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Harvey and Climate Change

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Perhaps Harvey is finally the storm where we begin to take climate change. Even hard-core climate denier Greg Abbott is calling these storms “the new normal.” Houston has been hit with “500-year floods” three times in the past three years, which means that term has no real baseline anymore. In fact, as this piece goes into in some detail, disasters such as this is precisely what climate scientists have been predicting for a very long time.

But there’s an uncomfortable point that, so far, everyone is skating around: We knew this would happen, decades ago. We knew this would happen, and we didn’t care. Now is the time to say it as loudly as possible: Harvey is what climate change looks like. More specifically, Harvey is what climate change looks like in a world that has decided, over and over, that it doesn’t want to take climate change seriously.

Houston has been sprawling out into the swamp for decades, largely unplanned and unzoned. Now, all that pavement has transformed the bayous into surging torrents and shunted Harvey’s floodwaters towards homes and businesses. Individually, each of these subdivisions or strip malls might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but in aggregate, they’ve converted the metro area into a flood factory. Houston, as it was before Harvey, will never be the same again.

Harvey is the third 500-year flood to hit the Houston area in the past three years, but Harvey is in a class by itself. By the time the storm leaves the region on Wednesday, an estimated 40 to 60 inches of rain will fall on parts of Houston. So much rain has fallen already that the National Weather Service had to add additional colors to its maps to account for the extreme totals.

Harvey is infusing new meaning into meteorologists’ favorite superlatives: There are simply no words to describe what has happened in the past few days. In just the first three days since landfall, Harvey has already doubled Houston’s previous record for the wettest month in city history, set during the previous benchmark flood, Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001. For most of the Houston area, in a stable climate, a rainstorm like Harvey is not expected to happen more than once in a millennium.

But it course it may well happen again in the next few years, whenever a big storm hits a record warm Gulf of Mexico and happens between a couple of high pressure systems so it can’t move quickly. There’s nothing unusual about this anymore. It’s going to happen again and again and again. We as a society can decide to do something about it or we can decide not to. I remain extremely skeptical that Houston will learn anything. I would place the chances of Houston rethinking its model of extremely decentralized and privatized urban sprawl at approximately 0%. Perhaps there are possibilities:

If we don’t talk about the climate context of Harvey, we won’t be able to prevent future disasters and get to work on that better future. Those of us who know this need to say it loudly. As long as our leaders, in words, and the rest of us, in actions, are OK with incremental solutions to a civilization-defining, global-scale problem, we will continue to stumble toward future catastrophes. Climate change requires us to rethink old systems that we’ve assumed will last forever. Putting off radical change—what futurist Alex Steffen calls “predatory delay”—just adds inevitable risk to the system. It’s up to the rest of us to identify this behavior and make it morally repugnant.

Insisting on a world that doesn’t knowingly condemn entire cities to a watery, terrifying future isn’t “politicizing” a tragedy—it’s our moral duty. The weather has always been political. If random whims of atmospheric turbulence devastate one neighborhood and spare another, it’s our job as a civilized society to equalize that burden. The choices of how to do that, by definition, are political ones.

Climate change hits the vulnerable in a community hardest. It is no different in Houston with Hurricane Harvey, where even if an evacuation would have been ordered, countless thousands of people wouldn’t have had the means or ability to act. There is simply no way to safely evacuate a metro area the size of Houston—6.5 million people spread across an area roughly the size of Massachusetts.

The symbolism of the worst flooding disaster in U.S. history hitting the sprawled-out capital city of America’s oil industry is likely not lost on many. Institutionalized climate denial in our political system and climate denial by inaction by the rest of us have real consequences. They look like Houston.

Once Harvey’s floodwaters recede, the process will begin to imagine a New Houston, and that city will inevitably endure future mega-rainstorms as the world warms. The rebuilding process provides an opportunity to chart a new path. The choice isn’t between left and right, or denier and believer. The choice is between success and failure.

I agree, but I also remain highly skeptical. Once the water comes down, not only will Ted Cruz and John Cornyn be voting against federal relief for disasters that affect blue states again, but the old system of money and ideology will win out over a serious rethinking of Houston and America’s future.

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