By Michael Brune
We still don’t know the full scope of the damage from Hurricane Matthew. The humanitarian tragedy in Haiti, where the storm killed more than 1,000 people, is still building, with the threat of a cholera epidemic added to the initial devastation. Here in the United States, the storm left a trail of destruction through four states, with thousands of people stranded in their homes or on their roofs by catastrophic flooding in North and South Carolina. The number of deaths here will thankfully be fewer but tragic nonetheless.
Our first concern should always be for those caught in the path of the storm. Haiti desperately needs emergency aid relief, and we must ensure that those whose lives have been upended in our own country — particularly in low-income communities and communities of colour — are not shamefully abandoned as happened after Hurricane Katrina.
We also need to recognise that crises such as this one are going to increase owing to climate disruption. Although Hurricane Matthew’s winds had lessened by the time the storm hit the Carolinas, it carried an exceptional amount of precipitation owing to the warmer waters of the Atlantic. This effect isn’t limited to storms like Matthew. According to the government’s National Climate Assessment, heavy downpours are a predictable consequence of global warming.
In drought-stricken California, where I live, extreme precipitation is obviously not a problem. Wildfires, though, are. The entire western U.S. is experiencing more fires and bigger fires. There are multiple reasons for that, but a study published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that between 1984 and 2015 manmade climate disruption was responsible for an additional 10.3 million acres of forests burned, a land area about twice the size of Massachusetts. That’s double the amount of land that would otherwise have burned.
Extreme weather is our reality now. That means a few things. We’ll need to work even harder on climate resilience. We also need to redouble our efforts to limit the damage to our climate by keeping fossil fuels in the ground and accelerating our transition to clean, renewable energy. And finally, it means we need to be ready to help those who inevitably get caught in the next storm or fire. You can find out about ways to help here.
Also published at the Sierra Club.
Michael Brune is the Executive director of the Sierra Club, America’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organisation. He is the author of Coming Clean — Breaking America’s Addiction to Oil and Coal.