For most of the eastern United States, this is a week of high anxiety — fixated on a swirling red, green, and yellow blob at the bottom of the TV screen and the increasing certainty that the most powerful East Coast storm of our lifetimes is going to slam into the coastal Carolinas with a massive storm surge, destructive winds, and biblical flooding.
For Dr. Stan Riggs, a somewhat crusty marine geologist at East Carolina University entering his ninth decade on Mother Earth, and for his fellow North Carolina scientists, the expected landfall of Hurricane Florence as a potentially lethal Category 4 or 5 storm later this week is the day they’ve seen coming for a long time.
Earlier in this century, in a bygone era when North Carolina’s politicians took pride in hosting some of America’s top research universities, Riggs was a leader on a scientific advisory board that came back with a dire warning for the Tarheel State’s long, low-lying expanse of coastline. The rapid acceleration of global warming, the panel advised, would mean a likely rise in sea level in the Carolinas of 39 inches by the year 2100. And that was using the middle projection of the three models the scientists considered.
Armed with the scientific evidence, the North Carolina legislature sprung into action. In 2012, it enacted a law that essentially outlawed the report and barred state officials from using its findings to make coastal development decisions.
In 2016, Riggs quit the advisory board rather than further alter his findings to please the pro-development whims of Republican lawmakers.
If you don’t live in Florence’s immediate path, this seems like the perfect time to look up from the rotating red blob on your TV screen for a few minutes and talk about a) why storms, floods, and droughts are setting unthinkable records for their intensity; b) why in America it’s been such good politics to embrace such bad science, or — more accurately — no science at all; and c) what are we going to do about this climate mess once the damage from Flo finally ebbs.
Of course, many readers are going to say that now is not the right time to mix weather and politics — because hurricanes and wildfires are becoming the mass shootings of the climate-change debate, where saying anything in a moment of crisis beyond offering our thoughts and prayers to the afflicted is crass and inappropriate.
But thoughts and prayers won’t help the mostly underprivileged residents of the low-lying Carolinas any more than they saved gunshot victims in Parkland. The reality is there’s no better time to talk about our failure to take climate politics seriously than on the eve of a natural disaster that global warming is making worse.
Which leads right into the other thing many readers are going to say, which is that tropical storms have long been a part of life in a place like the Carolinas. True, and they’ve survived the above-mentioned Floyd in 1999, or Hurricane Hugo, a major hurricane that struck the Carolinas in 1989, among others.
But Hurricane Florence is not normal. If the current projections from the National Hurricane Center hold up, Florence will make landfall in North Carolina as a Category 4, the most powerful hurricane to hit that far north on the U.S. Atlantic coastline since humans began tracking them. You can add that to the recent spate of weather records — unprecedented wildfires from California to Northern Europe, or Houston’s epic 2017 flooding after Hurricane Harvey — branded by a changing, hotter climate that brings lengthy droughts played off against a moister atmosphere and warmer oceans that intensify storms.
I truly hope that Flo pulls a 180 and drifts into the oblivious sea. And if it does, or — heaven forbid — if it doesn’t, maybe Florence will be The One that finally causes the tide to turn, that causes our future climate policies to again be informed by sound science and not by political demagoguery. Because thoughts and prayers don’t work any better on hurricanes than they do against AR-15s — but we mortal humans can make a real difference on climate.
Will Bunch is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.