The words “Biblical proportion” come to mind, but even the Plagues of Egypt didn’t come all at once.
In 2020, we have giant swarms of locusts from East Africa to India, 500-year floods in Europe, fears of a dam collapse in China and Typhoon Bavi hitting the Korean Peninsula. In the US alone there is the record-smashing hurricane in the South, a million-acre “gigafire” in the West and over 40% of Iowa corn and soybeans flattened by 140 mph winds.
Complicating the mounting task of saving lives and livelihoods in this ongoing climate crisis: a new disease, released from a natural world out of balance. Two tiny foes – coronavirus and heat-trapping gas – joining forces to make pandemic patients in Lake Charles, Louisiana, worry about blown roofs and falling trees. They are forcing California firefighters to socially-distance on 72-hour shifts after more than 10,000 dry lightning strikes started 500 fires.
“Threat multiplier” is the adjective the US military first applied to climate change in 1990, when predictions of death, desperation and tension were mostly for distant corners of a warming world.
But now, here at home, the threats seem to multiply by the hour. As an example of the Sophie’s Choices that come from such confluence of unnatural disaster, President Trump hopes to divert $40+ billion from FEMA’s Emergency Response Fund to a fresh round of unemployment relief for the tens of millions driven out of work by Covid-19. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom furloughed nonviolent convicts in a desperate attempt to slow prison outbreaks and as a result, lost vital firefighting manpower.
“For so long in studying climate change, we’re studying the future,” says Katharine Hayhoe, director of the Climate Science Center at Texas Tech University. “And now the future is here. So, if we live here in Texas, we’re seeing stronger and bigger and slower hurricanes with a lot more rainfall. If we live in the west, we’re seeing that natural wildfires are burning greater and greater area. If we live in the Midwest, warmer temperatures are supersizing our rainstorms.”
Juicing these changes, she says, are the very Gulf oil platforms, refineries and petrochemical plants punished by Hurricane Laura … and Harvey, Michael, Rita, Ike, Katrina et al. Almost every other developed nation in the world understands the basic physics that the more they pump and burn, the more unpredictable life on Earth will become.
But watching the Republican National Convention, if you didn’t know, you’d never know.
Vice President Mike Pence offered warnings and good wishes for those in the path of Hurricane Laura on Wednesday night and on Thursday, President Donald Trump started his speech mentioning the people who had come through “the wrath” of the storm. He said it was “fierce, one of the strongest to make landfall in 150 years,” then added that the casualties and damage were far less than thought possible just a day earlier. Night after night, speaker after speaker made no mention of the scientific consensus that burning fossil fuel is making your parents’ hurricanes, floods and wildfires much, much worse.
While the Democrats drilled down and got specific on their promises should they get a chance to govern, most mentions of the environment by the Republicans came in celebration of regulation rollbacks and harsh rejections of Joe Biden’s plan to spend $2 trillion on clean energy projects and reenter the Paris Climate Accord.
“The Democratic Party of Joe Biden is pushing this so-called ‘Green New Deal,’” said Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst in a pre-taped speech. She mocked efforts by Democrats to legislate the climate crisis after referencing the August 10 derecho that ripped apart ten million acres of her state. “If given power, they would essentially ban animal agriculture and eliminate gas powered cars. It would destroy agriculture industry not just here in Iowa but across the country.”
This is untrue. The 14-page Green New Deal resolution calls for “working collaboratively with farmers and ranchers in the United States to remove pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the agricultural sector as much as is technologically feasible,” but there is no call for a ban on cows or gasoline cars.
“How much does the 2018 Camp Fire cost, just to fight? Just to put out the flames?” I asked Gov. Newsom after ferocious winds made the Camp Fire the most destructive wildfire in state history. “It is jaw-dropping – the numbers – and they continue to escalate,” Newsom replied. “Just the debris removal is in multi, not billion, multi-billion-dollar expense.”
The second and third biggest fires in state history are now burning at the same time and the windy season hasn’t even begun. “Folks think, well, we can’t afford to address climate change,” Newsom says. “My gosh. The naiveté of that. Because the most expensive option is doing nothing.”
“How did climate change become so politically polarized?” Hayhoe asks. “It’s not the science, it’s the solutions. We’ve been told that the only solutions to climate change are negative or punitive. They involve destroying the economy, throwing people out of work and letting the United Nations rule the world.”
Blurred by this message, she says Americans miss how much progress is happening between disasters. “They don’t know that 70% of new electricity being installed around the world now is clean energy. They’re unaware that solar energy plus storage is actually cheaper than natural gas in California. Or that Texas has more installed wind energy than any other state in the country. Or that Texas has the first carbon neutral airport in DFW, and Ft. Hood, the biggest army base in the US is supplied entirely by wind and solar energy. The reality is that the solutions are already here.”
But if Hayhoe sees the solutions, others see the pain along the way.
“It’s gonna get worse before we get better,” says Lt. General Russel Honoré. “We have to find solutions to pollution that will drive the future economy.”
Known as the “Ragin’ Cajun,” Honoré took over following a disastrous state and federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The storm and its aftermath killed at least 1,833 people, almost 15 years ago to the day.
“Right after Katrina we had Rita. A reporter asked me, ‘We just had two hurricanes. Do you think that has anything to do with global warming?’ And I was stunned. I gave her some smart answer, but it haunted me for days,” he says.
At the time, the Department of Defense was keen to the threat of sea level rise to bases around the country, but the question suddenly made the science personal, as Honoré saw his own beloved bayou communities drown after lack of official planning and imagination.
Fifteen years later, Honoré spends most hours thinking about fixes for the Gulf and the nation he served.
“We can start fixing our infrastructure. Let’s adjust the damage done, create jobs that reduce the impact on the air and the water and the land. I think we’ve got to have adult conversation, regardless of what political class,” he said.
Taking action is critical for people like Hayhoe.
“There is no right answer in how to fix climate change,” she says. “There is no silver bullet either. Just a lot of silver buckshot.
“But we are all responsible to our families, to our loved ones, to our children, to the poor and the marginalized and the vulnerable right here where we live, as well as around the world to take our heads out of the sand to recognize that climate is changing. Humans are responsible. The impacts are serious. And we can act now. No matter who we are and how we vote.”