Home Science IPCC OP-ED: Beyond Houston, a World Awash

OP-ED: Beyond Houston, a World Awash

Houston isn’t the only major city reeling from record rainfall and devastating floods. In Mumbai, India, where summer monsoons are annual events, as much rain fell in 12 hours on Tuesday as normally does over 11 days in a typical monsoon, paralyzing the city, India’s financial capital.

So far this summer, flooding has killed more than 1,000 people in India, Nepal and perennially flood-prone Bangladesh. The United Nations says at least 41 million people have been directly affected by flooding and landslides in South Asia, with homes and croplands destroyed. Floods from heavy rainfall have also ripped through Britain, Ireland, Sudan and Uganda in Africa. On Aug. 14, torrents of water swept through the streets of Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown, and a massive mudslide left some 1,000 people dead or missing.

Like the calamity in Texas, these unnatural rainfalls carry two messages. One is the risk of unregulated development. As in Houston, officials in India have paid little attention to the consequences of rapid urban growth in low-lying, watery environments with few natural defenses against a deluge when it comes. And, like Houston, which has suffered floods in the past, Mumbai was hit by severe flooding in 2005 that claimed more than 500 lives, yet it did little to address the issues that made that flooding so deadly.

The second message is that unabated climate change does, indeed, exact a price. Warmer weather heats the oceans, which causes more evaporation, which increases moisture in the atmosphere, which then falls as driving rain. Warmer oceans also rise, partly due to thermal expansion, which in turn threatens low-lying areas; among climate scientists, Bangladesh has for years been the poster child of nations that are likely to face famine, flooding and forced migration as a result of rising sea levels caused by global warming.

It does not have to be this bad the next time around. Cities around the world are taking steps to become more resilient, so they can better cope when exceptional weather events occur. Upgrading sewage, drainage and transportation infrastructure; increasing green spaces; restoring wetlands; and using zoning laws to prevent new construction in known flood plains and vulnerable coastal areas are all obvious steps that can help. Early-warning systems, sorely lacking in many developing countries, are also critical, as are evacuation and emergency response plans. Reforestation can help prevent landslides and bolster the capacity for rain to be absorbed upstream.

As the world has long recognized, most recently at the Paris summit meeting on climate change in December 2015, poor nations will need a helping hand from rich ones as they transition to cleaner, low-carbon energy sources. This is not something the Trump administration seems inclined to offer, any more than it seems inclined to listen to the scientists, join with other nations to combat the problem or do something about America’s own greenhouse gas emissions.

That’s unconscionable, even borderline nuts, especially now that President Trump himself has seen at first hand the results of inaction.