Elected officials need to prepare better for the extreme storms that a changing climate is causing, while doing their part to not make the devastation even worse.
While Florida avoided the worst from Hurricane Dorian, the Bahamas showed the devastation that can happen when conditions cause powerful storms that bring extreme rainfall.
State officials should prepare for these kinds of storms to increasingly be the norm, while also working to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are making them even more deadly.
Dorian battered the Bahamas with winds that reached 185 mph, making landfall as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record. The hurricane then stalled over the islands, causing widespread destruction, flooding and deaths that are just starting to be tallied.
Dorian became the fifth Category 5 hurricane to form in the Atlantic in just four years. Research suggests that climate change isn't necessarily increasing the number of hurricanes, but warming ocean waters cause more intense storms that produce greater rainfall and flooding.
"Human-caused climate change is visibly intensifying hurricanes and increasing the damage they are doing," Michael Mann, a climate scientist and director of Penn State's Earth System Science Center, told CNBC.
Scientists are studying whether climate change is contributing to storms stalling over land while dropping significant downpours. The pattern seen with Dorian over the Bahamas is similar to what happened with Hurricane Harvey, which flooded parts of Texas in 2017, and Hurricane Matthew, which caused extensive flooding in the Carolinas in 2018.
Florida’s political leaders have denied the reality of climate change for so long that Sen. Marco Rubio received attention last month for just acknowledging it was happening in a USA Today op-ed. His fellow U.S. senator from Florida, Rick Scott, issued a subsequent statement agreeing that “climate change is real and requires real solutions,” but downplayed a connection between climate change and more intense hurricanes during a Fox News interview Sunday.
“We know climate's changing and we know our storms seem to be getting bigger ... we don't know what the cause is, but we've got to react to it," Scott said.
Florida certainly needs to react appropriately to hurricanes to save lives. Dorian provided a test for everything from ordering executions of threatened coastal areas to ensuring the state has adequate gas supplies, actions that should be reviewed and improved for the rest of this hurricane season and the future.
But Florida officials show they aren’t serious about climate change when they allow the development and rebuilding of coastal areas most at risk for storm surge and flooding. They also need to work to reduce the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change.
Our state should encourage solar power, compact development and mass transit to reduce emissions. Instead, the Legislature last year used the need for new hurricane evacuation routes as an excuse for pushing three new toll highways that are supposed to bring development to rural parts of the state.
Florida escaped a direct hit from Hurricane Dorian, but our luck won’t last forever. Elected officials need to prepare better for the extreme storms that a changing climate is causing, while doing their part to not make the devastation even worse.