Rainforest Alliance President Nigel Sizer says arguing over the science of superstorms is pointless. It’s time to focus on building truly equitable climate resilience in under-resourced frontline communities.
As a scientist and leader of a global conservation organization, I am pretty disturbed by the public “debate” over the role of climate change in the catastrophic hurricanes and floods that have devastated the southeast United States, the Caribbean, and South Asia over the past few weeks. And as a father of two young children and friend to many who live in regions that are particularly vulnerable to such disasters, I am even more concerned about what the future holds for all of us—especially those who have few resources to deal with such events.
Despite what we hear from both the left and right—how did climate change become a left-right thing anyway?—the relationship between climate change and hurricanes is not a matter of scientific disagreement.
It is indeed wrong to say that climate change caused the hurricanes named Harvey and Irma, or Jose, the Category 4 storm currently menacing the Caribbean islands already devastated by Irma. Yet it’s also wrong to say they are natural disasters with no relationship to climate change.
The truth lies somewhere in between—which makes it difficult to convey in our politically binary discourse. The simple facts are that the Earth is warmer now because global warming is already happening. The oceans absorb a lot of that heat, especially the uppermost waters. And the air is warmer too, as a result of this warming. These two simple, scientifically established facts lead to more water vapor and more energy in the air.
Hurricanes are a naturally occurring, frequent phenomenon at this time of year—literally popping up one after the other in the Atlantic Ocean. But in combination with warmer air and warmer waters, we get bigger and fiercer hurricanes than we would normally experience without global warming: bigger in terms of their size and the amount of rain they hold and then drop, as we saw with Harvey’s record-breaking 50 inches of rain in Houston, and fiercer in terms of wind speed, as we saw with Irma. As a result, they are more likely to do far more damage than pre-global-warming hurricanes would do.
What’s most troubling—and what should be the foremost topic of discussion—is that when global warming combines with extreme weather events, it’s the poor who suffer most. Most of the Caribbean’s wealthy residents and visitors hopped on airplanes to evacuate, while a few rode out the storm in well-fortified estates that they will have no problem rebuilding. Meanwhile, the citizens of Haiti, especially those living in the densely populated low-lying areas, are struggling to recover from an earthquake almost a decade ago. They are still contending with homelessness, the spread of disease, food shortages, violence, and the devastating long-term loss of jobs.
Let’s stop arguing about the science and let’s get serious about building truly equitable climate resilience that incorporates climate justice—including provisions to support pre-disaster preparation, post-disaster needs, and environmental justice for the most marginalized people in these hard-hit areas. In the immediate term, we can begin by directing our disaster-relief support to local, community-based groups focused on assisting poor and undocumented people, such as the Hurricane Irma Community Recovery Fund, or T.E.J.A.S. (Texas Environmental Advocacy Services), the oldest environmental justice organization in Houston.
And in the long term, we must heed the imperative to accelerate and drastically scale up our work to stop deforestation, build climate resilience in vulnerable communities, and restore degraded wetlands and forest landscapes to stabilize our climate.