Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Mother Nature Has the Last Laugh

How fitting that on the 16th anniversary of 9/11, the state of Florida was just beginning to dig out from the worst environmental disaster to strike its shores in 25 years. Hurricane Irma swept trough the Keys before making landfall in Naples. The category 4 storm was so wide that the entire peninsula was subjected to hurricane-force winds.

On the east coast, every city from Miami to Charleston, South Carolina was inundated with a storm surge unlike any that has ever been seen. On the west coast, Marco Island was devastated, and in Tampa, owing to the tremendous counter-clockwise winds of Irma, the entire bay was sucked out into the Gulf of Mexico, only to return with a vengeance when the eye passed through. It was surreal to watch.

More than six million Floridians lost power; it might well be weeks before all of them get it back. The damage, particularly to the Keys, will likely cost tens of billions of dollars to repair. From the images we've seen, it will be months, if not years, before the state fully recovers.

Only two weeks earlier, another category 4 hurricane, Harvey, ravaged the state of Texas. The coastal city of Rockport was all but wiped off the map. Houston, the nation's fourth largest city, suffered apocalyptic flooding. Pictures of interstate highways with water up to the overhead signs looked like something out of a sci-fi movie. Congress has already approved $15 billion in relief aid, but it will take many times more that amount before Southeast Texas is made whole. Additionally, it should be noted that Harvey was responsible for Houston's third "500-year" flood in the last three years.

This is the first time in history that two category four hurricanes have made landfall in the U.S. in the same year, and keep in mind we still have three months left in the season. Had it not made contact with the northern coast of Cuba, Irma would most certainly have been the fourth category five hurricane to hit the U.S.; the other three being Andrew in 1992, Camille in 1969 and the infamous unnamed Labor Day hurricane of 1935 which killed over 400 people in the Keys. If you want to know what the fury of a category five hurricane can do, take a look at the pictures of St. Maarten and St. Thomas. Both islands were virtually destroyed.

It is poor science, indeed, to attribute a single weather event to global warming, but we are not talking about a single weather event here. We are talking about two extraordinary weather events within a month of each other that collectively have destroyed thousands of structures, displaced just as many homeowners and, when all is said and done, will end up costing taxpayers over $100 billion in damages. When climate science deniers talk about the costs of oppressive environmental regulations, consider this: that above figure is nothing compared to the price tag that awaits us in the decades to come.

This is no longer an issue that we can put off for another day or a future generation. It is upon us now. We are fast approaching a point of no return. As we speak, both the Antarctic and the Greenland ice sheets are melting. When they are gone, the oceans will rise, not inches, but feet. Low-lying cities like Miami, New Orleans, Chicago and New York will be under water, forcing millions of people to relocate inland. The environment as we know it will be permanently altered and more unpredictable; storms will grow in intensity; droughts will last longer; and forest fires will be far more frequent and considerably more difficult to contain. The cost to the American taxpayer will be measured in the trillions, not billions, of dollars.

Republicans insist that talking about global warming in the aftermath of a major hurricane is akin to ambulance chasing. Yet talking about it before a hurricane apparently is alarmist. For them, there is never an appropriate time to talk about the single greatest threat to our way of life. Even with 98 percent of climate scientists in agreement that global warming is real and caused by man, they still insist the science is unsettled.

I submit it will never be settled for them. And that is the real tragedy here. Almost the entire Republican Party refuses to acknowledge a simple and basic fact: that we are slowly, but surely, cooking the planet and if we don't do something about it, our grandchildren will curse us.

If this is indeed about the economics of global warming rather than merely the science of it, then Harvey and Irma have presented us with the tab of a lifetime. And like the proverbial American Express card bill, we have no choice but to pay it. But we DO have a choice as to how much we pay going forward. Being penny wise and dollar foolish is not an effective strategy for dealing with this issue. It all but guarantees that we will bankrupt our economy and consign future generations to a world that will be increasingly inhospitable and largely uninhabitable.

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