Let’s connect the dots between South Carolina flooding and climate change

Let’s connect the dots between South Carolina flooding and climate change

By Steve Valk

Flooding of biblical proportions struck South Carolina over the weekend and, once again, media accounts of the disaster are failing to mention the obvious contributing factor: climate change.

In addition to the nine lives lost as a result of this deluge, the flooding in South Carolina will take a huge financial toll. As USAToday reported:

As for the economic cost of the flooding, it should “easily surpass $1 billion given the enormity of the damage,” according to an early estimate from Steve Bowen, a meteorologist with Aon Benfield, a global reinsurance firm.

“The cost to infrastructure alone could be that much,” Bowen said in an e-mail to USA TODAY. “Unfortunately, as is the case with flood events, much of the damage will not be covered by insurance since only a small percentage of homeowners in South Carolina are current National Flood Insurance Program policyholders.”

 Noah's arkDescribing the catastrophe as a once-in-1,000-years event, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley told NBC’s Today Show, “This is historic levels of rain. We’ve never seen anything like this before.”

That phrase, “never seen anything like this before,” has been popping up with greater frequency in recent years to describe the weather on steroids wreaking havoc in the U.S. and throughout the world. When you’re talking about 24 inches of rain falling within a day or two, as was the case near Mt. Pleasant, S.C., it’s unlikely that anyone throughout recorded history has “seen anything like this.” At a certain point, after so many “unprecedented” events, the big question hanging out there is this: Why is it happening?

In subsequent stories in the mainstream media, we hope that question will be answered. In the meantime, however, here’s what climate scientist Scott Mandia of the Climate Science Rapid Response Team told us by email:

“Atlantic Ocean temperatures in this region are at all-time record highs. Warmer water is more easily evaporated from the surface, which means there was an enormous amount of water vapor in the air feeding the hurricane. When that water vapor condenses into liquid drops it means that the rainfall from all storms in the region will be amplified. Scientists have expected greater rainfall from all storms in a warmer world and that is precisely what we are seeing, esp. along the east coast. Greater rains = more frequent and devastating floods. These things cost us a lot of taxpayer dollars so we need to accept the science and immediately begin providing the solutions which include fortifying our coastlines against storm surge, better flood management systems in the interior and, most importantly, reducing our carbon emissions so that we can slow the warming and avoid the worst-case scenario consequences.”

“As a country, we just cannot afford the Katrinas, Irenes, Sandys, and Joaquins.”

Adding to Mandia’s observations, Kevin Trenberth from the Climate Analysis Section at the USA National Center for Atmospheric Research offered this:

“The heat is there and tends to build up: tropical storms and hurricanes are normally a way of alleviating that heat buildup and so, when an opportunity arises, the disturbance weather system reaches out and grabs all the available moisture and enhances evaporation from the surface and brings all the moisture into the storm, resulting in very heavy rains. When the storm gets stuck, becomes slow moving, then the rains continue in place and flooding results. These are all the sorts of things we expect to see more of with global warming. Two years ago it was in Boulder!”

It’s important for us to connect these dots because we’ll reach a point eventually where the consequences of carbon outpace our ability to adapt. And unless the public is aware that these disasters are becoming more intense and frequent because of global warming, the political will to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will remain insufficient to enact effective policies.

When constituents are affected by climate change, it makes a difference politically. It’s no coincidence that of the 11 Republicans who sponsored the climate change resolution introduced by Rep. Chris Gibson (R-NY), seven were from states – New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey — clobbered by superstorm Sandy in 2012, and two were from south Florida where streets are flooding at high tide.

Should the media start connecting the devastation in South Carolina to the changes occurring in our climate, we might see some Republicans from the Palmetto State joining Gibson and his colleagues as co-sponsors of the climate resolution.

Steve Valk is communications director for Citizens’ Climate Lobby.

Steve Valk
Steve Valk is Communications Coordinator for Citizens' Climate Lobby. Steve joined the CCL staff in 2009 after a 30-year career with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter at @valklimate.