Skip to main Content
Opinions

Harvey is a wake-up call we’d better answer

  • Author: Kate Troll
    | Opinion
  • Updated: September 6
  • Published September 6

Vince Ware moves his sofas onto the sidewalk from his house, which was left flooded from Tropical Storm Harvey in Houston, Texas, on Sunday. (REUTERS / Adrees Latif)

Eleven years after Al Gore's award-winning documentary about climate change, "An Inconvenient Truth," Hurricane Harvey brings climate change front and center. At the same time, Participant Media produces a follow-up documentary, "An Inconvenient Sequel." But unlike the first documentary in 2006, which followed Hurricane Katrina, the sequel (still in theaters) preceded the intense climate-related event. The other aspect that is different from when Hurricane Katrina pummeled and flooded New Orleans is that now the climate change connection is better recognized and reported in the media.

For example, look at USA Today's story five days after Harvey made landfall, "Hurricane Harvey and Climate Change: Is there a Connection." In this story they explain that there is no doubt that a warmer atmosphere makes hurricanes more intense than they would otherwise be. According to this article, Penn State meteorologist Michael Mann explains, "We can't say that Hurricane Harvey was caused by climate change, but it was certainly worsened by it."

Factcheck.org and NPR's Science Friday publicly confirmed this connection as well. This level of corroboration in the now much-maligned mainstream media was absent in the post-Katrina assessment.

Could it be that slowly but surely reality TV is catching up with the widely accepted science behind climate change? From watching recurrent 100-year floods to raging fires in the West, it seems that the Weather Channel is constantly beaming in severe weather events, the telltale signs of climate change, and now more commentators are mentioning it. It's a start. But it's not enough.

The real take-away lesson from Hurricane Harvey is that, as a community, if we ignore the science of climate change we do so at our own peril.

Let's return to the inconvenient sequel of Houston. Prior to Hurricane Harvey and in the wake of two other catastrophic floods in the last three years, the Texas Tribune, an online, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans, did several articles on what Houston's city leaders need to do to prepare for the next major flood that would likely come. Since Hurricane Harvey, they have been repeating these same messages encouraging Houston's civic leaders to 1) preserve and protect as much open land as possible, 2) restrict development in floodplains and buy flood-prone homes, 3) plan for climate change and 4) educate the public.

Houston city officials have not taken any of these steps. In fact, Houston doesn't even have a zoning code, and as such, builders aren't required to use flood mitigation techniques like green areas to absorb rainwater or retention ponds for runoff. The Texas Tribune on Aug. 29 noted: "Houston needs to plan for more frequent and intense rainstorms, just like many other cities in the country. But local county officials have previously said they have no intention of doing so."

These investigative, revealing stories are a welcome addition to the national discourse, but when I listen to the heartbreaking story about the 18-month-old toddler rescued from the rising waters as it was clinging to its deceased mother, I ask, "If not for the sake of that child's life clinging onto love, then perhaps out of love for the next generation, why not account for climate change?"

Although science is above ideology, there is a faction led by President Trump that wants to make climate change a far-right partisan issue. This is a fool's errand. The water will rise, the forests will burn and the storms will surge. Sadly, as Hurricane Harvey shows, the truth will prevail. As I write, Hurricane Irma, now a Category 5 hurricane, looms, deadly, over Puerto Rico.

To translate these climate-challenged times for Alaska, this means that the permafrost will thaw, the ice roads will disappear, the rivers and exposed coast will continue to erode, the Interior forests will burn and, scariest of all, the North Pacific Ocean will become more acidic. At a minimum, we as Alaskans should be asking what is our community, our state doing to account for the environmental, economic, health and infrastructure challenges of climate change?

In 2007, former Gov. Sarah Palin signed an Administrative Order establishing the Alaska Climate Change Sub-Cabinet with the purpose of preparing a climate change strategy for Alaska. The sub-Cabinet formed two advisory groups, the first to focus on preparing for a changing climate (adaptation) and the second to consider measures to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (mitigation) in the state. The adaptation strategy  was produced by 30 Alaskans including former Lt. Govs. Fran Ulmer and Mead Treadwell. Because the U.S. Government Accounting Office indicated that 31 villages face imminent threats from climate change, the adaptation advisory group focused several of its key recommendations on the needs of Alaska communities. Many of the findings and proposals are still relevant in 2017.

What is the state of Alaska doing in response to this report and the threat to these vulnerable communities? They appear to be acting in the same way that Houston officials reacted to the warnings they received from the Texas Tribune: doing nothing on climate change. Can we not learn from Hurricane Harvey and acknowledge the threat posed by climate change? Can we not help Alaska's most vulnerable communities become more resilient? We should not need another inconvenient sequel to justify engagement by the state of Alaska.

At least Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz understands the climate challenge. In response to President Trump pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, he issued a statement pledging, "Anchorage maintains our commitment and responsibility to adapt to and mitigate climate change." Now, most important in light of Hurricane Harvey, Anchorage's poorly functioning storm drainage system is getting renewed attention.

This is the type of gut-check response that needs to be made throughout Alaska. It might be a fortuitous time for the Assembly to get an update on what specifically the municipality is doing to respond to the adaptation challenges of climate change.

Kate Troll is the author of "The Great Unconformity: Reflections on Hope in an Imperiled World." She has over 22 years' experience in Alaska fisheries, coastal management and energy policy. She lives in Douglas.

The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary@alaskadispatch.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@alaskadispatch.com

For more newsletters click here

Local news matters.

Support independent, local journalism in Alaska.

Comments