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Guest Commentary: Severe storms underscore urgency to rein in climate change

By CONNIE HUTSON - | Nov 11, 2020

Certain messages will haunt me until my dying day. An email from a friend in Fairbanks, Alaska crossed my desk on Aug. 13, 2004. My friend, a weather satellite tracker asked, “How close are you to Cape Coral and Punta Gorda?”

“10 and 40 miles, respectively,” I answered.

“WHOA!” was all he typed. 

Within minutes the radio announcer directed us to “Take cover. Take cover, now.” Hurricane Charley took an unexpected turn and Fort Myers was in harm’s way.  

The second message came mid-afternoon on Sept. 9, 2017. The recorded message warned “You are under a mandatory evacuation. You must leave now. If you do not leave and you need help, we will not attempt to assist you.” Hurricane Irma was barreling up from the Keys to eventually cover the entire state of Florida.

Both of these messages were terrifying and left me feeling helpless and vulnerable. Fate was kind to me and the only residual damage is the horror I still associate with those events. 

Three years later, the 2020 hurricane season has shaped up to be one for the record books, with named storms so numerous we ran out of names by early October. ABC news reported on Oct. 8 that there have been 25 named systems this season, and 10 named tropical systems have hit the U.S. Out of the nine hurricanes that have formed so far (until Oct. 8), six of them have struck the U.S. This is only the second time in history that storms have been named from the Greek Alphabet.

Southwest Florida dodged all bullets this hurricane season.  Other parts of the Gulf Coast did not fare as well. The cost of destruction inflicted from these storms is astronomical, costing billions of dollars. On Sept. 25, 2020, The Lafayette Daily Advertiser reported Hurricane Laura was one of the costliest storms in Louisiana’s history for farmers and the timber industry. LSU College of Agriculture estimated the damage at $1.6 billion.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), tropical cyclones in the U.S. between 1980 and 2018 caused $927.5 billion in damage. A single storm increased that by another billion. Another expense of climate change is that associated with mitigation and resiliency addressing sea level rise. On Oct.4, 2020 it was reported that Collier County and the Army Corps of Engineers may partner for $3 billion for resiliency efforts. Rather than pay these high costs after the fact, there are investments we can make today to help mitigate climate change and the resultant costs. 

The price of climate change is extracted from all of us. Market-based solutions may provide an alternative to escalating costs. Recently, business organizations formulated positions. Business Roundtable CEOs believe market-based solutions are the best approach to combating climate change. CEOs call for a complementary suite of policies to drive innovation, significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions and limit global temperature rise. Similarly, the US Chamber of Commerce states: “We stand with every American seeking a cleaner, stronger environment–for today and tomorrow.”

Our climate is changing and humans are contributing to these changes. Inaction is simply not an option. Combating climate change will require citizens, government, and business to work together. American businesses play a vital role in creating innovative solutions to protect our planet. A challenge of this magnitude requires collaboration, not confrontation, to advance the best ideas and policies. Together, we can forge solutions that improve our environment and grow our economy–leaving the world better for generations to come.”

Left unchecked, a warming ocean increases storm intensity. Tropical storms and hurricanes derive their energy from warm ocean water. Scientific studies have found that as our climate warms, primarily from human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, ocean temperatures are getting warmer, resulting in more severe and destructive storms. One particular worrisome phenomenon associated with warmer ocean temperatures is rapid intensification of hurricanes, which can catch coastal residents off guard. Hurricane Laura intensified rapidly, going from a Category 2 to a Category 4 hurricane in less than 36 hours. Storms can also move slowly and dump incredible amounts of rain, as with Hurricane Sally this year.

On our current trajectory, temperatures will continue to climb, bringing storms that cause greater destruction from higher winds, heavier rainfall and greater storm surge because of rising sea levels. And when these storms knock power out, another impact of climate change — deadly heat — creates life-threatening conditions in the wake of those storms.

Unforeseen crises are also made worse by climate change. As we struggle to persevere through the coronavirus pandemic, for example, people fleeing hurricanes may also contend with crowded shelters that can spread the disease.

With the impact of climate change being felt here and now, we find ourselves running out of time to bring down the heat-trapping pollution that is warming our world. We must therefore use all the tools at our disposal to curtail those emissions.

One of the most effective tools is an ambitious price on carbon that will speed up the transition to a low- or zero-carbon economy. A tax or fee on carbon can have a positive impact on low- and middle-income families, too. How? Take the revenue from a carbon fee and distribute it to all households.

Legislation to implement an effective carbon price while protecting the economic well-being of people has been introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives as the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act (H.R. 763). The carbon fee is expected to drive down carbon emissions 40% in the first 12 years and 90% by 2050. A household impact study released in August found that among households in the lowest fifth economically, 96% would receive “carbon dividends” that exceed their carbon costs.

Retiring Congressman Francis Rooney is the only Republican legislator to co-sponsor this legislation in 2019.  He is joined by 81 House members who also co-sponsor the bill.  Further, the bill is endorsed by 1,847 entities including local governments, faith groups, businesses, nonprofits, news media and tribal entities.

The increasingly destructive storms ravaging our nation should serve as a warning that our climate could one day be unbearable if we fail to take the actions necessary to rein in climate change. An effective price on carbon with money given to households can put us on the path to preserving a livable world.

Please remember during this particularly contentious election season, climate change will affect all of us, regardless of for whom we cast our ballot. This may be an opportunity of a lifetime to reach across the great divide and tackle the major threat to life as we know it as a united country. Citizens’ Climate Lobby offers volunteers opportunities to tackle this modern-day behemoth. To learn more about this bipartisan army of volunteers visit https://citizensclimatelobby.org.  


Connie Hutson is a volunteer with the Fort Myers chapter of Citizens’ Climate Lobby. Mark Reynolds is the executive director of Citizens’ Climate Lobby.