Hurricane Harvey: Playing the blame game

  • Published on September 2nd, 2017

In the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey — the most destructive storm ever to strike the United States — the finger pointing has begun and the blame game is in full swing. Climate activists claim Hurricane Harvey is proof that climate change is increasing the likelihood of more powerful storms. Climate deniers say, “Storms happen. Get over it.” Is there any way to reconcile the two positions?

jet stream data from Bloomberg via Michael Mann/Penn StateBy Steve Hanley 

Probably not. Both sides are deeply entrenched in their positions. In the end, the burden falls upon Us The People to make up our own minds and act accordingly — starting with examining how we decide which political candidates to vote for and why. Like it or not, politics is as responsible for the destruction that took place in the Houston area last week as any other factor.

Paving Over Swamps

Over the past 50 years, Houston has grown into America’s 4th largest city in terms of area. Much of the land surrounding the core of the city was originally swamps that were able to absorb rainfall and/or tidal flooding, but no more. Land use policies promoted by local and state politicians have turned most of that swampland into suburban communities and industrial zones covered in asphalt and concrete. The loss of the swamps means rainwater has no place to go and so flooding occurs. It’s inevitable.

More: Hell and high water – Houston is a sitting duck for the next big hurricane

The Politics Of Flood Insurance

Federal policies have played a role as well, particularly when it comes to the flood insurance program. In essence, flood insurance is designed to make banks comfortable lending money for construction in areas where floods might inflict damage on the collateral. In theory, the managers of the flood insurance program should set rates based on rational calculations of the losses that could occur. But if they did that, the premiums would be so high that few could afford them.

Instead, premiums are set according to the needs of political necessity. Banks pressure the government to keep the rates artificially low so they can go ahead and lend lots of money and make lots of profits. The dirty little secret is, if the big one hits, the banks don’t lose — the taxpayers do.

More: GOP wants to speed Hurricane Harvey relief to Gulf Coast. But Trump’s budget cuts would hurt recovery in the long run

Who Pays To Clean Up The Mess?

The cleanup of Houston is projected to cost more than $100 billion and that number could go much higher. In theory, those billions should have been factored into the flood insurance premiums people and businesses in the area pay, but they were not. Now, Americans in Oshkosh, Ashtabula, and Ocala will pay for the mess feckless politicians created.

It’s just one way in which the United States has become more of a criminal enterprise designed to shake down the public rather than a protector of the citizenry. The wonder is that so many people are cheering while corporations put a gun to their head and rob them blind.

The Causes Of A Disaster

The technical explanation for Hurricane Harvey is that warmer water in the depths of the ocean provides more power to storms like Harvey. Think of that warm water as a turbocharger added to an internal combustion engine. Warmer air is capable of holding more moisture than cooler air. Climate scientists claim that higher air temperatures today mean the air can hold 3% more moisture today than it could 50 years ago.

But there is one more factor at work, according to Bloomberg. The upper-level winds — often known as jet streams — that encircle the globe have shown signs of altering their behavior in recent years.

In March of this year, climate scientist Michael Mann published a paper he co-authored with several colleagues that examines that behavior. He believes those changes may have contributed to the drought in Texas (how ironic!) in 2011 and flooding in Pakistan in 2010. Mann does not say there is a positive connection. He says the data suggest such a connection and that further research should be undertaken. Fat chance of that happening while the #FakePresident is in office.

Meteorologists say the upper atmosphere winds that normally would have steered Hurricane Harvey away from Houston have been stalled lately. Once the storm made landfall, it stayed in place for days while it continued to drop torrential rains — as much as 6 inches an hour — on the land below.

More powerful storms, more moisture in the atmosphere, more rain over land, and nowhere for the water to go — a recipe for disaster if there ever was one.

What is most instructive about the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey is that climate scientists have been warning of just such a storm for decades. The Obama administration in 2015 issued an executive order mandating that all new federal infrastructure projects take into account global warming, rising ocean levels, and stronger storms.

That mandate was thrown into the trash bin by Trump just a few weeks ago.

Replacing Regulations With Political Payoffs

Trump’s rationale for his decision — which he slipped virtually unnoticed into his Charlottesville “There are fine people on both sides” speech — is that there is too much government regulation already and that the new rules will streamline the approval of construction projects.

