Wildfires in California are just one extreme weather event faced by the US this year.

Photo Courtesy of Mel Melcon

It’s Hell: Politics and Extreme Weather Events

By Tova Levin      November 5, 2017

The United States has suffered from an onslaught of recent natural disasters, from hurricanes and tropical storms to heatwaves and wildfires. A number of concerns have been voiced about the response to these events by the current administration of the federal government. Aid has been slow and— seemingly—reluctantly given, such as in case of Puerto Rico, causing burnt bridges politically and unnecessary suffering on the ground. As the floodwaters recede and the flames die down, the nation should prioritize repairing the damage and preparing for more natural disasters. Currently, national agencies cannot be relied as leaders in preventing, preparing, and responding to extreme whether so local organizations and state level and local governments will need to respond.

Preparation is key, as extreme weather events are projected to worsen as the effects of climate change become stronger and more apparent. According to the National Climate Assessment, floods, droughts, hurricanes, wildfires, frosts, tornadoes, hailstorms, thunderstorms, and heatwaves, among others, are all projected to increase in specific regions (National Climate Assessment). The Southwest is expected to become hotter and drier, increasing the risk of deadly heatwaves, monstrous wildfires, lasting droughts, thunderstorms, and even flash foods (drier ground is less able to absorb water at high volumes). The Northeast is projected to experience more precipitation in less frequent events, which means fewer summer sprinkles and more Nor’Easters. The Midwest and South are expected to experience all of it—more hurricanes from the warming Gulf, more drought, crop freezes in the Southeast, extreme precipitation and wind during storms, etc. As climate change worsens, so do extreme weather events.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been keeping track of billion-dollar weather and climate events—storms or other natural disasters that have cost at least a billion dollars (year-adjusted), a metric used to measure the destruction of the weather or climate event. This allows a comparison between different natural disasters such as droughts and hurricanes. Since 1980, the United States has only experienced this intense frequency of billion-dollar climate disasters in two years: 2011 and 2016. According to NOAA:

In 2017 (as of October 6), there have been 15 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding $1 billion each across the United States. These events included one drought, two flooding events, one freeze event, seven severe storms, three tropical cyclones, and one wildfire. Altogether, these events resulted in the deaths of 282 people and had significant economic effects on the areas impacted. The 1980–2016 annual average is 5.5 events (CPI-adjusted); the annual average for the most recent 5 years (2012–2016) is 10.6 events (CPI-adjusted).

In terms of measuring climate events, the change in the five or ten year average is important, as it indicates a shift in trends on a large scale. That there are an unusually high number of natural disasters this year would not be enough to point to climate change as the cause. However, there is an increasing trend in the five year average number of extreme weather events shows a more serious climatic trend.

The current administration’s response to climate change and natural disasters leaves state-level governments and community-level organizations to lead on these issue. While large projects such as dams and levees are difficult to undertake without federal aid, preparing citizens at the community level is more feasible and practice. For instance, California residents have regular earthquake drills in schools, offices, and other large buildings, just as fire drills are a common occurrence. Educating cities and towns on how to best ready themselves for a natural disaster and what to do in the event that one strikes are important lifesaving measures in the face of extreme weather events. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions to reduce the risk of these natural disasters in the first place is also possible on the local scale. Many cities and states have made commitments to switching to 100 percent renewable energy; a wealth of opportunities exist for emissions reduction, from better local public transportation to energy efficiency standards. Without the divisive politics and tedious bureaucracy that slows the federal level, communities are better able to implement environmental projects. Until the stance of the Trump administration changes on both climate change and how to respond to natural disasters, state governments, community leaders, and private organizations will have to plan and implement environmental policy and natural disaster relief without the federal government.






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