Houston floods: Hurricane Harvey is exactly the time to talk about climate change

Three reasons we need to talk not just about flood relief - but adaptation and climate-change mitigation too.

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This past weekend, a historic 30 inches of rain in just 72 hours fell on Houston, Texas - leading to at least eight deaths and the displacement of an estimated 30,000 people. Since then, images of police officers carrying women, women carrying babies, and people of all ages carrying dogs to safety have flooded global newsfeeds and front-pages alike - moving millions to sympathy.

The result? A very admirable impulse to want to help. Which for most of us takes the form of donating aid. Vast amounts are already pouring in, both from concerned individuals and large corporations like Amazon and Starbucks. 

Yet as people ask how they can best donate, questions are being raised about the longer-term response. What about support for efforts to promote future flood resilience? Or for action on reducing the greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change itself?

Raising these issues can come across as insensitive and untimely - people need “help not lectures”, as one Facebook commentator put it. But while urgent relief is certainly needed (and if the urge to donate has crossed your mind, then do so, right now), there is also a strong case that the immediate aftermath of disaster is exactly when wider issues need to be raised. Not least because right now is when politicians would rather they were not.

1. Failing to acknowledge human responsibility puts future lives at risk

The impact of Hurricane Harvey has undoubtedly been made more severe by human action (and inaction). From building within flood zones, to failing to shore up the coastline, investigative journalists and campaigners had already warned that Houston’s infrastructure made it “a sitting duck for the next big hurricane”.

Scientists had meanwhile pointed out the climate change was only set to make such hurricanes more intense and their rainfall severe, with the World Weather Attribution (WWA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluding that climate change nearly doubled the odds of heavy rains of the kind that claimed 13 lives in Louisiana last year. For a detailed analysis of exactly how a warming climate shaped Hurricane Harvey, see here.

These are human factors that Donald Trump would rather you didn’t consider. Instead, by describing it as a “once in 500 year flood”, he raised the idea of an “Act of God” with biblical proportions and divine cause. The correct term is in fact “500-year flood”, as this Vox article explains. It means that a flood has that it has a 1-in-500 chance of happening in any given year - except that floods with this probability are now happening much more frequently, to the point where the phrase no longer holds much use.

2. Long-term adaption relies on charities too

Alongside organisations working in disaster relief, there are many charities working to better prepare communities for flood risks. An initiative at the Pew Charitable Trusts lobbies for improvements to infrastructure and planning. And lawyers at Client Earth in London and Earth and Water Law in Washington are working to hold those who don’t sufficiently protect people from the impacts of climate change to account. In an article published in Nature Geoscience just this week, they argue that scientific improvements in “extreme weather attribution” will help increase legal pressure on governments and businesses to properly prepare for future floods.

These efforts are especially vital in the face of Trump’s recent recall of Obama-era rules designed to make new infrastructure more resilient. His decision took into account businesses that complained about the increased costs, but the threat of lawsuits could make such costs inescapable. Sophie Marjanac, one of article’s authors, says it is too early to say for sure whether the actions of local authorities exacerbated the flooding in Houston, but that “litigation may arise once the factors that caused this event are identified”.

3. Donating to climate change mitigation might be the most altruistic response of all

Thirdly, there is the highly persuasive case made by the journalist David Roberts in 2014, that action to mitigate climate change “is fundamentally altruistic”. Efforts to prevent climate change, he argued in this piece for Vox, not only help those in a specific space and time, but all of humanity. This gives it a different moral order altogether from efforts to help people adapt.

It is a point that is particularly poignant given the nation impacted: the United States, the richest large country on earth. For as strongly as the American economy responds to its own climate disasters, it is politically weak in addressing those suffered by others.

Just last Friday, it was reported that the death toll from floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have climbed above 1,200, with aid agencies saying that the annual monsoons are much worse than in previous years. And while this could be seen as a case of unhelpful whataboutery, President Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement means he has also pulled the US out of the Green Climate Fund. This fund has pledged $100bn by 2020 to assisting developing countries with adapting to climate change; change that emissions from America continue to help create.

In sum, any attempt to create a sliding-scale of importance between aid-efforts, adaptation strategies, or climate-change mitigation must conclude that all are vital. But thinking about the moral imperatives of all is vital too. Otherwise we risk allowing the glow of the media and political spotlight to fall only on the first or the second, at the expense of the wider, all-important fight.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.