Our Best Shot for Protection from Devastating Hurricanes
September 15, 2017
In the wake of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, communities in Texas, Florida, the Gulf and the Caribbean are addressing the long, hard and dirty job of recovery.
Relief is the first order of business. In the most severely devastated communities, people lack food and shelter and drinkable water. They may have lost not only their homes, but also essential infrastructure including roads, electric power, and sewage systems.
And even as the winds calm and waters recede, people face emerging health dangers: contamination from sewage spills and dangerous chemicals, mold, and a proliferation of mosquitoes and other disease-carriers.
Governments, charities, nonprofits and individuals must respond to these urgent needs. And we must remind ourselves that many of them will require weeks and months to address.
At the same time, as health professionals, we must look beyond the coming months and ask serious questions about the long term:
- What caused these intense hurricanes?
- What are we as a society doing that increases the likelihood of more frequent intense hurricanes?
- How do we lower that likelihood?
Increased Likelihood of Extreme Storms
Scientists can't say with cause-and-effect certainty what causes any individual hurricane or other weather event. But they can tell us what increased the likelihood that Harvey and Irma would occur: climate change. As climate change raises global temperatures, including that of the ocean, more water evaporates into the atmosphere. The more warming, the more evaporation; the more evaporation, the more fuel for powerful storms. In addition, the rising sea level caused by melting polar ice—another outcome of climate change—contributed to unprecedented sea surge in places like Jacksonville, FL.
That means a future of increasing likelihood of catastrophic hurricanes and storms.
To reduce that likelihood, we must address the underlying cause of climate change: emission of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. As PSR members know, the tremendous increase in global levels of those gases comes from combustion of fossil fuels – coal, methane (natural gas), and oil.
That's why it's so urgent that we make the transition from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy. It's our best shot at a survivable climate.
Where Were the News Media?
Why then have the mass media been so shy about relating Harvey and Irma to climate change? Coverage of the hurricanes was unceasing (and gripping), but in most cases news reporters failed to explain why we're battered more frequently by massive storms – much less what we need to do to protect ourselves in the future.
A study by the nonprofit organization Public Citizen analyzed media coverage of climate change in the context of Hurricane Harvey. They examined 18 news outlets from August 25 to September 1, and they found:
- Out of more than 2,000 pieces of reporting on Harvey, only 136 mentioned climate. That's less than 7 percent.
- ABC and NBC did not mention climate change at all when covering Harvey.
- Just four of the 18 outlets produced 72% of the articles that mentioned climate change. (Thank you, CNN, the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Houston Chronicle.)
- Of the articles that did mention climate, only one out of five connected it to human activity. Only 12% mentioned the possibility of mitigating climate change.
No wonder many Americans are still unsure about climate change.
Send your Letter to the Editor
It's up to us to make the most of this teachable moment. Take the time over the next few days to share what you know. Write a letter to the editor of your local newspaper, thanking them for any coverage of climate change that they did provide, or taking them to task if they didn't.
Tell them that climate change is inflicting terrible harm on health and life.
Explain that embracing clean renewable energy today will help spare other victims in the future.
And remind them that clean renewables bring jobs, cleaner air and improved health, as well as our best bet for fewer catastrophic hurricanes