Hurricane Harvey and the Burden of Proof

Hurricane Harvey was an extraordinary event. The rainfall totals and flooding were without precedent even in the hurricane-prone Texas Gulf region. The New York Times pointed out that fully 40% of the flooded buildings were in areas classified as “of minimal flood hazard.”

Scientists have been circumspect about what of this to attribute to climate change. Michael Mann gave a careful summary of contributing factors, principally sea-level rise and water temperature. The message is that climate change didn’t cause the hurricane, but did make it worse. No one can quantify just how much worse, and certainly out-of-control development in Houston contributed to the destructive effects.

However, the fact remains this was an unimaginable storm. It was out of the range of what anyone thought to see from weather, even from hurricanes. That is the threat of climate change. Weather isn’t limited to what we know and understand. Once we perturb the system, the power of the elements can surpass anything we are used to — that is what’s at stake. We can’t even guarantee the changes will be gradual.

The evidence behind climate change is considerable, regardless of how much we want to argue from Harvey. A previous post gave one particular way of looking at it. Any reasonable business, faced with a risk of this magnitude, would be doing its best to quantify that risk, so as to take appropriate action. Businesses that choose to ignore disruptive new technologies or entrants are the ones that disappear — along with their disparaging comments on how the new stuff will never amount to anything.

That’s us. Coal and oil interests (Koch brothers and their cohorts) are horrified that anyone would even think about keeping their assets in the ground. With this administration anything that any business doesn’t like is bad. So climate change doesn’t exist. Can’t even talk about it. Come back to me when things are so bad I can’t laugh at you.

What is the burden of proof here? We are long past the stage of serious concern. We haven’t reached the stage where people with something to lose are ready to give in, but that’s not going to be until their businesses blow up in a storm. With climate change you have to act early if you want to prevent a future of weather run amok. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere just adds up. If you wait for things to get bad, they will go from bad to continually worse through all the years it takes to get off coal, oil, and gas — and then stay that way for many decades more.

We are at the stage where the appropriate response to risk is action. Research and the Paris Agreement process are imperatives. CEO’s of failed companies can always go on to the next one, but with climate change there’s nowhere to go.


Originally published at ontheoutside.blog on September 5, 2017.