Hurricane Harvey has been called a “500-year” event, Houston’s third such flooding event in as many years. On Monday, FEMA Administrator William “Brock” Long said that Harvey could push as many as 30,000 people into shelters, with as many as 450,000 estimated to seek disaster assistance.
The storm is being referred to as “historic” and “unprecedented,” like the fires that raged across the Southeastern US last fall, the flooding that inundated Louisiana and West Virginia last summer, the record-setting Winter Storm Jonas earlier last winter, and the years-long drought that California only recently recovered from. Penn State professor and climate change researcher Michael Mann, who led a recent study that found a human “fingerprint” on extreme weather events, wrote in The Guardian on Monday that while it’s impossible to say whether climate change “caused” Harvey, “[t]here are certain climate change-related factors that we can, with great confidence, say worsened the flooding” in Texas.
Sea level rise attributable to climate change – some of which is due to coastal subsidence caused by human disturbance such as oil drilling – is more than half a foot (15cm) over the past few decades (see here for a decent discussion). That means the storm surge was half a foot higher than it would have been just decades ago, meaning far more flooding and destruction.
In addition to that, sea surface temperatures in the region have risen about 0.5C (close to 1F) over the past few decades from roughly 30C (86F) to 30.5C (87F), which contributed to the very warm sea surface temperatures (30.5-31C, or 87-88F).
Sea surface temperatures in the area where Harvey intensified were 0.5-1C warmer than current-day average temperatures, which translates to 1-1.5C warmer than “average” temperatures a few decades ago. That means 3-5% more moisture in the atmosphere.
That large amount of moisture creates the potential for much greater rainfalls and greater flooding.
Anyway! Totally unrelatedly, here’s an incomplete list of public officials who seem taken aback by Harvey’s magnitude, alongside a few things they’ve said in the past.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
2014, via CNN: “The last 15 years, there has been no recorded warming. Contrary to all the theories that, that they are expounding, there should have been warming over the last 15 years. It hasn’t happened.”
August 2017, via Talking Points Memo:
“We’ve been seeing resources pouring into the region both from the state of Texas and at the federal level, but this is a 500-year flood, and Harvey is predicted to stay here and keep dumping a significant amount of water on the region,” he said on Fox News Sunday, using the term often coined by governmental officials to describe a flood of exceptional vastness.
He also expressed shock over photos and videos of flooding he had seen of parts of the region, like at major airports.
“At least one of the runways was completely underwater. It looked like a lake. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas)
2009, via cornyn.senate.gov:
“Taxpayer funded research by NASA and the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) concerning the warmest years on record has been the subject of dispute and after challenges, has been changed and re-released. What is less known is why the changes were made and what inherent flaws existed in the original data, if any. It is important to understand the reasons behind these alterations and further to avoid suspicion that data was massaged to fit the prescribed theory that global warming is attributable to man-made greenhouse gas emissions.”
2015, via National Review:
Studies suggest that strict limits on human-driven CO2 emissions would have a negligible effect globally—particularly if emissions from developing economies like China and India continue to rise. In other words, while failing to significantly move the climate needle, new burdensome regulations would hinder our economy and hurt our most vulnerable, raising utility bills for those on fixed incomes and increasing costs to small businesses.
While climate models fail, America’s entrepreneurial minds have shown time and again that they are simply more adaptive and ingenious than government regulators and bureaucrats. When the government tries to play savior, we find that overbearing, intrusive Washington “solutions” do far more harm than good. Let’s instead promote innovation-driven answers that fit the diverse needs of consumers, businesses, and a growing economy alike.
President Donald J. Trump
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott
2014, via San Antonio Express-News:
“As a matter of historical fact, the climate changes. Long before fossil fuel was ever discovered and used on a large-scale industrial basis, the earth’s climate changed substantially on numerous occasions. However, many scientists believe that certain human activities impact the climate. Others dispute the extent to which any activity has a particular level of influence on the climate, which is why this matter needs to continue to be investigated. We must be good guardians of our Earth, but we must base our decisions on peer-reviewed scientific inquiry, free from political demagogues using climate change as an excuse to remake the American economy.”
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas)
2015, via CNS News:
“In fact, within the Department of Homeland Security, more money, in fact, millions of dollars, are dedicated to climate change rather than combating what I consider to be one of the biggest threats to the homeland, and that’s the violent extremists radicalizing Islamist terrorists—radicalizing over the internet, in the United States of America.”
August 2017, via Dallas News:
Austin Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said in an interview with Fox News on Friday that Hurricane Harvey and its projected rainfall is “one of the more serious events” seen in Texas, with “historic proportions.”
And he warned of the risk to Houston’s shipping channel and Corpus Christi’s oil refineries, in particular, calling damage to the energy operations, which serve large swaths of the U.S., a “worst case scenario.”
Secretary of Energy/Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry
2010, via Washington Post:
Mr. Perry has a long record on climate change, railing about “doctored data” and “so-called science.” “It’s all one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight,” he declared. “Al Gore is a prophet all right, a false prophet of a secular carbon cult.” These were not one-off, casual comments. They were in his 2010 book, “Fed Up!”
Rep. Clay Higgins (R-Louisiana)
2016, via Captain Higgins for Congress:
Louisiana’s coast is eroding… but not because of oil companies. Throughout history, the Louisiana marshland was replenished by river sediments – land-building deposits derived from the Mississippi River overflowing its banks. But in the early 1900s, a decision was made to levee the river as we know it today. So for the last 80 or 90 years, south Louisiana has been lacking that natural re-building process. Couple that with the land building sediments that are trapped behind locks and dams in other states, and you have the results we see today.
Glad to see we’re all on the same page.