What happens when a global environmental crisis crashes headfirst into a global health crisis?
Sadly, we’re watching it unfold in front of our eyes. Factor in acute poverty, systemic racism and a history of neglect from our leaders, and you might just get a glimmer of how bad things are on the ground right now in communities outside of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Ida.
The most tragic part of this story unfolding around the globe right now, where communities are being devastated by the climate crisis in the midst of one of the worst resurgences of the coronavirus since the pandemic started, is that so much of this could have been avoided if we’d made different choices.
In addition to doing whatever we can right now to support those being affected by these converging crises — now is also the time to reflect on how this could have been avoided, so that in the future we can reduce the amount of suffering by orders of magnitude.
Hurricanes and hospitals
On Sunday — the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina — Hurricane Ida slammed into Louisiana as a Category 4 storm with 150mph sustained winds and torrential rainfall, knocking out power for a million people, washing away homes and flooding roadways. With 2,000 miles of transmission lines and over 200 substations out of service, power outages could last weeks.
Amidst the latest highly contagious Delta variant outbreak, with low vaccination rates in Louisiana and across the South, the hospitals are overflowing with COVID-19 patients, their ICUs filled with patients on ventilators. Despite the life and death threat posed by the storm, there was nowhere to transport COVID-19 patients to, as all of the other hospitals in the region, even in neighboring states Mississippi and Alabama, are at record-high ICU usage, beds filled with COVID-19 patients.
Wildfires and our lungs
In the West, wildfires are having another record-breaking year. According to Capital Public Radio’s Nick Miller, “CalFire Chief Thom Porter says that, for the second time in California history, a wildfire has crossed the Sierra Nevada. The first was the Dixie Fire last month, and the latest was the Caldor Fire now.”
South Lake Tahoe is under immediate evacuation orders, as firefighters are using the snowmakers and chair lifts at the ski resorts to fight the fires, under the blood-red sky.
Similar to Louisiana, as if the devastating effects of climate change weren’t enough, “there's growing evidence that noxious smoke from the fires amplifies the severity of [COVID-19] outbreaks” according to CNN.
Climate change is what makes hurricanes slower, stronger and wetter, which are precisely the factors that make them so much more devastating. It’s causing droughts and hotter temperatures contributing to the continually worsening wildfires.
In case you were wondering what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) meant this month in their report calling climate change a “code red for humanity” — this is it.
Science, when it’s fashionable
Science, it seems, is at an interesting moment in our society.
In addition to being the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, this weekend was also the 40th anniversary of NASA climate scientist James Hansen’s 1981 scientific report warning us of the dire implications of climate change, if we failed to act.
And yet, here we are. Four decades have passed, with worsening warnings from the scientific community, worsening droughts, floods, storms, fires, resource shortages, resulting conflicts, climate refugees fleeing for survival and still our leaders have yet to take any real action on climate.
And despite warnings of a global pandemic the likes of COVID-19 for years, our leaders failed to prepare for this eventuality, leaving us without resources or a plan of action resulting in the worst outbreak in a hundred years.
On the one hand, science via technology has seamlessly worked its way into our lives without us batting an eyelash, from the wearable tech that tracks our steps, to cars driving themselves, to the latest billionaire blasting himself into outer space.
But when scientists warn us that a deadly virus is on the loose, and to reduce the risk of contracting it and dying from it all we have to do is wear a mask and get a pair of shots (thanks to science), people don’t believe them.
And when the scientists of the world have told us that cost-effective solutions exist to transition our world off fossil fuels that can avoid climate catastrophe, and create a more just, prosperous, clean energy future, they’re called cranks.
We hold up or decry scientists based on whether their findings support our worldview, our cultural leanings or which political party claims the issue first. We’d rather enjoy a good punchline on the news that makes our political adversaries seem foolish, rather than coming to the table to work out our differences and prepare for what will be an increasingly challenging period ahead.
Unfortunately, ignoring climate science for half a century has put us into a position where the climate will only get worse — before it can get better. But we do have a choice now. We can stand by idling and act shocked every time another storm or wildfire devastates our communities or we can respond to the urgency of the moment, and collectively demand the climate emergency is treated as such.
Andreas Karelas is author of the book “Climate Courage: How Tackling Climate Change Can Build Community, Transform the Economy, and Bridge the Political Divide in America” published by Beacon Press. He is also the founder and executive director of RE-volv, a nonprofit climate justice organization that helps fellow nonprofits across the country go solar. Follow him on Twitter: @AndreasKarelas.