Sample Op-Ed by a Physician
Climate Change and Hurricanes
While hurricanes are not caused by climate change, our changing climate threatens to make these storms larger, more dangerous and more impactful. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma provided back to back direct strikes on the US mainland this summer and illustrate the risks we face by not tackling the now urgent problem of climate change. The threat of climate change is not far off and relegated to other places we can see by looking at Houston or Tampa. The threat is real, it is here and it will continue to affect us in America lest we take action.
Warming temperatures are hurricane fuel. While climate change may not create storms or make them more frequent, warmer temperatures make them more powerful. Hurricane Irma was the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, carrying winds not typically seen outside the warmer waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the Caribbean. Surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean were a full 1°C warmer than average, which served to feed Irma’s power (it set a record for most consecutive hours as a Category 5 storm before coming ashore!). One way to think of this is in terms of energy. In this way, Irma was 10 times more powerful than Hurricane Andrew in 1992 (another Atlantic storm which hit Florida with devastating results). In terms of power, Irma was on par with Katrina in 2005 (which came from warmer waters in the Gulf and was obviously catastrophic to the city of New Orleans). As of today, we are still totaling the costs of Irma but it should be noted that more than 6 million Floridian were under a mandatory evacuation and Irma at one point, covered the entire state of Florida in hurricane strength winds. The cost will no doubt be in the billions.
Let us also consider Hurricane Harvey which came ashore in Texas on August 25th as a Category 4 storm. Packing winds that peaked at 130mph, Harvey’s more severe damage came in the form of rain. As the storm stalled over costal Texas, it sat in the Houston area (America’s 4th largest city) and dumped more than 10 inches of rain per day in some areas, making it the single wettest tropical storm to ever hit the continental United States. The extensive flooding seen in this huge city displaced 30,000 people and resulted in 17,000 rescues. To date, we have lost 71 Americans in this storm which will further cost us more than $70 billion. Beyond this, the storm’s toll will be felt for many years. Consider the psychiatric stress and anxiety associated with being unable to return home. Increased exposure to mold and respiratory problems will likely take hold in the coming weeks as residents return to flood homes. Power outages disrupt daily living and have caused failures (and explosions) of plants and industrial operations. Furthermore, the flood has resulted in the dissemination of toxic chemicals being pushed around the city exposing citizens to further health risks. Jim Blackburn, a profession of environmental law in Houston has written extensively about urban sprawl, run off and the need to tackle climate change to lessen the impact of similar future events in Houston (http://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/energy-environment/348429-opinion-Rebuilding-Houston-to-weather-the-next-storm).
As a physician, I am deeply troubled by the health effects from these storms. Homelessness, flooding deaths, lost wages, anxiety, mold and asthma attacks, chemical exposures and more are clear threats to human health and life. These concerns are all magnified by a changing climate which drives these storms to be larger. Surely the cost of speeding the current transition to clean, renewable energy is far, far less than the cost of these storms in terms of lost life and destruction. I believe that positive action on climate change can have a direct impact on the health of Americans.