Climate change made Hurricane Harvey worse. We must demand action

There is hope in the eye of the storm: Space is opening up to make robust, radical demands for action on climate change.

The images coming out of Texas at the moment are truly horrific and people are right to call these events unprecedented. Anyone who has seen the unforgettable photographs of the Houston highway with floodwaters rising to meet the overhead road signs would agree with that. We have seen little like this in US history.
But these events weren’t unforeseen. Worsening storms like Hurricane Harvey are all too predictable as the links between climate science and increasingly extreme weather events become clearer.

But until now there has almost been a conspiracy of silence. Whether it be for fear of causing offence in the middle of tragedy, or because the links between weather events and climate change appear complex, we still don’t hear about climate change enough when it comes to disasters like Hurricane Harvey. Here in the UK, we tend to get devastating floods every year or so. You see pictures of politicians pointing at sandbags, along with promises of swift insurance payouts and taller concrete walls. Then the same thing happens again. And again. And rarely do you see Ministers even make the point that six of the seven wettest years in UK history have been since the year 2000, and that climate change is clearly a huge factor in the destruction of our homes, businesses and communities.

But whether it’s because the effects of Harvey are so difficult to assimilate, or because the basic physics of climate change as a factor in extreme weather are becoming too clear to ignore, we are now seeing articles drawing the links between warmer temperatures and worsening storms as tragedy befalls Houston. Even climate scientists, who aren’t known for their eagerness to wade into public debate for fear of being harassed by right wingers and climate deniers, are getting bolder in speaking out, with figures like Michael E Mann writing that “climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly”.

This is strikingly direct language for a scientist, and marks a hopeful shift in how we might start to talk about tragedies like Hurricane Harvey going forward. Climate change is plainly a contributing factor to the increasing frequency and severity of extreme weather events around the world, and only bold action on climate change is going to offer proper preventative action in the years and decades to come. We need to speak about it openly and honestly.

However, while we see discussion about climate change beginning to creep into the media’s response to extreme weather, we must also remind ourselves of the magnitude of what we’re up against. Hurricane Harvey has hit a United States with a Government which has never been more hostile towards action on climate change. President Trump has surrounded himself with oil barons and climate deniers, he’s pulled the country out of the Paris Agreement, and he’s dismantling as much state research, funding and advocacy around climate change as he can. The irony is sour, and it can be easy to feel hopeless.

But it is in the eye of the storm that the hope can be found.  It is becoming harder and harder for Governments and corporations to call these devastating events unforeseeable and get away with it. This week, environmental lawyers wrote in Nature that the link between climate science and specific weather events is becoming so strong that citizens could soon be able to seek legal redress against authorities who failed to act. This includes today’s residents of Houston. Space is opening up to make robust, radical demands for action on climate change. The sort of action which will lessen the impacts of disasters like Hurricane Harvey in the future. Now we must occupy this space, and turn this tragedy into a moment of transformative change for social and climate justice.

We must demand radical action from our governments. And our governments must deliver it. Here in the UK, we can complain all we like about Trump and his band of mega-polluters and climate deniers, but we’re not going to exert any pressure on a US Government which has gone rogue until we get our own house in order. Our Prime Minister may not be able to condemn Trump even when he sides with neo-Nazis. But she could show some backbone by leading by example.  An outright ban on fracking.  Abandoning new roads and airport expansion. Ditching fossil fuel subsidies.  Scrapping dirty nuclear projects and transitioning rapidly to renewables. In short she could take what’s happening before her eyes seriously.

These are the real safety measures we must pursue in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, to prevent climate breakdown. Not quasi-charitable donations from fossil fuel companies or uselessly pouring concrete into taller and taller flood defences, only to watch them get breached a few years later. Strong action to stabilize the climate is the only real preventative action for this sort of extreme weather. The storm happened to hit Texas this time, but we know from our own bitter experience that we aren’t immune either.  It’s time we woke up to what’s going on.  Deadly, extreme weather is on the increase around the globe. We need a global response to Harvey, and the UK must play its part.

Jonathan Bartley is co-leader of the Green Party 

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.