Science-based warnings of an enveloping climate catastrophe have never been louder. Yet there is a big disconnect between these global and local warnings on the one side, and preventive actions at the state and national levels on the other. Meanwhile, global carbon emissions reached an alarming record high in June, which should worry all, especially those living along the U.S. coastlines.
The problem is that unlike COVID-19, where a direct connection is made between the virus and illness, the link between climate change and disasters is indirect, as with a sinking land along the East Coast or the forest fires on the West Coast. Which is why policymakers and the media must make the climate connection during catastrophes, to help change mindsets on climate action.
It is true that attribution of the extent of a specific disaster to climate change — be it Hurricane Sandy on the Atlantic Coast in 2012 or the condominium collapse in Surfside, Fla. — is not straightforward, and ironclad evidence of causation is not always at hand. Heavy rain and wind gusts from Tropical Storm Elsa in the U.S. brought a fatality, injuries, power outages, and flooding from Florida on up the East Coast, including flash flood warnings for Delaware and New Jersey (and meanwhile, two short-lived tornadoes hit South Jersey).
Even if it is difficult to pin the “causality” for storms like Elsa on global warming, the collective evidence signals that climate change is the underlying factor behind the rising frequency of extreme floods and storms. In the triage of responses, climate action must be a top priority, along with correcting engineering and managerial lapses.
Since 1960, the world has seen a tenfold increase in extreme hazards of nature, with the impacts proving deadliest in low-lying coastlines such as those along the Atlantic, and in regions highly exposed to heat waves like the Northwest. Warming air raises sea levels to dangerous levels and flooding lowers the ground level through inundation. For the past two decades, the global sea level has risen 0.1 inches a year, with Philadelphia exceeding that average, with a worrisome outlook. Miami is barely six feet above sea level.
Multiple factors turn hazards of nature into disasters. Managerial and engineering factors would seem to have contributed to Florida’s condominium devastation. After all, the adjacent twin structure in the Florida condominium complex that did not collapse faced the same climate conditions as the 12-story Champlain Tower South — the one that did. A 2018 report had flagged “major structural damage” to the concrete slab beneath the ground-level pool deck.
But heightened environmental risk has been an overarching factor in the devastating events along the East Coast, including the condominium collapse. Champlain Tower South was constructed on reclaimed wetlands and sits on a barrier island facing an ocean that has risen about a foot in the past century. Underneath it is sand and organic fill brought in from the bay after mangroves were deforested. The fill sinks spontaneously, and the subsidence deteriorates as the water table rises. A 2020 study had found that the land beneath the complex had been sinking since the 1990s.
On the West Coast, arson or not putting out a cigarette can trigger a forest fire, but it is climate change making the fires more frequent and deadly. Lack of readiness could have contributed to the destructive force of Australia’s bush fires of 2019 and 2020, but their frequency and intensity are rising due to climate change. Inadequate warning and evacuation were immediate factors in the impact of Typhoon Haiyan — among the strongest on record — in the Philippines in 2013, but high sea levels caused the storm’s unprecedented fury.
Climate change is identified as eliminating the atmospheric protective barrier against hurricanes, adding urgency for action specifically along the East Coast. It is vital, therefore, that the priority for climate investment in state and national infrastructure plans be raised, even amid the challenges of recovering from COVID-19. To help change mindsets on the urgency for action, it will be vital to connect, in real time, climate change to climate disasters.