Climate Change and its Discontents, Part II: Global Weirding in the American South
April 2, 2018 | The American South is projected to be the most economically vulnerable region of the U.S. due to the effects of climate change. This is largely due to the region already being significantly warmer than other parts of the country. Dangerous heat waves are expected to be more frequent, causing energy costs for cooling homes to rise. It is estimated that while the U.S. stands to face damages amounting to 0.7% of the GDP, states in the American South, like Texas, could face damages equal to 20% of the GDP.
Attributing the impacts of climate change to events like drought and extreme weather is aptly called attribution science; it is a “budding” science, but an important one in determining the effects climatic changes will have on our society. The science indicates that climate change will generally lead to more intense storms and will disrupt the weather patterns we know and love, leading to warmer arctic conditions and an icey Southern United States.
Last year’s Hurricane Irma was the biggest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded. It spent three days as a Category 5 storm and sustained winds of 185 miles per hour for 37 hours. Irma’s size was unprecedented: satellite images revealed the storm to be hundreds of miles across, big enough to cover the entire state of Texas.
The connection between severe storms and climate change is fiercely debated. Yet the attributing science is easily explained: warmer temperatures mean higher rates of evaporation, and warm air holds more moisture. The more humid the air, the more fuel there is for any storms that might form, and warmer atmospheric temperatures boost rainfall during hurricanes. According to physicists, there is about 7% more water vapor in the atmosphere with every 1˚C, or 1.8˚F, of warming.
Warm ocean waters also play a key role in storm intensification. Typically, hurricanes weaken as they approach land because as the storm is churning up water, it brings cooler water up from the bottom and closer to the atmosphere, draining energy from the storm. However, the opposite happened in the recent case of Hurricane Harvey. The storm intensified in the 12 hours before it hit land, which was unheard of for a hurricane in the western Gulf of Mexico. This is because during that time, waters in the Gulf of Mexico rose 2.7˚F to 7.2˚F above their average temperature, making them some of the hottest spots in the ocean. There was no cold water to slow the storm.
The 2017 hurricane season damage is estimated to be around $290 billion; the 2005 hurricane season with Hurricane Katrina cost around $200 billion. This means that one year of hurricanes in the U.S. costs more than the economies of New Zealand or Finland. More than the cost of replacing infrastructure is the cost to human lives and the social fabrics of communities affected by these storms. Hurricane Harvey is estimated to have displaced 32,000 people. Tens of thousands of people in Puerto Rico were displaced by Hurricane Maria. These storms cause physical and psychological trauma, and worsen existing socio-economic inequalities.
Sea Level Rise
Sea level rise is the insidious cousin of extreme weather when it comes to climate change impacts on the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. A warmer climate has led to thawing continental glaciers, and the additional water gradually raises ocean levels. In addition, warmer temperatures also lead to “thermal expansion” of the ocean. The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet but half of the sea rise seen over the last century is due to thermal expansion. And yet, coastal communities in the U.S. are the fastest growing in the nation; Florida has been the fastest growing state for over 50 years, with 75% of Floridians living in coastal areas.
It should come as no surprise that “sunny day flooding,” or flooding caused by high tides, has been on the rise in coastal communities from Virgina and the Carolinas to Florida and Georgia. Remember the iconic octopus in the parking garage? Without taking the proper steps to ensure resilience to climate change impacts, cities will be left paying billions of dollars to replace damaged infrastructure and install temporary fixes.
On the national level, the U.S. government will be paying the price for its inaction for decades to come. The National Flood Insurance Program is severely in debt, and burdened by properties that flood again and again. The U.S. government is in the process of relocating a Native American Tribe from the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana to the tune of $48 million because their home is not-so-slowly being reclaimed by the sea. This will simply be one of the first of many relocations if both adaptation to and mitigation of climate change is not taken seriously.
Hotter temperatures and increased rainfall create the perfect environment for disease. A 2016 study found that the unusually warm weather of 2015-2016 contributed to the spread of the Zika virus that year. These warm, wet conditions allowed mosquitos in South America to live longer, bite more frequently, and become infectious faster, prompting the spread of the disease across the continent and into North America. While international travel undoubtedly contributes to the global spread of disease, climate change provides a catalyst for these diseases to thrive in areas they otherwise would not.
Human-caused environmental impacts have had a wide array of effects on the spread of disease, and climate change is no different. Warmer ocean temperatures contribute to toxic algae blooms, causing the spread of diseases like red tide and Vibrio vulnificus in the Gulf of Mexico. Elevated precipitation not only allows mosquitoes to breed, but also provides additional habitat and food for rodents, fueling hosts that carry diseases such as Rift Valley Fever, Zika, Malaria, and Hantavirus.
For the U.S., the spread of diseases is most notable in the rural, poor American South where the impacts of climate change are creating living conditions that exacerbate these inequalities. Neglected Tropical Diseases—communicable diseases associated with tropical and subtropical developing countries—affect 12 million people in the U.S., primarily those living in poverty. West Nile virus has impacted people in rural Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and southeast Texas. These areas are also affected by Chagas disease, tapeworms, and other pest-borne bacterial diseases. Poor sanitation and an inability to afford septic systems, which leads to sewage dumped in the backyard, helps explain why poor rural communities are particularly afflicted by tropical diseases. Yet, climate change-induced flooding and increased rainfall worsen these conditions and lengthen the transmission season.
As many in the developing world could tell us, climate change is here and now. Even if we take aggressive steps to mitigate global warming, there is more warming in the pipeline. Coastal and impoverished communities in the South have already been impacted by climate change, and the effects will only be felt more strongly over time. One of the many climate-related standards that the Trump Administration has rolled back was one that promoted climate change resilience in infrastructure development. As of March 15, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has stripped all mention of climate change from its 2018-2022 Strategic Plan. Moving forward, the onus is therefore on local governments to strengthen and sustain these communities, to combat poverty, and to develop more intelligently. For federal funding opportunities, check here.
Stay tuned for the next piece in this series.
Michaela K. Koke currently studies at Vermont Law School and is a graduate of Lewis & Clark College's international affairs and environmental studies programs.
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of other Arbitror contributors or of Arbitror as a whole.
Photo by the Texas Army National Guard.