Hurricanes form naturally over warm water: the warmer the water, the stronger the hurricane. So, by driving cars, cooling and heating homes, burning coal to generate electricity, making cement, industrializing agriculture — thereby putting billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — human beings magnify hurricanes.
Atmospheric greenhouse gases prevent some of the sun’s energy from radiating back into space. Keeping that heat causes the average surface temperature to rise. Hotter water expands, so the sea level rises. Surface ice over land melts and runs into the sea, raising the level further. The Caribbean Sea is half a foot higher now than a century ago, and higher seas translate to higher storm surges. There is also 4 percent more moisture in the air than there was a century ago. More airborne moisture means heavier rains and more flooding during storms.
How fast and destructive the winds of a hurricane are depends on how hot the water is over which it travels. The hotter the water, the more it evaporates, and when it condenses into rain, massive amounts of energy — the heat of evaporation — are released, powering the winds. Caribbean waters are unusually hot, hence Hurricane Irma’s and Hurricane Maria’s sustained 185 mph winds.
When, soon after being elected, Gov. Rick Scott of Florida met with Charles and David Koch, Florida’s environmental laws began to be gutted. Thus, Scott effectively enabled Irma’s unusual severity by opposing measures to reduce carbon emissions. He opposed a high-speed train between Tampa and Orlando, with plans to expand to South Florida, which would have cut down on automobile use, forestalling thousands of tons of carbon dioxide emissions. In February 2011, Scott rejected federal funds to construct that railway, killing the project.
Scott ordered Florida state employees — including scientists working for the state — not to use the term “climate change” and backed measures to punish Sunshine State citizens for having solar panels on their roofs. That harebrained policy was overturned by popular referendum last year.
In 2015, Florida’s state attorney general, along with 23 others, sued the federal government over a plan to reduce carbon emissions nationally, claiming the law would — you guessed it! — “increase electric rates.” Could free sunshine and wind be more expensive than pricey coal and natural gas? One plaintiff: current EPA head Scott Pruitt who, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, and Hurricane Maria, said it would be disrespectful to the victims to talk about climate change, although victimizing them with avoidable carbon dioxide and methane emissions was evidently OK.
By discouraging emission reductions for years, Scott and Pruitt seem to have played a role in making these storms extremely powerful. Florida alone emits 227 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every year, more than 4 percent of the U.S. national output. That is a relatively small but measurable contribution to the storms’ destructiveness.
In the U.S., we all have our Scotts and Pruitts – elected officials and their appointees who deny human-caused climate change. They help wreck our grandchildren’s planet in exchange for dollars – for campaigns and associated propaganda purposes. Where I come from, that’s called corruption. Why put up with it?
(Paul Kando is a co-founder of the Midcoast Green Collaborative, which works to promote environmental protection and economic development via energy conservation. For more information, go to midcoastgreencollaborative.org.)