President Donald Trump is unreal in a real world as far as climate change is concerned, and it doesn’t suit his America First policy
Whenever Donald Trump felt a bit cold, there was a tweet from him either denying or questioning global warming. Many US newspapers and TV channels had even counted how many times Trump publicly denied global warming. Before he was sworn in as US President, there were close to 160 such tweets. After becoming president, his narrow and utterly unscientific assessment of global warming was in full display in his brief speech on June 1, 2017. On this day, he withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement. Drama is not the first word that comes to mind when one thinks about global climate policy negotiations, and yet, dramatic would be an apt word to describe the fate of the Paris Agreement after Trump’s withdrawal. By far the heaviest polluter historically, the US handed itself an acquittal and an escape from the responsibility to limit global warming by 20C.
In his typical style, Trump brandished half-truths and incomprehensible lies with equal flair as he dumped the agreement for being “unfair to Americans”. During his presidential campaign in 2016, Trump had infamously called climate change a hoax. Since his election, several personalities tried to school the President on the issue. But his address from the White House Rose Garden about the agreement skirted climate change altogether.
Instead, Trump delivered a 25-minute tirade against the perceived global conspiracy to hurt the US economy. While his lack of competency in climate science was well known, Trump’s speech betrayed a lack of comprehension of both the economy as well as the Paris Agreement itself.
On June 1, 2017, President Donald Trump declared the withdrawal of the US from the Paris climate accord threatening the collapse of the multilateral climate agreement. The US is historically the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases (GHGs) that has led to climate change and still continues to be the second biggest emitter. He believed the agreement was a threat to “the economy and American sovereignty”. “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Trump said. It was the sign of a politically-stormy future for the US, which has been witness to the mercurial president’s disrupting and senseless policies and utterances. Somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, the complex churning in the global climate was also preparing something devastating for his electors.
It couldn’t be an accidental coincidence. The dreaded hurricane season also starts in June in the US. In the preceding decade, the country didn’t report any major hurricanes and this instilled a sense of calm on the ocean front. The memories of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Wilma that hit the country’s relatively poor areas in 2005 and blew a devastating blow to the economy were fading out. The reality of climate change manifesting in such extreme events was being whitewashed by a collective memory lapse; one could say it was the clichéd lull before the storm.
In September 2017, amidst Trump’s initiation into the country’s polity, a series of hurricanes ravaged the Atlantic. They were like a full dress rehearsal of a turbulent future for the US.
Hurricane Harvey produced the second-largest rainfall event in US history, dumping about 1,316 mm of rain on southeast Texas. That was more than 150 per cent of the average rainfall the state gets in a year. It claimed over 70 lives and devastated large parts of Texas.
Then Hurricane Irma created a new record by maintaining a maximum wind speed of 298 kilometres per hour (kmph) for 37 hours and killing over 60 people. Hurricane Irma flattened a dozen Caribbean island nations. Hurricane Maria was the first category 4 storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years. The island’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, said, “We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history.”
The warning came in December 2016, just before Trump was sworn in as president. A climate science report by 13 US federal agencies observed, “There is some danger, in the form of evoking complacency, in placing too much emphasis on the recent absence of a specific subset of hurricanes.” They were referring to the fact that the country had not witnessed a major hurricane landfall for 11 years. Harvey and Irma signaled the end of the “hurricane drought”. On May 25, 2017, forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicted an above-normal hurricane season with 70 per cent likelihood of 11 to 17 named storms (wind speed of 63 kmph or higher), out of which five to nine could become hurricanes (winds speed of 119 kmph or higher), including two to four major hurricanes. Till November 9, 2017— the hurricane season lasts from June to November—17 named storms, 10 hurricanes and six major hurricanes had been recorded.
What was unusual was the development of two category 4 and two category 5 hurricanes in a month, and three major hurricanes passing through the same region in three weeks, as Maria, Irma and Jose had in the Caribbean.
“Our analysis of historical data on hurricanes in the last five decades suggests that we are already on track to see intense hurricanes more frequently,” said Aslak Grinsted, a climate scientist at Niels Bohr Institute, Copenhagen, Denmark. Not only had the number of hurricanes increased from 49 during 1970-79 to 75 in 2000-9, the share of major hurricanes has also seen a jump.
Category 4 and 5 hurricanes comprised about 32 per cent of the total number of hurricanes in 1970-79. After two decades, the share of major hurricanes increased to 47 per cent. With almost two-and-a-half hurricane seasons still left in the current decade, the total number of hurricanes had already crossed 54, with 40 per cent of them being major hurricanes.
The US was already getting into a situation where the impacts of extreme weather events would be much more severe. In 2017, 15 weather and climate disaster events with losses exceeding US $1 billion each hit the US. Rising sea levels due to global warming exacerbates the impact of these storms. According to NASA, the global average sea level has increased by 10-20 cm since 1870. However, the annual rate of increase over the past 20 years has been roughly 0.3 cm. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), in its 2013 report, claimed that the oceans could rise between 28 cm and 98 cm by 2100, which is enough to inundate several cities along the US East Coast. Vertical increase in sea level leads to increased horizontal reach of the storm surge.
Hurricane Sandy in 2005 is an example where the sea level rise extended the reach of the storm by 70 sqkm, affecting 83,000 additional individuals living in New Jersey and New York.
As many as 13.1 million people along the US coast could be displaced by the end of this century. By then, nearly 70 per cent of them will be residing in southeastern US, with half of that concentrated in Florida alone. These findings emerged from a 2016 joint study by researchers at the University of Georgia and Stetson University. According to NOAA’s National Ocean Service, more than 1,540 single-family housing units were permitted for construction every day in coastal counties. In fact, coastal counties are home to 53 per cent of the nation’s population, yet they account for only 17 per cent of US land area, excluding Alaska.
“It is ironic, of course, that an event so related to climate change would occur in a state that is home to so many climate-change deniers—and where the economy depends so heavily on the fossil fuels that drive global warming,” wrote Joseph E Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics and chief economist at the Roosevelt Institute, in a column in environment fortnightly Down To Earth.
Excerpts from the book Climate Change Now: The Story of Carbon Colonisation. Buy here.
Also read: The march of isolationism
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