By Anders Lorenzen
With just two months to go to the US election, the country has been hit by yet another extreme weather event which makes it even harder to deny human contribution to climate change.
Hurricane Laura made its landfall in Louisiana in the early hours in the morning of the 27th of August as a Category 4 hurricane before changing to Category 2.
Laura is one of the most powerful storms to hit the state, with early forecasts warning it could push a massive wall of water 40 miles inland from the sea. It made landfall just before 1am local time with winds of 150 mph (240 kph) in the small town of Cameron, Louisiana according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC). It then quickly weakened to a Category 2 reducing to maximum sustained winds of 105 mph (168 kmh), but still as a seriously deadly hurricane – it then moved north and battered southwest Lousianna.
The oil industry
Apart from being life-threatening it also threatened to severely impact industry heading towards the heart of the US oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico and forced oil rigs and refineries to shut down oil production with markets responding negatively with a drop in the oil price.
The oil-refining town of Port Arthur was just west of where Laura made landfall. The city of 54,000 was a ghost town late on Wednesday, with just a couple of gas stations and a liquor store open for business.
In 2018 Category 5 Hurricane Harvey similarly significantly impacted the oil industry in Houston as it made landfall.
So far the extreme weather event has estimated to have killed 69 with 34 of the fatalities being in the US, and the early assessments of the damage are less than what had been feared. But the repair bill is still set to be huge with reported damages of $8.9 billion.
In Westlake, a chemical plant caught fire when hit by Laura, and the flames continued to send a chlorine-infused plume of smoke skyward nearly 24 hours after landfall. At least 867,000 homes and businesses in Louisiana, Texas and Arkansas remained without power on that Thursday afternoon.
Green groups have been quick off their feet to link the disaster to climate change. Alicia Cooke from 350 New Orleans said: “Laura reminds us of the danger of fossil fuel reliance from two perspectives: not only is she strengthened by climate change, but we also see her path cutting straight through a major petrochemical hub along the Louisiana/Texas border, with potential for great environmental catastrophe. When we rely on a fossil fuel economy, we rely on the integrity of oil and gas infrastructure, which has become increasingly vulnerable as storms continue to strengthen year after year.”
Greenpeace USA’s Climate Campaign Director Janet Redman drew criticism of US President Donald Trump and said this storm will forever change Gulf Coast communities: “Trump’s utter failure to contain COVID-19 has combined with his administration’s dangerous climate denial to create an unprecedented emergency.” She further explained that again is people of colour who will be paying the highest price, stating: “as is so often the case, Black, Brown, Indigenous, and working-class communities will feel the impacts of Trump’s failures the hardest. These communities are most likely to live near toxic facilities vulnerable to flooding — like the hundreds of oil refineries and petrochemical plants in the Gulf South that evacuated ahead of Hurricane Laura — and often have the fewest means to rebuild when disasters strike.”
Dr John Fleming, a scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute explains this bear the footprints of climate chaos: “The rapid strengthening of this storm and the predicted “unsurvivable” storm surge are part of an escalating pattern of climate chaos. Climate change is causing both warmer sea surface temperatures and sea-level rise – a perfectly horrible recipe for disaster in the form of severe hurricanes. The only way to keep these tragedies from getting worse is to take real action to keep fossil fuels in the ground.”
Renewed climate focus in the US election?
In 2012 as the supercharged Hurricane Sandy dubbed a ‘frankenstorm’ made landfall in an election year as President Obama was campaigning for a second term it radically changed his climate policy towards his second term. His first term was dominated by inaction on climate change marked by the campaign ‘climate silence’ singling out that the administration had done next to nothing on the issue as they prioritised getting the healthcare reform; Obamacare through. In the second term, they went all-in on climate change, but Obama could only get things through executive orders as it became next to impossible getting anything through the climate-denying Republican-controlled Congress.
The 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and Obama’s vice-president Joe Biden has already shifted towards a more ambitious climate plan due to pressure from the more radical wing in the party. So this event is unlikely to make him up his ambition further but it will give him an opportunity to make the climate crisis a key election talking point on the same level as COVID-19. Hurricane Laura comes just the week after the potential highest ever air temperature was measured in Death Valley, California.
As always with climate change and extreme weather, it is difficult to say just how much climate change contributed to this weather event, and it is first much later we will know the scientific findings of just how much. But what we do know is that climate change increases the risk of more intense and frequent extreme weather events. And the pattern we have seen year after year is that weather events are increasing in both severity and frequency and are becoming much more unpredictable.