Subberwal: We cannot ignore climate change’s role in LA. flooding (column)
Special to the Daily
Disasters are a natural part of life.
When the fire starts, when the bank breaks, when the illness hits, we weather the storm, then try to move on. This is nothing new. The storms that we must weather, however, are becoming increasingly ferocious, as we have seen this week in Louisiana, and, unless we recognize and respond to this fact, they will become even more devastating.
Less than two weeks ago, unrelenting rains hit southern Louisiana, dropping, in some places, more than 31 inches of rain in 15 hours. At least 11 people have been killed by the deluge, and at least 40,000 homes in 20 parishes have been damaged. The Louisiana downpour is the worst natural disaster to hit the United States since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
Although the havoc wreaked by this storm has been horrific, what is truly remarkable about the destruction is how unprecedented it is. Homes in areas that had never flooded before were significantly damaged by the rising waters. Areas beyond the floodplain were hit, and homeowners who had never before required flood insurance were left without a means of lessening the financial blow of the disaster.
Part of the reason the people of Louisiana were unprepared for the floods was the nature of the storm: Because it was not a hurricane, it was difficult to predict, and Louisianans were only given a few days’ notice. A significant reason for the flood, though, is likely climate change.
The idea of climate change was first imagined in the mid-19th century, when a Swedish scientist suggested that the combustion of fossil fuels would eventually lead to an increase in global temperatures — an idea that has subsequently been supported by decades of research. Contrary to what might seem obvious, such warming does not actually increase the number of storms that occur. In fact, scientists predict that as the temperature difference between the poles and the equator decreases, the number of storms should decrease as well, as storms are fueled by this temperature variation.
However, it has become clear that global warming does heighten the intensity of storms worldwide. As temperatures increase, more water vapor evaporates into the atmosphere, and the atmosphere’s ability to retain water vapor increases. This increases the severity of the storms and the amount of rainfall that drops.
The disaster in Louisiana is not the first instance of catastrophic flooding exacerbated by climate change. In June, both Texas and France faced devastating downpours, killing ten people total and leading Texas Gov. Greg Abbott to declare a state of disaster in several dozen counties.
Unlike French President Francois Hollande, however, Abbott denied the role climate change played in the havoc wreaked in his land. In denying climate change, he joins the likes of Sens. Mitch McConnell, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul. By refusing to acknowledge humans’ role in the changing climate, these congressmen are ignoring the prospect of years filled with catastrophic disasters and, therefore, leaving our current ill-funded and difficult-to-manage emergency response system to handle the aftermath.
Of course, most of us don’t share the worldview of these senators. According to a recent Gallup poll, 65 percent (admittedly not a vast majority), of Americans are worried a great or a fair amount about climate change. Worrying, though, is not enough.
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast 11 years ago tomorrow, we leapt into action, sending in the Coast Guard, volunteers, the military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help the citizens who were affected survive the crisis. The decision to take action in the face of a catastrophe is an easy one. Even in Louisiana, where the devastation has been far less publicized and far more ignored than its sister storms, government relief agencies and disaster nonprofits have still been on the scene, helping to evacuate survivors and provide relief.
Action in the face of slow change is harder. Climate change is not something that happens overnight. It is sluggish and creeping, like the glaciers that it lays to waste, its movement scarcely perceptible. When we see cataclysms like Katrina, Sandy and the Louisiana floods, we shake our heads and send in the cavalry to pick up the pieces, not thinking about the greenhouse gases exuded by our vehicles, the coal and natural gas that is burned to heat and light our homes and the vast amounts of energy expended to create and transport our precious tech, our iPhones and hoverboards.
I am as guilty of this as anyone else: Climate change is hiding in plain sight, yet it is so easy to ignore. After all, nothing is tangibly wrong; my life goes on as it always has. The waters aren’t rising around my ankles, and I am not choking on toxic air. Surely the convenience, connectedness and comfort that my technology and my home and car provide me are worth some degree of sacrifice.
But, of course, I am not the one who is sacrificing. While I sit comfortably in the pristine Rocky Mountains, people’s lands are being torn apart by open-pit mining and oil spills, their lungs are being corrupted by the power plants that abut their neighborhoods and their homes are facing a brutal burial at sea by the rising waters.
We — who are lucky enough not to face the immediate consequences of climate change — are making a Faustian bargain, but it’s others who have to repay this deal with the devil. However, our immunity won’t last forever.
Nothing underscores our unity as a planet more than the existential danger that we all face. The changing climate will touch us all, and it just happens that Texas, Paris and Louisiana have been among the first victims. The recent floods serve to bring to light what we all instinctively know: the climate crisis is not something we can afford to ignore. Each of us will have to face the changing environment one way or another, and, if we do it by changing our lifestyles and demonstrating to those in power that we care about the future of our planet, we can hopefully avoid a much more perilous confrontation.
Kaeli Subberwal graduated from Summit High School in 2015 and just finished her first year at the University of Chicago. She is a summer intern at the Summit Daily.
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