The First Month of Climate Change

Photo by Kristi McCluer

Last September began with America’s fourth largest city underwater and nine U.S. states on fire.

As Houston emerged from the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, thousands of families that had been planning for the first day of school were instead returning to flooded homes, piling up their possessions and calculating the time and money it would take to rebuild. Around the same time, ash was raining from the sky over Portland and Seattle as thousands of nearby acres burned. Montana, Idaho, Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, and Nevada were also burning. In California, more than 7,000 acres had burned within the city limits of Los Angeles, and Governor Jerry Brown declared two separate states of emergency within four days.

That was week one.

For all the nuclear brinkmanship on Twitter, health care battles, private jet scandals, and NFL protests that happened in September, the most important thing that happened all month was something that was actually happening all month. Across the nation, from Vermont and Minnesota to California, in Texas and Florida and especially in Puerto Rico, Americans endured some of the most extreme, expensive — and expected — consequences of living on a warming planet. Climate change claimed its first full month.

In week two of September, Hurricane Irma grew to a Category 5 storm and crashed through Puerto Rico and Florida. Within days, Hurricane Jose had strengthened to Category 4 before turning out to sea. But the reprieve was short-lived. The following week, Hurricane Maria — after growing from a tropical storm to a Category 4 hurricane in just 24 hours — made a direct hit on Puerto Rico. Already weakened by Irma, the island lost not only homes and businesses, but also the power, transportation, communications, water treatment and food production infrastructure its 3.4 million people depend on.

Alongside the hurricanes in the South and wildfires in the West came record breaking heat across the Midwest and Northeast. The official first day of Fall in Minneapolis was 94 degrees, 25 degrees hotter than the historical average. Milwaukee hit a new record of 95 degrees that day, while Chicago’s high was 94 degrees, part of a six-day stretch of record temperatures for the city. In the northeast, New York City’s first Autumn weekend registered 87 and 91 degrees. At the annual Vermont Wine and Harvest Festival — one of the state’s top 10 Fall events according to the Vermont Chamber of Commerce — it was 86 degrees.

Last September was what scientists have spent decades warning us about. It is what happens when the climate changes, and if we do not act, many more months will look like this.

Of course, this is not just the story of one bad month. The National Forest Service has spent more than $2 billion fighting wildfires in 2017 — a new record for the agency. Hurricane Harvey alone is expected to account for as much as $190 billion dollars in damages. Most costly of all, more than 100 people have died, so far, as the result of Harvey and the September storms.

And it will get worse. As climate change accelerates, storms, fires, heatwaves and more will cause greater destruction and death. According to a newly released study, we are staring down a future where climate-charged disasters and health effects from pollution will cost, on average, $360 billion a year, which amounts to more than half of the nation’s anticipated economic growth. As a recent National Geographic story noted, that annual cost is well more than it would cost to cover tuition for every U.S. student at public colleges and universities — for four years.

September showed us that the people who deny these things are betting with people’s lives — generations of lives — as well as billions of dollars in property and economic activity. And they are placing that bet against an extensive body of science telling us that months like September 2017 could very well be our new normal.

The time to do something is yesterday. And there is plenty that can be done. There is more passion, energy, and, importantly, money dedicated to fixing this problem than there ever has been before. But it will take work on every angle, political to personal. We have to buy better. Eat better. Vote better. Invest better. Certain cabinet officials might consider how they can fly better.

Most of all, we have to trust the evidence before our own eyes. There is more than enough to inspire action.

On September 25 — a day when many Houston students finally got back to school, as Puerto Rico was still struggling to get power and drinking water to its people, and when the high temperature in Bennington, Vermont was hotter than Death Valley — a chunk of ice measuring 103 square miles in area broke off of a glacier in West Antarctica. It was a fitting coda to the month. However far away it may seem, it’s heading our way.