Damage to the Golden Nugget Hotel in Lake Charles, LA
Hurricane Laura leaves devastation in its wake
02:34 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Adam H. Sobel, a professor at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, is an atmospheric scientist who studies extreme events and the risks they pose to human society. Sobel is the host of the climate science podcast “Deep Convection” and the author of “Storm Surge,” a book about Superstorm Sandy. Follow him on Twitter: @profadamsobel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Hurricane Laura made landfall late Wednesday night near Cameron, Louisiana. Around this time in a hurricane disaster, when the full effects are still emerging, I normally write things about what the role of climate change may have been.

Adam H. Sobel

But maybe, by talking just about things like sea surface temperature and tropical cyclone intensity and greenhouse gases and aerosols at these moments, scientists like me actually hinder the conversation we really should be having. That conversation is about climate, but first it’s about people.

Laura struck a region in Louisiana and East Texas that is a contender for the epicenter of climate injustice and environmental racism in the United States. It’s a hub of the fossil fuel and petrochemical industries. Wen Stephenson, who records conversations with local activist Hilton Kelley and pioneering environmental justice scholar Robert Bullard in his book “What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other,” describes this part of Texas as famous for its combination of pollution, racial segregation (one area they describe, West Port Arthur, is mostly poor and Black, while many of the jobs in the refineries are held by commuters from the richer and Whiter towns to the north) and economic malaise. Unemployment is high, as are rates of cancer and respiratory illness.

And the entire gulf coast, including east Texas and Louisiana and beyond, is extremely vulnerable to global warming. It gets hurricanes, of course, and yes, those are probably getting worse. It also has always been a hot and humid place, and the heat and humidity are both increasing due to global warming. And for decades now, this low-lying coastline has been rapidly losing land to the sea — not just due to sea level rise, but even more because the land is sinking, eroding due to the cutting of ship channels through the bayous by the fossil fuel industry. Oil spills threaten the fisheries, beaches and ecosystems.

While the whole region is affected by these plagues, it is the poorest and darkest-skinned who have inevitably been hurt the most, while drawing the least profit from the industry that causes them all. Hurricane Katrina showed that 15 years ago, but that was just a particularly vivid example of a much broader history.

In the end, Laura made landfall to the east of the Texas-Louisiana border, with the center passing nearly through Lake Charles as the storm moved northward. Port Arthur, to the west, was spared the worst, because the strongest winds and storm surge tend to be on the right side of a hurricane’s path.

The rural Louisiana coast just to the east was almost certainly hit hardest. To get a vivid, if fictionalized, sense of this region, watch the film “Beasts of the Southern Wild,” set on Isle de Jean Charles, a shrinking island yet a bit further east that is largely populated by Native Americans. In her book, “Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore,” Elizabeth Rush recounts time spent with the few residents left on the island. They are holding out against the efforts of government officials to resettle them elsewhere, but their home’s eventual disappearance is as inevitable as it is heartbreaking.

For a long time, the debate on climate has been strongly influenced by atmospheric scientists like me. We use satellites and other global observing systems to look at the planet’s atmosphere and oceans, and computer models to simulate them. We’re trained to see it as a physics problem of planetary scale — or, if we become a bit more politicized, as a problem of saving “the planet.” We can be a little slow to grasp the climate problem’s human dimensions — and especially to see how, for those most harmed, it is just one piece of a larger set of interlocking injustices.

But things are changing. The young people who are now leading the climate movement certainly respect the science, but more importantly, they understand deeply that global warming is a social justice issue, connected to all the other social justice issues, very much including racism and economic inequality. And the Green New Deal, a policy framework that now has a level of support unimaginable a few years ago, explicitly recognizes it as such and frames its solutions in those terms. The question that matters is whether we can get leaders in charge who want to implement it, and even then, whether they can do so in the face of inevitable, powerful opposition from fossil fuel companies and their allies.

The science itself is even starting to bring the argument about global warming back towards local justice. There is new evidence, for example, that decarbonizing the global economy is economically worthwhile just on the health benefits of the reductions in air pollution alone that would result. And we now understand that while climate mitigation — reducing carbon emissions — is absolutely critical, so is adaptation to the climate change that is already underway. That adaptation will only be just if it recognizes and remedies the disproportionate harms borne by the most marginalized communities, both in the US and worldwide.

So: was Laura influenced by global warming? Yes, probably, a bit. The whole answer is more complicated, and our understanding is still very much evolving. It’s a fascinating subject, actually. But neither the scientific nor the moral case for climate action depends on the latest science of extreme event attribution, nor any other question on the bleeding edge of climate science. We know enough already.

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    The real challenge, especially acutely in America in 2020, and regardless of whether we care most about climate or any other aspect of social justice, is one of politics and power. If we want to make the world better, that’s what we — even scientists like me — should be talking about.