Humanity this week experienced ecological disasters on an unprecedented scale. Flooding on the Gulf Coast and in South Asia impacted 60 million people, killed 1,200, and destroyed or damaged close to 1 million homes. In one week, parts of Houston received as much rain as they usually receive in a year—one trillion gallons. The National Weather Service said the storm is “unprecedented and all impacts are unknown and beyond anything experienced.” Explosions occurred at a chemical plant near Houston, and millions of pounds of hazardous chemicals were released into the air. In India, Bangladesh, and Nepal, record floods swept away people, animals, and property, and left as much as a third of Bangladesh under water. We all feel for these people.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Infrared view of Hurricane Harvey

The Houston metro area has 6.6 million people, making it one of the largest in the U.S. Greater Houston was built partly on swampland, in what is essentially a large flood plain. But that’s only part of the story.

Climate change is increasing the risk of flooding by making extreme weather events more intense, as leading climate scientists say. Dr. Katharine Hayhoe, a climate scientist at Texas Tech University and a lead author of the 2017 National Climate Assessment, states that climate change is generating more moisture in the atmosphere. This is increasing the amount and intensity of rain that falls during hurricanes and other storms. Dr. J. Marshall Shepherd, a climate scientist at the University of Georgia, notes that climate change is warming the water in the Gulf of Mexico, which has created a “stream of moisture that is just firehosing in the Houston region.” In brief, warmer water and moister air that stem from climate change are contributing to the record-breaking catastrophic flooding we are seeing. Houston is also getting hotter, with an average of 106 days per year with a high of 90° F (32° C) or above.

While experiencing climate change first-hand, Houston remains one of the places in the world that most profits from extracting and refining oil. The Greater Houston Partnership lauds the city as the “Energy Capital of the World,” a “petrochemical powerhouse,” where “new energy technologies such as horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and deep water offshore technology began or are centered.” Houston is also known as the “chemical coast,” and has many Superfund toxic cleanup sites that have contributed to contaminating the floodwaters. (To its credit, Texas leads the U.S. in wind energy generation, with 20 gigawatts, which provided 12% of the state’s electricity.)

By continuing with business as usual, we exploit and use oil and gas at record levels, despite the warnings of scientists. Scientists have revealed something important about how the earth works: the more oil we extract, refine and burn, the more Houston and Southeast Texas will alternately bake and flood.

Brant Kelly
Flooding in a Houston neighborhood

The New York Times recently quoted Maya Wadler, a teenager in Houston whose family’s home was just flooded. “I usually just trust my parents that everything is going to be OK. But I looked up and I saw that my dad was closing his eyes, the water was getting in his eyes. And I just thought: He has absolutely no idea where we are going to go.”

This situation has striking similarities to the ship Titanic, whose captain, Edward Smith, received warnings of potential icebergs ahead, and ignored them. He believed that the ship—the largest ever built—was stronger than nature, and unsinkable. Minutes before the Titanic hit the iceberg, steaming at full speed, people on the ship were going about their normal business, assuming that everything was fine. By the time the crew spotted an iceberg, it was too late to turn the ship to avoid it. Then the ship hit the iceberg and everything changed.

The Titanic sank for many reasons. Captain Smith missed the window of opportunity he was given, based on a misguided belief that a ship could withstand hitting an iceberg. Most people on the ship perished because they falsely believed that their leaders were taking responsibility for their safety.