Texas Flood Linked with Extreme Weather Patterns Long Predicted by Climate Change Research

Posted Aug. 30, 2017

MP3 Interview with John H. Cushman Jr., managing editor of Inside Climate News, conducted by Scott Harris


As large sections of Houston, America’s fourth largest city, were inundated with floodwaters, driving tens of thousands of residents from their homes, the nation received yet another wake-up call regarding the increasing frequency of extreme weather events that have triggered a series of recent historic natural disasters. Since Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas coast on Aug. 25, parts of Houston have seen a record 50 inches of rainfall — more than the city usually receives in a year. The death toll stood at 11 on Aug. 29, but officials feared that number would likely rise. Federal agencies estimated that as many as 30,000 people have been forced to leave their homes for shelters and more than 450,000 people are likely to seek federal aid.

As the online publication Inside Climate News observed, “The immediate priorities—rescue operations, disaster assistance, flood insurance, and the like—will be followed by broader questions involving the vulnerability of infrastructure, the energy industry and communities to extreme weather and the need to balance mitigation of the pollution that causes climate change with adaptation to global warming's inescapable impacts.“

Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with John H. Cushman Jr., managing editor of Inside Climate News, who examines the links between climate change and extreme weather patterns that brought devastating floods to southeast Texas, and the disconnect between public opinion that increasingly recognizes the destructive consequences of global warming - and conservative politicians who continue to dismiss climate change as a hoax. [Rush transcript.]

JOHN H. CUSHMAN, JR.: Well, I think it's safe to say that the consensus among scientists who study this closely is that we're seeing increasingly clearly the manifestations of a climate change that has been brought on by a manmade pollution, principally of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, fuels, although there are other sources of global warming pollution, as well.

When I say that we're seeing the manifestations of it, of course, there have been hurricanes for a long, long time, but scientists began to recognize 30 or 40 years ago – with increasing certainty over the past decade – that the blanket of carbon dioxide that we were surrounding our planet with was going to cause profound warming and that we understood that physics of this, and scientists began to examine more and more closely what the symptoms would be.

And among the symptoms of a warming atmosphere would be more intense rainfalls and the largest storms. Among the symptoms of warming oceanwaters, would be intensification of some hurricanes. Among the symptoms of global warming would be the melting of the world's ice, which would lead to sea level rise and of course, sea level rise would also be exacerbated by the warming of the oceans.

And so, when you combine these things together, what you see is an increasing risk that any particular storm will produce extreme results. In other words, the dice were being loaded for the kind of event that we're seeing today. And that's different than saying climate change caused this hurricane happen, but this hurricane's characteristics are quite consistent with what the models have forecast for a long time. And it's pretty discouraging to see that you know, that our lifetimes, we began to understand this, and yet we're so far from the solutions that are needed to head off even more extreme events and our children's and grandchildren's generations.

BETWEEN THE LINES: John Cushman, one of the sad ironies here is that the fossil fuel industry, centered around Houston, one of the largest concentrations of oil refineries in the country is really the engine of economic growth in the Houston area and in Texas. And this is the area, of course, that now being devastated with the extreme rainfall that we're seeing as a result of Hurricane Harvey. What can you say about what's happening there to that particular region? How much of an impact do you think that has on folks who've benefited from the economic boom that's taken place in that part of the country?

JOHN H. CUSHMAN, JR.: Right, and to a considerable degree, all of us have benefited from the fossil fuel era, when it was in full swing, and of course, the development of the United States as the world's pre-eminent economy was largely related to the rise of this industry. The problem is that in developing the riches of fossil fuels, we had a mindset that the energy would be cheap but the pollution would be free. By which I mean that nobody was paying for the externalities – the costs that are associated with this carbon dioxide pollution.

And until we recognize the costs of climate change and incorporate it into the market price of fossil fuels we are not going to be able to steer ourselves successfully to alternative fuels. And the time for alternative fuels has now arrived.

BETWEEN THE LINES: With the greater frequency of these extreme weather crises and the hundreds of billions of dollars that are being allocated to help people in need who have lost their homes, their cars, what they depend on for everyday life, public opinion seems to be moving in the direction to rejecting the climate change denial that we see in the Trump administration, among the Cabinet officials, and of course, President Trump himself, who just withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. Where do you see public opinion in the United States headed given these extreme weather situations? And what effect is that going to have on U.S. politics, where we have one particular political party, the Republicans, who champion climate change denial?

JOHN H. CUSHMAN, JR.: Well, you're asking me questions of which I have very little expertise or proficiency. But in this arena, I have seen, dating back for decades as a journalist, a persistent and dedicated attempt by many different actors to confuse the public. I found myself rereading articles that I'd written in the 1990s when I was covering the environment beat in Washington and which the petroleum industry was setting about forming committees who would make the public believe that there was too much uncertainty in the science of climate change to be able to be able to base any policy decisions on the science as it then existed, when it in fact the science had long progressed to the point – and it has continued to progress farther and farther in the direction of guiding policymakers – about how to deal with these risks. And they are risks. And there are uncertainties, but it's very important to not allow uncertainty to become an excuse for inaction. That isn't where the science points us.

For more information, visit Inside Climate News at InsideClimateNews.org.

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