My Turn: Time to grab the rope

  • People walk down a section of Interstate 610 in floodwaters from Hurricane Harvey on Aug. 27 in Houston. AP file

For the Monitor
Saturday, October 28, 2017

Did you ever hear the one about the man in the storm who prayed to God to save him?

When the floodwaters approached and his neighbors offered him a ride out of town, he refused, saying “God will save me.” When the waters rose around his home and the police came to fetch him in a boat, he refused, saying “God will save me.” When his house was under water and the Coast Guard came by helicopter to pluck him from his roof, he refused, saying “God will save me.”

Then he prayed a final time . . . and drowned.

Arriving in Heaven, the man demanded an explanation from God. God replied, “Son, I sent you a car, a boat, a helicopter and you declined every one. How else was I going to save you?”

That hundreds of innocent people have died in recent weeks from Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria – and now from raging wildfires in California – is not a joke. It is a human tragedy that words cannot assuage. We salute those everyday Americans and law-enforcement officers who acted heroically to save stranded people from these catastrophes, and we support the rebuilding efforts.

Nevertheless, the moral of the story holds true for society at large. Although we are accustomed to calling deadly storms “acts of God,” the hard truth is these extreme events are fast becoming acts of humankind. They are the predicted result of our longstanding addiction to carbon-emitting, climate-changing fossil fuels. Let me explain.

According to the natural order of things – God’s created order, if you will – storms like Hurricane Harvey just don’t happen on planet Earth. From the dawn of human life until recent years, God “protected” us from natural disasters by providing a stable climate in which winds and rains, droughts and heat waves, wildfires and crop freezes such as we experience today were exceedingly rare. Instead, our forebears found a planet finely tuned to support human life, as Earth was able to maintain its radiative balance by reflecting the sun’s warming rays back into space through a healthy atmosphere.

When temperature swings of more than 2 to 3 degrees Celsius did occur over millennia – long before human civilizations – the effects were nothing short of catastrophic, causing mass extinctions and sweeping alterations of land and sea.

Now we appear to be knee-deep in another catastrophic change in global climate that is speeding up extinctions to at least 1,000 times the historic rate and bringing storms the likes of which our ancestors could not imagine.

And this time, the joke’s on us.

Since 2016 alone, the United States has experienced six deadly 1,000-year floods, in Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, West Virginia and Texas (twice). Eight of the 10 hottest years ever recorded have occurred in the last 10 years, killing thousands more innocent people in heat waves and famine. And the recent flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey has been deemed a 500,000-year event, according to data from the U.S. Geological Survey – not just because it junked some 500,000 cars.

Like the man who refused to be saved, we too have been refusing to heed the warning signs and change course. For decades, climate scientists have applied God’s gift of knowledge and observed that warming temperatures brought on by human greenhouse gas emissions cause more water to evaporate from the oceans, thereby increasing the amount of atmospheric moisture waiting to fall as rain when storms strike. The warming ocean waters also function as a kind of engine for hurricanes, turning milder storms into Category 4 and 5 events.

According to Dr. Scott Weaver, senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund and previously NOAA, “rigorous scientific analysis has found that the extreme rainfall that caused Texas flooding . . . (was) supercharged by human-made climate change.” Applying complex statistical analysis to a multitude of weather observations, Weaver says, “credible scientific statements can now be made about how climate change affects the frequency or intensity of a specific weather event.”

Lest we think the latest catastrophes are random, heavy rain storms in the United States now dump as much as 71 percent more water than they did just 60 years ago. The frequency of extreme weather events generally – from floods to droughts to forest fires to storms – has more than doubled in half that time. Twelve of the 13 costliest hurricanes in American history have occurred since 2004. And the financial cost of climate change, according to National Geographic, is in the hundreds of billions of dollars a year.

Yet the story does not have to end in doom and gloom. Just as God has been warning us about the dangers of climate change through decades’ worth of scientific research, God has also showed us a path to higher ground – if we act now to turn things around.

Clean technologies that combine Earth’s natural endowments of sun, wind and water with human ingenuity are now the cheapest forms of energy on earth, capable of meeting 100 percent of our needs – if only politicians would stop giving billions in taxpayer-funded subsidies to the same fossil fuel companies that fund their campaigns.

Dozens of countries around the world now generate the majority of their power through solar, wind, and hydro, and major industrialized economies like Germany have gone for days on renewables alone.

An increasing number of countries have also committed to phasing out gas-powered transportation in favor of emissions-free electric vehicles.

And families across the United States are choosing to live fuel free, in spite of our government’s addiction to fossil fuels, by combining rooftop solar with air-source heat pumps, batteries and an electric car.

But let us make no mistake: The time to change course in climate change is running out. We may have forever forfeited our ride out of town. The waters may even be too high for a police boat to save us. But the helicopter still hovers overhead – if we will but take the rope and pull together to create a safe and sustainable future for our kids.

(Dan Weeks is a director at ReVision Energy, a certified Benefit Corporation working to accelerate the clean energy transition in New England. He lives in Nashua with his wife and kids.)