That may be so, but several critics argue it will cost taxpayers bigly in the future, as those federally financed structures come under attack from rising sea levels and intensified flooding. “This is climate science denial at its most dangerous,” says Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune.

The federal government under Trump is akin to a criminal enterprise. It is designed to fatten the wallets of wealthy campaign contributors rather than protect its citizens. Trashing the standards means America will continue to build in flood plains and stick taxpayers with the bill.

Put it all together and you have a country that choses to stick its head in the sand — or flood waters, if you prefer — and invest a trillion dollars of taxpayer money into risky infrastructure ventures that ignore the effects of climate change completely.

It’s similar to Ronald Reagan ripping out the solar panels Jimmy Carter had installed at the White House. Crony capitalism has completely replaced governance in the world according to Trump.

Politicizing Hurricane Harvey

The EPA said this week that liberals are trying to politicize Hurricane Harvey. Nothing could be further from the truth. Liberals and progressives would like to see their government not do things that increase the likelihood of disasters like Hurricane Harvey occurring — things like not encouraging building in flood plains or paving over hundreds of square miles of swampland so rainwater has nowhere to go. They want the government to promote climate research so the factors that contribute to such disasters can be better understood. They want climate action via quicker uptake of cleantech so that such disasters are avoided more in the future.

More: After the flood: How Houston developed its way into disaster

Matt Wuerker, a well known satirical cartoonist, has penned a cartoon recently published by Politico. Many people found it offensive and Politico has since removed it from its Twitter feed. But satire is supposed to have a barb hidden in its tail that stings us. Otherwise, it is just mawkish. Wuerker is channeling Ronald Reagan, who first popularized the mantra, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” That meme has gained currency over the past 40 years, and today there is an unfocused rage against the government that surpasses all known boundaries.

matt weurker hurricane harvey cartoon politicoFaith-Based Thinking

Trump’s position is that climate change is a hoax, an idea long championed by the right-wing institutions funded by the Koch brothers and other oil interests. He prefers to operate on beliefs handed down from others rather than on facts.

Faith-based thinking is nothing new. Plenty of people believed Columbus would sail off the edge of the world into the abyss.

It’s like believing 2 plus 2 equals 14.765 because Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity or some preacher said so. Government based on faith in legends is no government at all. Instead, it is a recipe for colossal failure. Civilizations that refuse to learn from experience are predestined to fail as other groups that heed those lessons profit from that experience and flourish.

Trump isn’t making America great again. He is making America dumber and greasing the skids for a total national collapse.

(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)

About the Author

writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.
  • Rita Tompson-Jones

    “Climate activists claim Hurricane Harvey is proof that climate change is increasing the likelihood of more powerful storms”

    No, “climate activists” (i.e., the world’s geophysicists) have not said nor implied that hurricane Harvey is “proof that climate change is increasing the likelihood of more powerful storms.” You are making up shit and putting it in the mouths of scientists. Stop it.

    What the world’s scientists *HAVE* concluded (and they have stated constantly for the past 30 years or so) is that human-caused climate change has caused and will continue to cause storms to be more destructive. You will not find any geophysicist who has stated hurricane Harvey is “proof” of anything. Scientists disprove: they do not prove.

    Note that the evidence is conclusive and convincing that hurricane Harvey’s destructive power increased by about 25% by human-caused warming of Earth. There is no proof that is did.

    • Under the scientific method, it is true that you are not supposed to say “Climate change definitely caused Hurricane Harvey.”
      You can also not say “Climate change definitely increased the destructive power of Hurricane Harvey.”
      However, scientists CAN say definitively that “It is very likely that the destructive effects of Hurricane Harvey were increased as a result of climate change, including the unusually warm Gulf waters that Harvey moved over, increasing the moisture content of the storm and adding significantly to the rainfall totals.”
      However, when we say “proof”, we are not operating as scientists. We are operating as journalists and average humans who need to conduct public policy and make life-and-death decisions.
      We don’t expect scientific levels of proof in a court of law – nobody would ever be convicted. The standard in court is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
      Likewise, we can’t conduct public policy based on “Absolute standards of scientific proof,” as much as ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers would like to force us to do. For public policy purposes, it is perfectly valid to state “Harvey is proof that climate change is increasing the likelihood of more powerful storms.”
      Which is why we printed that statement.