Hurricane Irma was declared the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin by the National Hurricane Center last Wednesday. Developing one week after Hurricane Harvey, this tropical system then approached Florida and the Southeast United States with sustained wind speeds of 185 mph after slamming through islands in the Caribbean. This back-to-back situation has a lot of people pointing to climate change—and with good reason.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) published its fourth annual Climate Change Indicators report in 2016, which the Trump Administration has fortunately not yet removed from the EPA website. With the help of 40 data contributors, the report presents 37 indicators to help readers understand changes observed from long-term records related to the causes and effects of climate change. One of those indicators is Tropical Cyclone Activity.
The report evaluates the number of hurricanes in the North Atlantic since the late 1800s, as well as cyclone strength, duration, and frequency. While the number of hurricanes making landfall in the United States has not noticeably increased over time, average wind speed and storm intensity have gone up concurrently with increased sea surface temperature. The peak in all categories occurred in 2005, the same year that Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and became the costliest storm of all time with more than $100 billion in property damage.
2005 also marked the beginning of the warmest decade on record. As average global temperatures continue to rise, so too will sea surface temperatures—a key factor in cyclone formation and behavior. For this reason, we can expect an increase in the severity of hurricanes hitting the United States with devastating impact on our communities and economy. However, the impact of climate change will be even more catastrophic beyond our borders.
For instance, the country of Bangladesh, home to 150 million people, is only 5 feet above sea level on average, which makes it one of the most susceptible places to sea water rise on the planet. It’s southern shore faces the Indian Ocean and is surrounded by India on all other sides, whose borders are heavily guarded. As water levels rise, millions of people will be displaced with nowhere to go: This is a slow-motion refugee crisis.
More severe weather events and rising seawater levels will also help fuel already existing crises such as mass migrations, food shortages, and international conflicts around the globe. This domino effect led the Defense Department to declare climate change as a “threat multiplier.” Sensible military strategy has always required evaluation of environmental impacts, so it is no surprise that our military is anticipating and preparing for the inevitable effects of global warming.
To further mitigate the negative consequences of climate change, we must slow global temperature rise by minimizing the amount of carbon and other greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. This can be accomplished by adopting renewable forms of energy and reducing reliance on fossil fuels—which will consequently improve our national security by creating independence from foreign sources of energy and will result in a stronger economy from returns on investments in innovation.
Unfortunately, the United States abandoned its position as a world leader on this front when it exited the landmark Paris Agreement. With budget cuts proposed at the EPA and Department of Energy, we are now at risk of four years without the level of support for fundamental research and science to develop the technology needed for widespread adoption of wind and solar. Meanwhile, the Trump Administration is unnecessarily increasing military spending and promises to achieve “energy dominance” by exporting natural gas and tapping into untouched domestic resources. While this might have near-term economic benefits for beneficiaries of the fossil fuel industry, our national security will be weakened through missed opportunities for economic gain and failing to prepare for the looming threats ahead.
An increase in average global temperatures and more extreme weather events is inevitable. The best we can hope to do today is slow these effects by shifting our energy resources and adapting to the rapidly changing demands that the resulting crises will have both at home and abroad. Year after year, we will watch hurricanes demolish our receding coastlines, and without a change in American leadership, we can only blame ourselves for ignoring the signs.
Dan Misch is a U.S. Navy veteran and member of the Truman National Security Project’s Defense Council. Views expressed are his own.