-free Arctic summers are 10 times more likely.

Severe heat waves will affect 14 percent of the world’s population at least every five years at 1.5 degrees. That jumps to 37 percent when the temperature increase is 2 degrees. At 1.5 degrees, over 350 million people will be exposed to severe drought. At 2 degrees, 411 million. 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 beginning, will increase to many feet, and will continue for centuries, according to the report. Another danger is that “tipping points,” impossible to predict, of various effects of global warming are possible, where quantitative increase reaches a qualitative change, with a runaway result.

We are already living in a world affected by global warming. Just in the United States, we see increasingly powerful hurricanes in the east, and more and more 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.”