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Hurricane HarveyClimate change is part of every story now, including Harvey

Published 31 August 2017

“Climate is not central [to the Houston story], but by the same token it is grossly irresponsible to leave climate out of the story, for the simple reason that climate change is, as the U.S. military puts it, a ‘threat multiplier,’” David Roberts writes. “Everything human beings do, we do in a climate (except hang out on the space station, I suppose). Our climate has been in a rough temperature equilibrium for about 10,000 years, while we developed agriculture and advanced civilization and Netflix. Now our climate is about to rocket out of that equilibrium, in what is, geologically speaking, the blink of an eye. We’re not sure exactly what’s going to happen, but we have a decent idea, and we know it’s going to be weird. With more heat energy in the system, everything’s going to get crazier — more heat waves, more giant rainstorms, more droughts, more floods. That means climate change is part of every story now.”

David Roberts wrote an important article in Vox (“Climate change did not ‘cause’ Harvey, but it’s a huge part of the story: 9 things we can say about Harvey and climate,” 29 August 2017).

He notes that raising the issue of climate change during a disaster may be regarded as insensitive. We should focus on the rescue efforts, the plight of those are suffering, and on the efforts made to alleviate this suffering.

Roberts also note that, more broadly, climate is not the central story here: There have always been hurricanes and floods in Texas. Texas’s coastal areas are vulnerable to severe weather because heedless development, sandy subsoil, and insufficient drainage, and these vulnerabilities will persist even in the absence of climate change (although man-made vulnerabilities can be reduced by laws and regulations which are informed by natural phenomena and characteristics; see Ilan Kelman, “Don’t blame climate change for the Hurricane Harvey disaster – blame society,” HSNW, 30 August 2017)).

“Climate is not central, but by the same token it is grossly irresponsible to leave climate out of the story, for the simple reason that climate change is, as the U.S. military puts it, a threat multiplier,” Roberts writes. “The storms, the challenges of emergency response, the consequences of poor adaptation — they all predate climate change. But climate change will steadily make them worse.”

Here are three of the nine points Roberts makes about the relationship between climate change and Harvey.

2) “Did climate change cause Harvey?” is a malformed question
Climate change does not cause things, because climate change is not a causal agent. “Climate change” is a descriptive term — it describes the fact that the climate is changing. What’s causing the changes is an increase in heat energy trapped in the atmosphere, due to greenhouse gases.

But saying that heat energy caused Harvey is also somewhat problematic. Let’s explain by way of an analogy.

Say I turned up Earth’s gravity by 1 percent. More people around the world would trip and fall. Does it make sense to say, of a particular person tripping and falling, that the increase in gravity (“gravity change”) caused it to happen? No. Does it make sense to say that gravity cause it to happen? No.