When scientists discuss the effects of climate change, the dialogue typically concerns what may happen in the future rather than the present. This perceived lack of immediacy leads to apathy, and apathy makes us collectively less driven to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, the severity of recent floods reminds us that climate change already affects us now.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration categorizes the recent Louisiana storm as a 500-year-event. Storms of this severity have less than a 0.2 percent chance of occurring annually, yet eight of them have occurred in the United States since April of last year. Unsurprisingly, these extreme storms increase the risk of flooding, and their frequencies are projected to increase as the planet continues to warm.
The increase in extreme storms has many causes — such as latent heat and rising sea levels — but one of the most important lies in increased atmospheric water vapor. When global temperatures rise, water evaporation increases, and the atmosphere contains more moisture as a result. When this excess water vapor cools down, it groups up and becomes heavy enough to fall in what can potentially be a flood-inducing storm.
According to the American Red Cross, the Louisiana flood is the worst natural disaster to strike the United States since Hurricane Sandy devastated the northeast four years ago. So far, 60,000 homes have been damaged, 20,000 people have been rescued and 13 have died. The flood’s cost is estimated to be $30 million, and this number may continue to grow as experts learn more about the tragedy.
However, floods cannot be attributed to climate change alone. Extreme weather events are complicated, and it would be irresponsible to say climate change is the only possible reason for floods such as the one in Louisiana. Despite this, the strong correlation between these storm events and rising temperatures cannot be ignored. Educated uncertainty is no excuse for inaction, and we must reduce our greenhouse gas emissions on a personal, corporate and global scale to combat the costs of a warming planet.
Climate change remains a difficult issue to tackle because its effects seem so distant. As a result, climate change activists meet resistance when they demand people and businesses to give up the comforts derived from unsustainable behavior. Fossil fuel proponents tout benefits such as job growth and economic stability, but these should not supersede the environment or victims such as those of the Louisiana flood.
Ultimately, we need to look at recent flood events as a warning of continued climate change. We can either do nothing and accept an increased occurrence of devastating floods, or we can attack climate change with more vigor. I hope we choose the latter.
Chan is an environmental science and journalism sophomore from Sugar Land. He is an associate editor. Follow him on Twitter @BenroyChan.