While Trump and Hillary battled it out in the media and on the debate stage last weekend, another storm was brewing: Hurricane Matthew. The tempest, which at its peak reached Category 5 wind speeds, ripped through the Caribbean and up the Southeastern coast of the United States in what was the longest lived storm of its kind on record. In total, Matthew caused six billion dollars in damages and took the lives of over 1,000 people. Tens of thousands more have been displaced and millions have been left without power. In its aftermath, rampant flooding has swamped coastal areas all along the hurricane’s path. Those fortunate enough to have evacuated prior to the storm are now returning to devastation.
In the U.S., the worst may be over. Sunday marked the hurricane’s end, as its wind speed slowed and it moved back out to sea. Governments and insurance companies will now begin the reconstruction process, rebuilding homes and businesses. Utilities will start working on getting the power lines up and running again. While flooding remains a problem, Florida and the Carolinas appear to have endured Matthew’s onslaught.
For an underdeveloped country like Haiti, however, the worst is yet to come. Due to its lack of resources, financial and otherwise, much of Haiti’s affected infrastructure—schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, homes, businesses, farms, power lines, cell towers—is unlikely to be rebuilt. This deprives the Haitian population of vital services such as education, healthcare, communications, and agriculture. Even more troubling, Haiti is on the brink of a major cholera outbreak, due to the fecal contamination of drinking water from widespread flooding. And if that wasn’t bad enough, the combination of destroyed fields and transportation routes is threatening famine. For Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, still reeling from the effects of its catastrophic earthquake in 2010, Hurricane Matthew was just about the worst thing that could’ve happened.
An aerial view of the flooding and damage caused by Hurricane Matthew along the west coast of Haiti.
This didn’t happen by accident. The emission of greenhouse gases and consequential global warming has increased the severity of storms. How? Well, hurricanes can only arise in warm water, as it is their sole fuel source. Now, since both our atmosphere and oceans have warmed due to the burning fossil fuels, there is more warm water in the oceans and more of it gets evaporated into the air. A greater quantity of atmospheric water vapor means more rain when it all condenses, increasing the amount of precipitation on sea and land. The result is greater flooding and storm surges, especially since sea level rise has reduced the buffer between the ocean and coast in low-lying areas. The wind speed, duration, and frequency of hurricanes also show upward trends, correlated with our warming planet. All this means that when hurricanes hit, they do significantly more damage than before.
The initial damage sustained by the Southeastern United States and Haiti this past weekend will be chalked up to bad geographical luck. The ensuing plight of the Haitian people will be attributed to lack of preparation. What won’t be mentioned is the fact that climate change is impacting storm severity, bringing about major problems particularly for underdeveloped countries. Another fact that’ll almost certainly be left out is that countries like Haiti have nothing to do with climate change. Haiti’s share of emissions is 0.02%, or two hundredths of one percent of the total. (Their contribution is so small that I had to press command+f just to find it on the map.) In contrast, 10 countries are responsible for three quarters of our global emissions. Put differently, Haiti and other underdeveloped countries are suffering disproportionately from a problem that other, wealthier, more well-protected countries have caused.
This can’t continue. Turning a blind eye to climate change-fueled hurricanes perpetuates global inequality, by adding environmental injustice to the social and economic injustice already in place. And hurricanes are just one of the many anticipated consequences of a warming planet. Sea level rise, desertification, loss of biodiversity, food and water shortages, and the spread of disease are also happening presently, and are predicted to escalate if we, as a global population, don’t get our act together.
Developed countries, like the United States, must take the lead on climate action by shifting our energy infrastructure away from fossil fuels and toward renewables. This can be done using a combination of efforts, such as investing in clean energy research and development, offering tax incentives for renewable energy use, and instituting a federal price on carbon. At the same time, developed countries need to offer a path to sustainable development for countries like Haiti, by supplying them with the financial and technical resources they need to construct their own clean energy economies.
Climate change needs to be addressed now. The bad news is that we should have been addressing it yesterday (or yester-decade). The good news is that launching a full-scale effort to combat climate change is still viable, if we hurry. The better news is that doing so would reap economic benefits for everyone involved—developed and developing countries alike—by stimulating a new, green sector of our global economy and avoiding the costly impacts of a planet in runaway warming. In light of this, confronting climate change is a no brainer. Let’s solve this problem while we still can, and make sure catastrophes like Hurricane Matthew don’t become a part of our weekly forecast.