Governments really have two choices when it comes to managing the impact on its people from global warming: spend money on trying to reduce the problem or spend money on cleaning up the catastrophes. The Trump administration is on the hook for the catastrophe.
A report released Monday by The National Centers for Environmental Information pegged the total cost this year at $1.5 trillion, including estimates for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. (And that doesn’t even begin to count the human toll, lost lives, lost jobs, lost opportunity.)
I witnessed firsthand the impact of Hurricane Maria on the island of Dominica last month. We keep hearing stories about the power grid being down (similar to Puerto Rico) and you think, Why? It’s been months. Why aren’t the lights on? Then you see nearly every electrical pole on the island sideways. The entire grid needs to be rebuilt (or better, rethought) and that’s decades of infrastructure. So the figure of $1.5 trillion is far short of what will be needed. Nearly every electrical line, every other house, the damage was so widespread it’s impossible to overstate. And that’s just one island. Multiple the effect across the region. The planet.
Even the United States.
The Centers for Environmental Information says there were 16 weather and climate disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the country last year. These events included one drought, two flooding events, one severe freeze, eight severe storms or hail events, three cyclones, and one extraordinary wildfire. These “events,” as the center defines them, resulted in 362 deaths.
Turns out 2017 was a record-breaking year. “In total, the U.S. was impacted by 16 separate billion-dollar disaster events tying 2011 for the record number of billion-dollar disasters for an entire calendar year,” the report said. “In fact, 2017 arguably has more events than 2011 given that our analysis traditionally counts all U.S. billion-dollar wildfires, as regional-scale, seasonal events, not as multiple isolated events. More notable than the high frequency of these events is the cumulative cost, which exceeds $300 billion in 2017—a new U.S. annual record.”
A similar report was published by the Government Accountability Office, including a recommendation that Executive Office of the President “identify significant climate risks and craft appropriate federal responses.”
But instead of trying to reduce the impact—and the costs of weather-related catastrophe—the Trump administration continues on course for new development of oil and gas. The Interior Department announced new rules that, if enacted, will open up nearly all of the United States coastal waters to more oil and gas development beginning next year. “By proposing to open up nearly the entire OCS for potential oil and gas exploration, the United States can advance the goal of moving from aspiring for energy independence to attaining energy dominance,” said Vincent DeVito, counselor for Energy Policy at Interior, in the news release. “This decision could bring unprecedented access to America’s extensive offshore oil and gas resources and allow us to better compete with other oil-rich nations.”
Or as Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke put it: “The important thing is we strike the right balance to protect our coasts and people while still powering America and achieving American Energy Dominance.”
Dominance is such a funny word. How can any nation be dominant in the face of hurricanes that are ever more powerful and destructive? How does energy dominance work when tens of thousands of Americans will have to move because their homes are no longer there because of fire or storms? What happens if that number grows into the hundreds of thousands? Millions? How can we afford to spend trillions of dollars rebuilding what we have now?
A group of elders on the Bering Sea immediately condemned the Interior Department’s offshore drilling plan. “We told them that in person last October and again in writing, that there were 76 tribes in these regions opposed to this,” said the statement from the elders. “The draft plan implies that Bering Sea communities were ‘generally supportive of some’ oil and gas activity. This is not accurate and there is no evidence of this from Bering Sea communities. For decades, our people have opposed oil and gas activity and we continue to oppose it today. The northern Bering Sea is a very fragile ecosystem. The marine mammals that we rely on use it as their highway and they follow specific migration routes. That is how we know when and where to find them. The noise and vibration associated with drilling will interfere with their sonar and disrupt their migrations. Then we the coastal people will lose our primary food source.”
There is a connection between developing oil and gas and paying the high costs to clean up after a storm. One side of the ledger goes to a few; the oil and gas “industry.” The folks who bought and paid for this administration.
The other side of the ledger is the rest of us. The taxpayers who will foot the bill for this continued folly.
And on the Bering Sea? The folks who live there are one storm away from a tragedy. As the elders put it: “Our people and our way of life are being exposed to danger and we do not understand why.”
The hurricanes of 2017 left no one unscathed in the Caribbean islands it touched.
Rising sea levels, longer dry spells and erosion of precious beaches are affecting people’s lives and livelihoods. And in her new book, The Irma Diaries: Compelling Survivor Stories from The Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands author Angela Burnett warns that unless there’s some real movement to curtail greenhouse gas emissions, the series of deadly hurricanes that churned their way through the Caribbean in September 2017 could be a glimpse into a future of unprecedented weather.
“There is a real possibility that a hostile climate could eventually make the islands I have always called and cherished as home uninhabitable,” writes Burnett, who works as a climate change officer in the British Virgin Islands.
Irma was the most powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane in recorded history, and it left a trail of destruction and despair across the Caribbean and Florida. The British Virgin Islands, a territory with a population of 36,000, took a direct hit.
