Images of America’s fourth largest city under several feet of water are a reminder that not even the richest country on earth is immune to the effects of extreme weather and climate change. More than 50 inches of rain deluged parts of Houston last summer, falling for days in biblical torrents and transforming highways into rivers, killing dozens and displacing thousands fleeing for higher ground in a terrifying and deadly display of force by Mother Nature. Yes, it’s been a decade since Katrina left a trail of destruction in its wake and nearly five years since Superstorm Sandy demolished the New Jersey shores but violent storms are increasingly becoming the norm on our fragile planet: Puerto Rico is still without power, Bangkok was underwater, Manila overflowed with chest-high floods and Pakistan drowned out 20 million a few years ago. In fact, many catastrophic tragedies fall under our radar, including last week’s Typhoon Hato which killed 16 and injured 150 people in S. China and over 1000 dead in an Indian monsoon just this week. These natural disasters are increasing in frequency and intensity globally. But even more subtle shifts are alarming, such as the record breaking heatwaves in Europe last summer that forced rolling blackouts, museums to close down (because the rivers that supply the water to the A/C units dried up) and fountains in Rome to shut off due to a massive drought. Heatwaves, droughts, flooding, earthquakes…all are becoming the New Normal.
The chatter during the flooding and subsequent cleanup phase in Texas quickly moved to the narrative of how do we enhance our infrastructure to better withstand the next massive storm. Debates over erecting huge barriers to protect our fragile coastlines, building new properties above sea level, and moving our power lines underground to avoid fallen trees are all the rage on the airwaves. If we can only just construct a more durable community, we can withstand the punishing forces of Mother Nature.
But the narrative needs to shift from designing the ultimate damage control to mitigation – specifically, climate change mitigation. We need to treat the cause, not the symptom. It’s like loading up an obese patient on cholesterol lowering drugs and blood pressure medication without offering a new dietary and exercise plan. Our planet is increasingly sending strong signals that it is symptomatic and desperate for its own new plan. We can try to defend ourselves with prescriptions like sea walls and elevated housing or we can address the root cause: the urgent need to reduce the effects of global warming. This has to be our new plan or the prognosis is grim. There is undeniable scientific consensus on climate change and the time is now for governments and people to unite on this critical issue. Big cities like Miami, New York and Houston now speak of the next crippling event in a manner of not if, but when.
As the surge in awareness increases exponentially with each disaster, the primary question typically asked is Are we all doomed? Ten years ago the answer would be a resounding no with the proper caveat, but as we reach new thresholds and tipping points that are irreversible, the confident answer is far more tepid. But like the obese patient, our fragile planet can reverse much of the damage and recover with significant lifestyle changes. Just as the patient needs to stop munching on donuts and french fries, humanity needs to stop pouring so much carbon into the atmosphere. It starts with a global consensus that we have a crisis; world leaders need to unite on this issue and the Paris Climate Accord offered hope for humanity (with one epic disappointment). Yes, governments need to be aligned politically but it will also require a movement from the people and local communities, at the grassroots level, to ultimately build a domestic coalition before crafting a treaty on the world stage that is enforceable. It will take time, money and leadership in an colossal battle versus the status quo to move towards alternative energy sources and drastically reduce our global carbon footprint.
As we continue to witness the increasingly horrific devastation, my hope is momentum will build due to increased awareness and education on climate change. Every summer we break the previous summer’s record for hottest summer ever recorded – the current trajectory is indisputable and we can no longer afford to allow ourselves to casually observe and be passive participants to this phenomenon. We must connect the dots back to global warming and demand fundamental change to reduce our carbon footprint. Sandy rang the doorbell, Harvey opened the flood gates and now it is time to sound the alarm that global warming is a global warning.