A flood as an opportunity

There’s a piece by Eric Holthaus, on Politico, that’s been doing the rounds on Twitter since yesterday. I’ll grant you it’s a powerful piece of writing, such as is necessary to cast Hurricane Harvey in what many would call the right light: as the face of climate change. One paragraph in particular I thought was particularly effective because it quickly but just as effectively explained how Harvey was a storm that’s been many years in the making, and how the intensity of rains it has brought to bear on Houston has been unusual even after accounting for the fact that the city has been battered by three once-in-500-years floods in the last few years.

Harvey is in a class by itself. By the time the storm leaves the region on Wednesday, an estimated 40 to 60 inches of rain will fall on parts of Houston. So much rain has fallen already that the National Weather Service had to add additional colors to its maps to account for the extreme totals. Harvey is infusing new meaning into meteorologists’ favorite superlatives: There are simply no words to describe what has happened in the past few days. In just the first three days since landfall, Harvey has already doubled Houston’s previous record for the wettest month in city history, set during the previous benchmark flood, Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001. For most of the Houston area, in a stable climate, a rainstorm like Harvey is not expected to happen more than once in a millennium.

In fact, Harvey is likely already the worst rainstorm in U.S. history. An initial analysis by John Nielsen-Gammon, the Texas state climatologist, compared Harvey’s rainfall intensity to the worst storms in the most downpour-prone region of the United States, the Gulf Coast. Harvey ranks at the top of the list, with a total rainwater output equivalent to 3.6 times the flow of the Mississippi River. (And this is likely an underestimate, because there’s still two days of rains left.) That much water – 20 trillion gallons over five days – is about one-sixth the volume of Lake Erie. According to a preliminary and informal estimate by disaster economist Kevin Simmons of Austin College, Harvey’s economic toll “will likely exceed Katrina”—the most expensive disaster in U.S. history. Harvey is now the benchmark disaster of record in the United States.

The pronounced “climate change is real” tone to the entire piece is clearly aimed at the Donald Trump government, which has always denied the ‘A’ of AGW and has pushed dangerous policies that many predict will eventually uninstall the US from the forefront of climate change negotiations as well as action. Holthaus’s piece, in this context, succeeds in painting a scary picture of the future by highlighting how much of an exception Harvey appears to be and why its occurrence isn’t one of chance.

Nonetheless, the piece did still make me wonder if the world paid as much attention to the 2015 Tamil Nadu floods as it is paying to Harvey. Sure, Holthaus is writing against the backdrop of an American president who recently said the world’s largest polluter would not abide by the terms of the Paris Agreement, and against the backdrop of a city receiving about 50 inches of rain in less than a week. In contrast, Narendra Modi has been generally accepting of the fact that climate change is real and will require drastic action (although that hasn’t stopped his government from continuing the UPA’s work to weaken institutional environmental protection safeguards or the NITI Aayog from drafting an energy policy that will ensure India remains dependent on fossil fuels until 2040).

Second: unlike Houston, the parts of Tamil Nadu that were wrecked in November-December 2015 were relatively underdeveloped areas rife with illegal constructions and pavements that effectively resulted in those areas being, to use Holthaus’s term, “flood factories”. Thus, 20 inches of rain is likelier to be deadlier in the cities of Tamil Nadu than in Houston.

But this doesn’t make it harder to distinguish between the effects of AGW-driven storms in, say, Chennai and the effects of poor urban infrastructure. Our preparedness for the effects of climate change is both mitigating global avg. surface temperature rise and better planning public spaces and improving the distribution/accessibility of resources. So if Chennai, or any other place, isn’t prepared to handle 20 inches/day of rain, it’s going to get doubly screwed in a world whose surface is (at least) 2º C hotter on average about eight decades from now.

Anyway, the north Indian mainstream media (more widely consumed by far) was mostly apathetic to the plight of Tamil Nadu’s residents during the 2015 floods – just the way the Western media at large has been relatively more apathetic towards Oriental tragedies. I think this resulted in a big opportunity missed by national-level newsrooms to cast the floods as the face of both urban and rural India’s experience with climate change, perhaps even as the face of climate change itself, and use that to underscore the state’s abject underpreparedness – for which successive state governments would have been to blame – and the Narendra Modi government’s two-faced relationship with the demands of climate change. (E.g. accepting them gleefully in some ways – e.g. by the MNRE – but blatantly ignoring them in others – e.g. by the MoEFCC – and which I’d argue is more insidious than claiming outright that climate change is codswallop.)