A tale of two storms

Katrina, Sandy, now Harvey — we have stared at these storms that have ripped apart the life of communities every few years. Thousands of people’s home lost, in the case of Katrina nearly 2,000 people dead. 100 year storms, 500 year storms, 1,000 year storms — not anymore. We are transitioning to an era when the recent past is not an accurate predictor of the immediate future. But we’re now like the man who got on Interstate 80 in New Jersey to go to California — he knows it will be warmer when he gets there, but no idea what it will be like along the way.

Yet more than computer models and statistical analysis, what’s happening in the places without the economic resources of the United States tells us a lot about what the whole world might look like in the coming decades — be that the 30-60 years of Replay Earth or some time a bit further down the road.

Because while Harvey dominates the news here, The Guardian reports that India, Nepal and Bengladesh are being wracked by their own set of fierce rains, driven by one of the wettest monsoons on record. And the toll is horrific: 1,200 dead, as many as 40 million at risk of loosing their homes to the floods, with at least another day of rain in store.

It’s tempting to think, “Well, that’s India. We have better this or better that,” but that would be foolish. Could Houston survive a storm like this every few years? New Orleans can’t even turn on all its flood relief pumps 12 years after Katrina. And what about when there are 20 Houstons and New Orleans, hit by overlapping storms? Apart from the cold cash involved, do you see a society with the cohesion and will to put aside many competing priorities and spend billions, maybe trillions, on flood control and relief? India is just farther along the curve we’re on.

I don’t know much about India’s weather, but I know I’m seeing a lot of articles about whether Harvey is climate or weather. As a general concept, the distinction between the two is useful and helpful to unconfuse people who think — or want us to think — that global warming means no more cold days. But every day, the climate produces weather — they’re not happening on different planets. The weather we see now is produced by the climate we’ve created in the last 2,000 years, and of course, more so since the advent of universal electricity and the automobile.

That climate is better than the old one at heating up the ocean that is 75% of our planet and the air just above it. That means bigger, wetter storms in some places, just as it means hotter, drier climate in others. Specifically, places like Houston and Mumbai are going to be hammered much more with such storms. Whether there will be more of them, or they will just be longer or more intense, time will tell. But we’re seeing that happen before our very eyes.

This climate will take decades, maybe centuries, to unwind. It will get worse before it gets better, if it gets better. We can speed that up, we can limit some of the damage. But not all of it — we have lost that last moment of control, probably a while ago.

What we can control is how we react and how we learn from that. We are in the early days of a world where most of the time, somewhere, there will be millions — perhaps hundreds of millions or billions — of people homeless or without livelihood from climate change.  We have a lot of work to do.

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