By Fiona Edwards
The devastating hurricanes hitting the Caribbean and southern US have shown yet again that climate change has truly arrived. Without urgent action, events like this will become more common and more severe. While extreme and tragic weather events across the world are often largely ignored but the impacts on North America has put climate change high on the political agenda in the US — the country most responsible for climate change.
It is a different sort of tragedy that the US currently has for a president a man who infamously described climate change as a “hoax” and in June he announced that the US will be withdrawing from the historic Paris Agreement on climate change which over 190 countries signed up to in 2016.
Looking just at the scale of devastation caused by hurricane Harvey provides a glimpse into how dangerous inertia in tackling climate change can be. Harvey dropped an “unprecedented” 50 inches of rain over Texas, killing more than 60 people and impacting tens of thousands of people.
The fact that Harvey brought more rainfall in such a short space of time than any other hurricane in the US is a direct consequence of climate change.
The amount of heat in the atmosphere and the temperatures of the oceans have a significant impact on the intensity of storms. In short, extra heat in the atmosphere can make storms such as Harvey more powerful.
As Dr Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in the US puts it: “The human contribution can be up to 30 per cent or so of the total rainfall coming out of the storm… It may have been a strong storm and it may have caused a lot of problems anyway — but [human-caused climate change] amplifies the damage considerably.”
The global devastation caused by climate change rarely makes the headlines. At the same time as Harvey hit the US, massive floods swept across India, Bangladesh and Nepal killed at least 1,200 and left millions homeless. According to the Red Cross at least 7.1 million people in Bangladesh have been affected.
These extreme weather events underline the fact that — as climate scientists have consistently warned — hurricanes and floods are a hallmark of man-made climate change and are set to become more frequent and more severe as global temperatures continue to rise. Events this week are a shocking example of stark scientific predictions coming to life.
Tackling climate change in order to avoid it’s potentially catastrophic impacts on humanity is an urgent priority for the whole world.
The US has contributed more climate changing emissions than any other country and continues to be a major carbon emitter today. It, therefore, has a huge responsibility to play its part to tackle climate change.
Yet Donald Trump is taking the US in the opposite direction. In addition to withdrawing the US from the Paris climate change agreement, Trump has had a consistently reactionary and dangerous approach to climate change — from purging the White House website of any reference to climate science in his first week as president, to scrapping Barack Obama’s clean power plan.
Trump continues to systemically dismantle the scientific and institutional framework needed for climate action in the US despite climate impact affecting large sections of the population.
On August 20, the week before Harvey hit the US, the Trump administration disbanded the federal advisory committee on climate change a group responsible for helping both public and private sector officials understand the latest climate science and potential climate impacts and plan accordingly.
Trump’s administration has been filled with former fossil fuel executives and lobbyists, most notably former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson. It’s not surprising then that the welcome, but insufficient, moves made by Obama to reduce coal use and promote renewables have been scrapped and replaced with an energy plan to increase the development of fossil fuels, getting rid of regulations and open up public lands to drilling and mining.
This seriously undermines the US ability to meet its climate commitments. Under the Paris agreement, countries made voluntary commitments to reduce emissions and the US was to cut emissions by 26-28 per cent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels. This target is roughly half what is needed by 2025 for the US to make a fair contribution to reducing carbon emissions, but even this weak target is now threatened by Trump’s actions.
The good news is his attempts to take the US off the path of reducing its carbon emissions is meeting with serious opposition within the country — 12 US states, including California, New York and Washington, which collectively generate more than a third of US GDP and 187 cities have pledged to cut their emissions original Paris commitment of 26-28 per cent.
Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal from the Paris agreement met with widespread internationally condemnation, and his proposals to renegotiate the treaty were rebuffed by EU leaders and China.
Even Theresa May — after being roundly condemned for failing to join international leaders in criticising the US withdrawal in its aftermath — managed to eventually say she was “dismayed” by the move.
This is in contrasts to Jeremy Corbyn’s approach, who was of the first political leaders to condemn Trump’s withdrawal, but also put forward an ambitious plan to tackle climate change while creating a million new green jobs.
Trump’s lack of concern for the greatest threat facing humanity is contributing to his isolation, including in the US. His willingness to put profits of fossil fuels companies ahead of the lives of billions of people across the world must be constantly challenged, including by massive demonstrations if he visits Britain.
The above article was first published by the Morning Star