Viewpoint: Hurricane Harvey must prompt climate action… and quickly

  • Ellen Teague

I can hardly bear to look at the photo of elderly people in a Houston Nursing Home sitting waist deep in water in their wheelchairs waiting for rescue. Yet, I am one of the tens of thousands of people viewing it again and again for the chilling warnings and inspiration it gives us – for rescuers immediately rushed to assist the home after the photo went viral on twitter. That photo reminds us that the vulnerable have been and will be the first victims of severe weather disasters – in this case Hurricane Harvey. And it underlines the consequences of rapid global warming which must not be a back-burner issue any longer – and that includes for our Churches.

What has climate change got to do with the Houston disaster? Well a lot actually.

Every aspect of our weather is affected by the 1C of global warming caused already by human activities since the late 18th century. While no weather event can be blamed solely on human-driven warming, none is unaffected by it. Harvey has been declared the worst tropical storm in American history. Scientists are pointing to climate change to explain the record 50 inches of rain that fell in the US state of Texas since last Friday, and the rising tide of water that is swamping and isolating America’s fourth-most-populous city. Rain is still pounding Houston, with hundreds of thousands of people losing homes and livelihoods. Some have lost their lives, including a family of six.

As Harvey roared toward Houston from the Gulf of Mexico last week, sea surface temperatures in the region were at least 0.5C higher than they were a few decades ago. Harvey was more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which meant stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge. The tropical storm was able to progress from a tropical depression to a category-four hurricane in roughly 48 hours. According to Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, “although these storms occur naturally, the storm is apt to be more intense, maybe a bit bigger, longer-lasting, and with much heavier rainfalls because of that ocean heat”. Sea level rise attributable to climate change – some of which is due to coastal subsidence caused by human disturbance such as oil drilling – has been more than half a foot over the past few decades. That means the storm surge was half a foot higher than it would have been just decades ago, meaning far more flooding and destruction.

Harvey exhibited unusual behaviour. The storm intensified up until the moment of landfall, achieving category-four strength hours before it slammed into the Texas coast. In the past 30 years of records, no storms west of Florida have intensified in the last 12 hours before landfall. Harvey is just the kind of weird weather that scientists expect to see more of as the planet warms. Climate scientists, who specialise in thinking about the Earth system as a whole, are often reticent to link any one weather event to global climate change. But they say that aspects of the case of Hurricane Harvey - and the recent history of tropical cyclones worldwide - suggest global warming is making a bad situation worse.

Irony of flooded Gulf Coast oil complexes

How ironic that Exxon Mobil – which has engaged in a Climate Change cover up for years - had to shut down the nation's second-largest refining complex in Baytown, near Houston, in the wake of Harvey. ExxonMobil is among the topmost emitters of greenhouse gases globally. It was recently fingered as one of 100 companies worldwide who together contribute 71% of the gases causing global warming. The refinery is a major source of the Gulf Coast and nation's gasoline supplies. In fact, 10 refineries closed as Harvey drenched the Texas oil hub. George Monbiot wrote in The Guardian this week that when the storm forced rigs and refineries to shut down, these included those owned by some of the 25 companies that have produced more than half the greenhouse gas emissions humans have released since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Hurricane Harvey has devastated a place in which climate breakdown is generated, and in which the policies that prevent it from being addressed are formulated.

Perhaps Harvey, hitting hard in the conservative Gulf Coast of Texas, in the nation’s centre of the oil business which has funded climate change denial to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars in the past decade, will turn the tide in US public opinion.

And has the Church response been adequate?

Well the impact of Harvey on the poorest communities was acknowledged from the start. As Hurricane Harvey approached on 25 August, the Bishop of Corpus Christi in Texas was preparing to remain with his people. He urged the country to remember that many people are forced to stay, especially the poorest. “We have among us those who are not able to leave the city. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to stay as well,” Bishop Michael Mulvey said, encouraging everyone to help them as much as possible. One woman in Rockport explained why she did not evacuate saying, “We just don’t have the money”. Having to spend $50 - $100 for a few days of food was overwhelming, so her family rode out the storm.

There have been countless humanitarian initiatives and prayers. The US Conference of Bishops has worked closely with affected local dioceses, Catholic Charities USA and St Vincent de Paul, along with other relief organisations, to assess the needs on the ground and respond. All very commendable, but Church leaders have had the guidance of Laudato Si’ that “the climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all”. I haven’t noticed much coming from Church leaders about the causes of increasing climate instability and severe weather. There will be some who say now is not the time. They feel now is a time for humanitarian rescue and now is a time for prayer. But if not now, then when do we address the causes of climate change.

And let us remember that increasingly severe weather is a global problem. India’s financial capital Mumbai, like Houston, is currently flooded and 41 million people across Asia are affected by exceptional monsoon rain. More than 1,200 people have been killed. A Houston resident said this week that he evacuated the city before the storm hit. “I feel you have to prepare for the worst, even if the worst does not come” he said. At a macro level, this sounds very like the Precautionary Principle, which, when applied to climate change, requires the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions sooner rather than later.

Many faithful Catholics are already responding to Laudato Si’ by moderating their consumption, embracing renewable energy technology and studying the link between climate change action and Catholic Social Teaching. However, according to the Global Catholic Climate Movement, “much more, however, remains to be done to ensure that we are not unwittingly supporting the very practices that are degrading our planet; our Church investments are critical in this regard and whether we are still investing in the companies at the heart of climate injustice – namely the fossil fuel industry”. Divestment from this industry is about moral consistency. The next Joint Catholic Divestment announcement will take place on the Feast of St Francis, 4 October 2017.

On 1 September, the Catholic Church celebrates the third annual Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation and this will kick off a Season of Creation until 4 October, the Feast of St Francis. This could be a great opportunity to join Christian and environmental leaders from around the globe to pray, reflect, and act at this time. Prayer leaders in an on-line prayer service on 1 September include Yeb Saño, a Catholic and former climate negotiator for the Philippines who was part of the huge Catholic presence at the Paris Climate talks in 2015, and Bill McKibben a leading US global climate justice advocate. This is one example of hope being offered to the global victims of severe weather and exceptional flooding.


Tags: Ellen Teague, Viewpoint, climate change, Hurricane Harvey

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