As the Mississippi waters crest and fall, there are certain images that you can’t forget. The mud-soaked kitchen floors, the submerged cars, neighbors wading or even boating from house to house--these pictures of our communities seem both heartbreakingly extraordinary and sadly familiar.

Though we can hope this is the last time we face a flood of this magnitude, the sad truth is that it won’t be. In 2010, Tennessee struggled through massive floods, and we’re likely to see similar disasters more frequently in the future, as it seems the so-called “1,000-year” floods are now happening much more often than that. But there’s a way to lower the chances that floods will again upend our lives. On behalf of those who have lost so much, and the responders who put their lives on the line for ours, we must do all we can. 

ADVERTISEMENT
One might take that to mean we should store more sandbags to use next time or build higher levees. It would be easy—and worthwhile— to take measures to support first responders and emergency preparedness. But many of us know that those efforts aren’t permanent solutions; they’re temporary coping mechanisms. What would be best is to ensure that we work now to keep these floods from getting even worse. 

We can begin this daunting task of holding back the waters by reducing our fossil fuel emissions. The scientific basis is simple. Carbon dioxide is released when we burn coal and gas, which warms the atmosphere. Warm air holds more water, allowing clouds to soak up extra moisture before releasing it as rain. This leads to the types of intense storms we saw last month, which increase the likelihood of devastating flooding. 

So a string of unusually hot days can make the difference between a rainstorm that pushes boundaries and one that breaks them, as we saw in 2010. 

This year though, the flooding came in winter. If those upriver saw normal temperatures instead of record-breaking December warmth, the waters that soaked us would have stayed frozen up north. It would have fallen as snow and melted gradually in the spring thaw, keeping water levels downstream at manageable and predictable levels. Instead, it poured down as rain and made its way over riverbanks and into our communities.

Yes, there were floods before SUVs, and there will always be a chance of one happening even without human-caused climate change, but this flood was likely no coincidence. It came on the tail of an exceptionally hot December, which likely capped off the hottest year on record globally. That would make 2015 the second year in a row to be the hottest in the modern age which continues a decades-long warming trend that 97 percent of climate scientists see as the result of human activity—namely, the burning of fossil fuels. 

In this new year, we face an old choice. We can continue to depend on fossil fuels like we have in the past, endure more flooding and other extreme weather, put more lives in danger, and get more money in the pockets of coal and oil executives, or we can face the facts and redouble efforts to grow our low-carbon economy. 

At the same time we’re preparing for the next flood, we should be cutting our chances of needing to live through one in the first place. We need to move forward with fuel efficiency programs for our cars now, and switch to electric cars soon. Sure, we might need bigger levees, but we will definitely need bigger budgets for retraining coal workers for the clean energy economy. 

Fortunately, we won’t be alone in our efforts to reduce emissions, because last December in Paris, almost every nation on Earth—including major emitters like India, China, and Saudi Arabia—agreed to work towards a low-carbon future. We can either help lead the way and reap the economic benefits, or sit idle and watch others prosper. 

So let’s roll up our sleeves and get to work. Sandbags, levees, clean energy—we need it all. Anything less will invite the next flood, instead of fighting it.

Cohen has represented Tennessee's 9th Congressional District since 2007. He sits on the Judiciary and the Transportation committees, and is a member of the House Sustainable Energy & Environment Coalition.