Extreme weather and climate change

Extreme weather and climate change

By Drs. Sylvain Ehrenfeld and Reba Goodman

There is strong scientific consensus that the heavy rainfall, and the power of the storms Harvey and Irma that roared through Houston, Texas, and Florida was caused by climate change. Harvey and Irma would not have been so intense if the air and sea fueling them hadn’t been so warm. The extreme rainfall resulted from increased water vapor that was created by the water’s higher temperatures. Harvey and Irma were endlessly covered on TV, but climate change was hardly considered.

Because of climate change, Atlantic hurricanes will become more severe. In Texas and Florida, the damage when hurricanes hit land will be aggravated by the existing rampant unregulated housing. The area’s oil and chemical refineries are also vulnerable. In Florida, real estate still reigns supreme, with few rules governing building in precarious areas.

Facts ignored are still facts

What lessons will be learned from the facts and experience of the extreme weather events? A quote from Aldous Huxley goes right to the point: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

In East Asia, an event related to climate change created tragedy in India, Nepal and Bangladesh. Exceptionally heavy monsoon rainfall resulted in extensive flooding on rivers downstream in Bangladesh with more than 1,400 people killed. When the flood waters recede, the problems facing these communities will be horrific. Food, crops, and stores have been lost. Safe water and sanitation facilities have been damaged and water-borne diseases are on the rise.

Disasters always leave devastation in their paths; the recovery is always hardest for the poor.

UN climate change conferences have always been bedeviled by the ethical issue of global justice. Poor countries claim, correctly, that they suffer most from climate change and that developed countries are responsible because they became rich using fossil fuels and should help the poor countries cope with the effects.

Compensating poorer countries

Finally, at the milestone Paris UN climate conference, it was agreed that $100 billion a year is to go from richer to poorer countries by 2020 to adapt to climate change. It should be said that the $100 billion for mitigating climate change is not legally binding. It is unlikely that the US will pay into this fund. Hopefully, other countries will contribute.

People indeveloping countries are paying a heavy price for global action or inaction beyond their control. Some poor countries are taking actions on their own to cope.

An example is Bangladesh, a low-lying nation, vulnerable to storms and catastrophic sea level rise. Bangladesh has done much to protect the population by creating an early warning system, using the widespread availability of cell phones. They have built at least 2,500 concrete storm shelters. The result has been a vast reduction in storm-related deaths. The nation’s agricultural research centers are devising salinity-resistant strains of rice. When stormwaters retreat back to the ocean, they leave the salt all over the crops, which does a lot of damage.

There are limits to what can be done if, as expected, climate change gets worse without global action. Human inactivity is causing stronger storms, but it’s political inaction that is endangering our future.

Dr. Sylvain Ehrenfeld is IHEU representative to the UN and Dr. Reba Goodman is a member of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County. Special thanks to Charlene Nicole Fulmore, assistant to Dr. Goodman.

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