Harvey’s havoc: a picture of a world that ignores climate change

THAT'S PROGRESS: we need to re-configure our notion of progress, away from the clumsy idea of more people, more money, more stuff... and towards something more in balance with the environment in which we live

by Roz Paterson • “I’m sick of this 100 year bullshit; this is the new norm.” So says one resident of Houston, Texas, who recently bought a family home in an affluent area of the city, billed as having only a one per cent risk of flooding, but which he has now evacuated, as the floodwaters hit 3 feet and rising in his front room.

In fact, there have been four, once-in-a-100-years flooding events in this area since spring 2015, with torrential downpours up by 167 per cent since the 1950s.

But this one, only knocked off the front pages by the Trump/North Korea game of nuclear chicken, is shaping up to the be worst in American history, according to meteorologist Eric Holthaus, who has tirelessly campaigned for everyone everywhere to stop what they’re doing and start addressing climate change—which is almost certainly what they’re not doing right now.

So far, 47 are dead, and the bad news keeps coming. Sure, a few buses are running in Houston now, but 24 miles away in Crosby, a series of explosions have been reported at a chemical plant, caused by electrical failure in the wake of the storm, which has shut down the refrigeration that keeps the hazardous chemicals stable.

And 100 miles away, the town of Beaumont remains marooned in stinking floodwater, and vulnerable to, amongst other things, fire—no fire tenders can reach them now so, suggest the authorities, be careful with candles, y’all!

Life, for thousands of previously doing-ok Texans, has burned down to the basics—drinkable water, warmth, shelter.

Meanwhile, in Nepal, Bangladesh and India, flooding has affected some 41 million people, leaving at least 1200 dead, though local estimates suggest the toll is much, much greater. Images of unimaginable chaos and destruction flood the news networks, and yet there is a long sting in this monsoon’s tail.

In Bihar, India, for instance, crop failure has happened on a massive scale, due to floodwater, and this means higher prices and higher unemployment to come, in a region already struggling with both.

In Bangladesh, an estimated 600,000 hectares of farmland have been damaged by floods, and 10,000 hectares completely washed away. This on top of the one million tonnes of rice crop lost to flash floods in April.

When you find it hard to imagine being in the shoes of a Houstonian returning to a shattered home, unprotected by insurance and without the money to rebuild, how much harder is it to imagine a whole region shattered by freak weather? Freak weather? Not so freakish anymore.

Texas and Louisiana are used to hurricanes, just as South East Asia is used to monsoons. But both these phenomena have, of late, been catastrophically amplified by man-made climate change.

These are not blips in a functioning system; these are the symptoms of a functioning system breaking down, and at a rate of knots.

The excessive levels of carbon dioxide that we—the human population of the world, particularly those in the rich, western world—deposit in the atmosphere, through our consumption of fossil fuels, raises the temperature of the oceans. Which in turn, raises the temperature of the air, turning the atmosphere into a kind of sponge, which absorbs increasing amounts of water. Which it then wrings out over, this time, Texas and Bangladesh, Louisiana and India.

We know all this, even Marks and Spencer produce books for children describing this, yet we continue as if we don’t.

Eric Holthaus again, writing in Politico Magazine: “Harvey is what climate change looks like in a world that has decided, over and over, that it doesn’t want to take climate change seriously.”

In Houston, the rapacious march of progress saw great swathes of the surrounding prairie disappear under fields of concrete, for more housing developments, more gated communities, more highways and shopping malls and factories and leisure centres.

In doing so, the developers and their Republican enablers, ignored the inconvenient truth that they were robbing Houston of its natural safety net, the earth that would soak up the rain in this rain-prone district of the US. The cascade effect can be seen in the microcosm as new, outer suburbs cause floodwaters to run off into older, inner ones, as in the case of our opening speaker.

Republicans and assorted right-wingers work themselves up about this stuff, insisting that those who stand in the way of progress are politicising disasters for their own agenda.

Actually, it’s the other way round; climate change is being politicised by the people who want to ignore it. Climate change is apolitical; it’s a fact of nature, and it’s calling time on capitalism and its crude marker, economic growth.

Writing in the 1870s, in his unfinished Dialectics of Nature, Frederick Engels cautioned, “Let us not…flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our victories over nature. For each such victory, nature takes its revenge on us.” Houston is a textbook illustration of this point.

We need to take climate change, and its causes, into account in our day-to-day thinking, and living, and in our politics. To do this, we need to understand what’s happening to our world, and understand how to mitigate climate change and adapt to the change that is already in the pipeline.

For a start, we need to leave the oil that is still in the ground, in the ground forever, and find new ways to fuel our way of life. Hurricane Harvey is already lending a helping hand in this, as Houston has had to shut down much of its oil production in the name of urgent safety, reducing US capacity by one fifth.

We also need to re-configure our notion of progress, away from the clumsy idea of more people, more money, more stuff… and towards something more in balance with the environment in which we live.

And we need to develop resilient communities that work with other communities to meet the challenges of the future head-on.

When the floodwater is in your front room, it’s too late to do anything but run for your life. Is this the future we want for ourselves and our children? Thought not.

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