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Climate change has been in the news a lot in recent days, although it may not have been obvious.
Hurricane Ida smashed through Louisiana and Mississippi last week leaving more than a million people without power, potentially for weeks. Hundreds were left homeless when flood waters poured into their houses or hurricane-force winds flattened neighborhoods.
Even when the storm weakened as it headed north, its devastation continued. At least 50 people died in the northeast from flash floods. Videos of water pouring into subway stations in New York City generated shock and horror. The rainfall of more than half a foot in just a few hours in New York City and surrounding areas broke a record set just 11 days before when Hurricane Henri soaked the area.
On the other side of the country, thousands of people were evacuated in late August from Lake Tahoe in California and Nevada as a huge wildfire swept through the resort area. The evacuation orders were lifted on Sunday, although the Caldor Fire was only 44 percent contained.
Last week, the U.S. Forest Service closed all national forests in California to the public through Sept. 17 because of the extremely high wildfire risk.
On the African island of Madagascar, hundreds of thousands of people face starvation. The island is experiencing its worst drought in four decades, which has led to meager crops. Residents are eating bugs and cactus to stay alive.
The World Food Programme calls Madagascar’s hunger crisis the first in modern history to be caused by climate change, not by war or conflict.
These recent events, thousands of miles apart, are what climate change looks like. Climate change is not some future or distant crisis. It is here now, and its consequences will get worse.
Less than a month ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report that was called “a code red for humanity.” The report, which is the result of more than 200 scientists reviewing thousands of studies on changes in the Earth’s air, water and ground, warned that changes to our climate are widespread and intensifying — and unprecedented in thousands of years of history.
These changes, the report stressed, are the result of human activity, which prompted calls for an end to the burning of fossil fuels, which traps heat in the earth’s atmosphere.
In Washington, lawmakers from both parties are using the hurricane damage to push for an infrastructure spending bill.
“If we’re going to make our country more resilient to natural disasters, whatever they are, we have to start preparing now,” Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana said in an interview with CNBC hours after Hurricane Ida hit his state. “We can’t look in the rearview mirror and say ‘Wow, I wish we were prepared.’ We’ve got to start now for next year’s hurricane, for next year’s wildfire, for next year’s tornado.”
Cassidy then “put a plug in” for the infrastructure legislation that he helped negotiate. “I’m sure hoping that Republicans look around my state, see this damage and say, ‘If there’s money for resiliency, money to harden the grid, money to help sewer and water, then maybe this is something we should be for,’” he said.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the U.S. had 22 climate and weather disasters in 2020 with losses exceeding $1 billion each, with eight such disasters as of July 9 this year as of July 9, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Ida and its remnants will likely cost in the tens of billions of dollars.
Strengthening our roads, bridges, piers and other infrastructure to withstand more powerful and more frequent storms is certainly important.
But, tackling the causes of climate change — particularly burning fossil fuels to power our cars, electrical grid and manufacturing plants — is a more urgent priority. Congress needs to consider much larger and more immediate steps — like putting a price on carbon emissions — to address climate change, not just prepare for its consequences.