Columnist Marty Nathan: Harvey may be turning point on climate change

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

There is no joy for a climate columnist in having to choose among a plethora of climate disasters and disastrous climate policies.

I would love instead to spend these paragraphs trying to spice up boring reports on constant national progress in cutting carbon emissions or describing dependable weather that supports sustainable agriculture and human society.

But then along came Harvey.

I was going to write about these catastrophic federal policies:

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt’s extraordinary measures, such as sealing off his office from career EPA staff, communicating almost exclusively with political appointees who support the oil and gas industries, keeping secret his meeting schedules and surrounding himself with armed guards. Pruitt adopted them as he shut down data collection on oil and gas industry emissions, lifted regulations on water quality and blackened more than 1,000 agency web pages on climate change and the pollution his agency is charged with controlling.

The suppression by the Trump administration of the quadrennial Congressionally-mandated Climate Science Special Report, formulated by scientists from 13 federal agencies and completed in January. Its findings are straightforward: “Evidence for a changing climate abounds, from the top of the atmosphere to the depths of the oceans.”

Thousands of studies conducted by tens of thousands of researchers have demonstrated that “human activities, especially emissions of greenhouse (heat-trapping) gases, are primarily responsible for recent observed climate change.” The average temperature in the U.S. has risen rapidly and drastically since 1980, and recent decades have been the warmest of the past 1,500 years. Yet it took The New York Times to publicize its findings. The White House refused to release it.

The Trump Department of Agriculture’s instructions to its staff not to use the words “climate change” and the Department of State’s elimination of its envoys on climate change and the Arctic.

I was going to rail against corruption at the highest levels of government bent on censoring science and obstructing diplomacy in the interest of fossil fuel companies. Keep America ignorant and unengaged to keep Exxon and Koch profits flowing.

But Hurricane Harvey gobsmacked us. It hit the Texas and Louisiana coasts and dropped over 4 feet of rain in some areas. As of this writing, 47 people have been killed, tens of thousands have been evacuated with, of course, poor black and Latino communities the least protected and hardest hit. And though few media outlets are willing to explore it in depth, there is no question in the minds of climate scientists that climate change is transforming hurricanes like Harvey into megastorms that can destroy coastal communities.

Carbon pollution has raised sea level and warmed the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, increasing the risk of flooding and hurricane development. Further, the warmer air over the Gulf has boosted evaporation and “water loading” of the atmosphere, making the storms much wetter. Finally, top climate scientist Michael Mann believes that Harvey’s capacity to linger over the area was itself brokered by climate change. Harvey clarified that we are in a new era of more powerful storms on a hotter planet.

Ironically and dangerously, oil, gas and petrochemical infrastructure centered on the Gulf Coast have been damaged. Ironic because the damage to refineries has cut gasoline and heating oil production, raising prices. Dangerous because the industry’s toxic brew pollutes homes and schools, drinking water and wetlands. The shutdown of the petrochemical plants has sent more than 1 million pounds of harmful pollution into the air and the flooding has dissolved and swept up toxic chemicals in some of the dozen Superfund sites in the region.

The Trump administration is culpable here not just for refusing to mitigate the climate change perpetrator. Its acts are also interfering with storm prediction. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration faces a 16 percent overall cut, with a heavy ax falling on programs like advanced modeling to make weather and storm forecasts more accurate and reliable and a project to upgrade flood prediction. It also is set to defund our country’s ability to adapt and respond to disasters like Harvey.

Trump has proposed cutting $667 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s state and local grant funding, which aids disaster preparedness and emergency response, and to squeeze the budget of the U.S. Coast Guard, which is coordinating water rescues in East Texas. And the starved EPA is not in Texas to protect its population from the Superfund runoff.

Harvey could be a turning point, as those who denied the imminence of climate disaster are forced to face it in the images of flooding and ruin. Climate change is here, now. Recognize and act.

There are so many ways to act, even as we support Harvey relief efforts and demand that the feds do their job. We are compelled to become citizen lobbyists for conservation and renewables and to fight the building of new fossil-fuel infrastructure that commit us to decades more of drilling and burning.

We have a new opportunity to lower our individual and community carbon footprint in Northampton. At 7 p.m. Sept. 12 in the Northampton Senior Center, city officials will offer to us the chance to cut our home heating emissions and our heating bill through the installation of air source heat pumps or “mini-splits.” These highly efficient electric heaters/air conditioners can deliver 1½ to 3 times more heat energy to your home than the electrical energy it consumes.

Particularly if that electrical energy is derived from a renewable source like the community shared solar of the Rays the Valley program, we create a model for the state that can prevent future Harveys. I urge you to investigate this wonderful program and become Heat Smart.

Dr. Marty Nathan lives in Northampton and is a physician at BaystateBrightwood Health Center in Springfield. She is on the steering committee of Climate Action NOW.