How many more climate-related disasters can we endure?

Texas flooding Hurricane Harvey

A Texas National Guardsman carries a resident from her flooded home following Hurricane Harvey in Houston.

How many more climate-related disasters can we endure?

By Mark Reynolds

Hurricane Harvey just drowned Southeast Texas. The storm gained strength as it crossed the abnormally warm Gulf waters and grew to a Category 4 hurricane. To make matters worse, Harvey also came on the heels of an incredibly wet August in the region, and soil moisture was already above average. Even after it made landfall and weakened to a tropical storm, Harvey promised to dump another foot or two of rain on the region.

At least five deaths and dozens of injuries were reported in the first few days of the storm. People took refuge on their rooftops and needed dramatic water rescues. In addition to the human costs, the economic costs are staggering: JPMorgan estimated that the eventual insured losses could be anywhere from $10 billion to $20 billion. Bloomberg reported that the total costs could mount to $30 billion, when the impacts on the area’s labor, transportation and energy sectors are taken into account. The National Flood Insurance Program, which is already $24 billion in debt due to the devastation from Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, is not at all ready to respond to the damage.

In times like these, we have to ask ourselves: How many more storms will force us to measure rain in feet, rather than inches? How many more billions of dollars of strain will we put on the National Flood Insurance Program? How many more people are we willing to displace from their homes, or lose completely in extreme weather events like these?

Those all basically boil down to the same question: How many more years will we dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere with impunity? Because as long as we’re doing that, we’re signing up for more of the same—and worse.

Of course, climate change cannot account for any specific storm. But it’s undeniable that a warmer, wetter world plays a role in intensifying storms like Hurricane Harvey. Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research, said “the main fuel for the storm” was warm water in the Gulf—as much as 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit above average. “Although these storms occur naturally, the storm is apt to be more intense, maybe a bit bigger, longer-lasting, and with much heavier rainfalls” because of those warmer waters, he said.

It’s clear we are past the stage of just changing a few lightbulbs. We need comprehensive legislation to shift the market away from the greenhouse gases causing climate change. Putting a price on carbon is the only legislative move that matches the scale of the problem we face. A national carbon-pricing bill could require fossil fuel companies to pay a fee for every ton of carbon dioxide or equivalent emissions. As the price rises each year, and as businesses look after their bottom lines, the market will quickly turn to low- or no-carbon options. If all that revenue were returned equally to American households in the form of a dividend, studies show it would boost the economy and bring millions of jobs. And of course, it would drive our emissions down and set us on a course to stabilizing our climate.

This type of plan already has major conservative support. The Climate Leadership Council, which is led by Republican statesmen James Baker, Henry Paulson, George Shultz and others, released “The Conservative Case for Carbon Dividends” earlier this year. They explain that pricing carbon and returning the revenue to Americans will “strengthen our economy, reduce regulation, help working-class Americans, shrink government and promote national security.”

Republicans currently in Congress are taking note of the need for climate action, too. Florida Republican Rep. Carlos Curbelo saw Miami flooding and heard his constituents’ outcries, so he responded by forming the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus with Florida Democrat Rep. Ted Deutch. Now the group has a total of 52 Republicans and Democrats working together, many of whom have seen climate impacts in their own districts and are ready to get serious about climate action.

After Hurricane Harvey, perhaps members of the Texas delegation will be ready to take their own seats at the table. Let’s not wait idly by to see how many more days of devastation our unstable climate will wreak on our country. Instead, let’s see how many more representatives in Congress will step up.

Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

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