Hurricane HarveyDon’t blame climate change for the Hurricane Harvey disaster – blame society

By Ilan Kelman

Published 30 August 2017

Yes, climate change can and does influence hurricanes. But climate change does not affect people’s vulnerabilities to the hurricane. Neither the climate nor the hurricane’s characteristics made Houston an industrial center of 2.3m people (2017 estimate), an increase of 40 percent since 1990. They did not force Texans to build along the coast or in floodplains without adequate measures, as occurs around the United States. They did not pave over green spaces leading to reduced rainfall absorption. Because vulnerability is not natural, many disaster researchers avoid the phrase “natural disaster.” A hurricane need not become a hurricane disaster – but society let a disaster happen. Blaming climate change, or even just the weather, for the hurricane disaster distracts from individuals’ and society’s responsibility for where we live, how we live and how we support people who cannot help themselves. This vulnerability, not nature and not climate change, causes hurricane disasters.

Weather and climate don’t cause disasters – vulnerability does. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this means that the widespread discussion as to whether the Hurricane Harvey disaster was caused by climate change or not becomes a dangerous distraction.

The hurricane was born off the coast of South America in mid-August and then tracked through the Gulf of Mexico, making landfall in the United States on 25 August. The storm surge and winds devastated coastal settlements, after which the storm stalled, dumping immense rainfall over Houston. At the time of writing, the confirmed death toll had just reached 14 and there are expectations that this will soon rise.

A disaster involving a hurricane cannot happen unless people, infrastructure and communities are vulnerable to it. People become vulnerable if they end up lacking knowledge, wisdom, capabilities, social connections, support or finances to deal with a standard environmental event such as a hurricane.

This can happen if lobbyists block tougher building codes, planning regulations, or enforcement procedures. Or if families can’t afford insurance or the cost of alternative accommodation if they evacuate. Or if limited hurricane experience induces a sense of apathy.

Often, people with disabilities rarely have their needs met when away from home. Fear of harassment or assault could stop others from entering a communal shelter. Legal or undocumented immigrants might not understand warnings and might fear the prospect of detention if they seek help.

These possible scenarios represent reasons why people in Texas might end up and remain in harm’s way. Anecdotes point to all these issues having played a part during Harvey, but only careful research in the months ahead will be able to confirm or refute them. It is nevertheless such vulnerability issues that cause the disaster. None relate to the hurricane’s physical characteristics.

Climate change
Yes, climate change can and does influence hurricanes. The ocean’s temperature – to a certain degree – drives hurricane intensity, especially the coastal flooding level and the amount of rainfall. If the Gulf of Mexico was warmer than usual, or if some atmospheric winds were weaker than usual, then part of Harvey’s strength might be attributable to human-caused climate change. Harvey stalling above Houston might also be linked to climate change’s effects due to changing wind patterns.