The storm killed four, destroyed businesses, eroded beaches, shredded hillside vegetation, flattened homes and left an untold number of people adrift and sickened from the destruction of water and electricity systems. Maria, another Category 5 hurricane, followed two weeks later, grazing the Virgin Islands but devastating the nearby island of Puerto Rico, which had become a staging ground for its Irma-ravaged neighbors.
The hurricanes of 2017 left no one unscathed in the Caribbean islands it touched, and the story of their economic and emotional toll is still unfolding four months later. “Irma was definitely a game changer,” Burnett says. “The BVI is now at a very important crossroad; Irma makes it impossible for us to redevelop without factoring in climate change impacts.”
The Irma Diaries , which Burnett wrote in about two months, tells the story of 25 hurricane survivors, based on her first-hand interviews with a cross section of residents from the four major inhabited islands in the BVI (Tortola, Virgin Gorda, Anegada and Jost Van Dyke).
Their stories—of ripped-off roofs, flying debris, blown-in doors, broken windows, crumbled walls, homes caught afire and overturned vehicles—are horrifying and harrowing, and also at times humorous. But along with the anecdotes on how the people prepared for and survived a storm of a magnitude none of them had ever experienced, many of them talked, unprompted, about the role the changing climate had in shaping these disasters.
They’ve had ample evidence this year alone. Almost exactly a month before Irma, an unusual storm dumped between 8 and 15 inches of rain in various parts of the territory in 24 hours, leading to widespread flash flooding.
One resident, having clearly read Al Gore’s Truth to Power, referred to the “rain bomb,” which is how Gore in his book describes a kind of downpour that might have occurred once in a thousand years, but now occurs quite regularly.
Another person, referring to the hurricane as “Irmageddon,” was outraged that the climate change conversation has not gotten any more prominent in public policy debates. One family that had been planning an expansion of their home is now considering building a concrete bunker instead.
Burnett, 31, gave her book an unofficial launch at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, in November 2017.
Often the youngest person at many of the climate functions she attends, Burnett also authored the climate change adaptation policy for the BVI and conducted a vulnerability assessment for the region’s tourism sector. She also helped to pioneer and develop the new Climate Change Trust Fund, whose board was seated just weeks before Irma hit. The need for such a fund is based on recognition that the U.K.-dependent territory simply doesn’t qualify for most of the big pots of climate change funds available to other countries. From public school classrooms to government cabinets, Burnett has been trying to educate people locally around the importance of climate change adaptation and warning of the likelihood of stronger hurricanes. Still, the strength and ferocity of Irma surprised even her.
“Climate change impacts everything about our future.”
“People never act on something unless they care about it first,” she says. “You need to get them to connect to that thing at some level.” With this book, she wants to “put people in the shoes of those who lived this disaster, even if they’re on a small island in the Caribbean. Spending the hurricane with them and going through how they had to save their lives at the hands by this climate-change induced threat I think is a powerful way to start a connection.”
Burnett began writing the book about a month after the hurricane made landfall. She wrote at times in longhand and on many nights she worked by candlelight because many of the homes on the island, including hers, had no power. Many still remain in the dark four months later.
She says was stopped by police many nights for breaking curfew, because she was driving home late from interviews or from the local sewer treatment plant, which had become a refuge because it was one of the few places on the island with power that she could access.
A decade ago, when she first started her work on climate change, many people in the islands didn’t really know what it was or that it had anything to do with them because most of the images associated with it were of melting ice caps and starving polar bears, she says.
While the entire Caribbean contributes very little overall to global emissions, “If you look at our carbon footprint, per capita, we are probably up there with the average citizen of in some developed countries or other countries making significant contributions,” she says. “From a moral perspective we have a responsibility to act. Climate change impacts everything about our future.”
A big part of getting that message across has been to help Virgin Islanders understand how climate change affects them. Talking to primary and high school students, for example, Burnett uses familiar analogies to explain the dynamics of climate. She’s helped stage local debates on climate change and once included a climate change parade float for a colorful cultural festival. She’s done exhibits, streamed Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth on movie nights and played short videos in public places where people wait in line, like banks.
“Our climate has been such a steady, unchanging backdrop to life that we often don’t realize how fundamental it is to everything about our existence,” Burnett says. “Adaptation requires a new way of thinking and acting on the part of government, civil society, private sector and individuals.”
In an afterword to Burnett’s book, Michael Taylor, a physics professor at the University of the West Indies’ Mona Campus in Jamaica, wrote that Irma is solid proof of why climate change needs to be taken seriously in the Caribbean. The impact of unprecedented climate is not just erosion of a Caribbean way of life but derailment of Caribbean development, Taylor said.
The setback to economies, many based on tourism and agriculture, will be considerable, he wrote. “In a real sense, Irma portends the future challenge of climate change for the Caribbean region—the challenge of living in a new era likely consistently marked by climatic events only rarely seen to date, or by climatic events that have never been experienced before.”