This is an opinion article that appeared in the Des Moines Register on May 28, 2011. Since it was written, there have been new climate disasters: record rainfall in Dubuque (2011), devastating storms in Tama and Benton County (2011), the largest wildfire in Arizona history (2011), one of the largest wildfires in New Mexico history (2011), record rainall in Montana (2011), the flooding along the Yellowstone River that is believed to have caused the oil spill (2011), tornadoes in Massachusetts (2011), and flooding along the entire Missouri River Valley (2011).
Numerous other climate disasters have occurred over the last several years that were not included in the opinion article because of space limitations. These disasters include: Typhoon Ketsana in the Philippines, Typhoon Morakot in Taiwan, and Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar. Now there are new climate disasters, including the devastating drought and hunger in Somalia (2011) and the torrential rains and mudslides in Seoul, South Korea (2011).
If you would like to add climate disasters to this list, please email Rob Hogg at email@example.com.
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The era of climate disasters has begun
By Robert Hogg
As the floodwaters roll down the Mississippi River, and as Joplin, Mo., copes with a tragic tornado, it is now apparent that we have entered a new era of human history -- an era of climate disasters, where human fingerprints are found on disasters previously called "natural."
Iowa has recently experienced devastating floods like what we are seeing nightly on the news. In 2008, it was not just in Cedar Rapids, but throughout Iowa. In 2010, it happened again, from Cherokee to Colfax, Ames to Ottumwa, the Four Mile Creek neighborhood in Des Moines to Lake Delhi.
We might feel sympathy and even some responsibility as the Mississippi floods our neighbors downriver. But feelings are not enough. In this new era of climate disasters, we need to act - to reduce emissions, to prevent future disasters, and to help victims.
For years, leading scientists have warned that climate change will result in more extreme weather events. In 2007, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that "rising temperatures are expected to increase the frequency and severity of damaging weather-related events, such as flooding or drought."
Extreme weather events are occurring more often because global warming does not mean slightly warmer temperatures every day everywhere. Rather, it means changes in weather patterns and precipitation patterns. That's why scientists call it climate change.
Climate change is not just a scientific issue, however. It has real dollars-and-cents consequences. In its 2007 report, the GAO found that the cost and frequency of weather-related disasters in the United States had "generally increased" from 1980 to 2005, and that total insurance payments for those disasters was $320 billion -- more than $1,000 per citizen.
Since then, the costs have continued to increase. In Iowa, we've not only had record flooding, but also unprecedented ice storms, damaging wind storms, and devastating tornadoes.
There is a growing list of new disasters around our country, too: the record drought and wildfires in Texas, deadly tornadoes throughout the South, record wildfires in Colorado and California, record flooding in Tennessee and Rhode Island, record drought in Georgia, and the unprecedented infestation of the forests of the Rocky Mountains as winters there warm.
Around the world, climate disasters have been even more deadly and costly. Hundreds were killed in flooding earlier this year in Australia and Brazil. Last year, catastrophic heat and drought in Russia killed more than 10,000 and disrupted global agricultural markets.
In Pakistan, catastrophic flooding killed more than 5,000 and left 13 million people homeless. That's equal to the entire population of Iowa, Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.
By 2080, well within the lifetimes of today's children, climate change is likely to cause water shortages for more than one billion people, cause an additional 200 million people to go hungry, and annually flood nearly 100 million people, according to the most recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
These numbers are staggering, especially for someone from Cedar Rapids, where we are still recovering from the flood of 2008 that displaced "only" 25,000 people and closed at least temporarily more than 800 businesses.
The growing numbers of climate disasters demand stronger national and state policies to reduce emissions to slow down, stop, and reverse the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Let's follow the example of President Reagan and the first President Bush, who banned chlorofluorocarbons to reverse stratospheric ozone depletion. Iowa and the rest of the United States can help lead the world to tackle the climate problem.
How? We need a national commitment to energy conservation, energy efficiency, green buildings and renewable energy. That will reduce our emissions, reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, save money and create local jobs.
But that is not enough. In the era of climate disasters, we also need new policies to improve prevention and reduce damage when disasters occur.
I know that some elected officials - and many presidential candidates currently visiting our state -- deny the scientific understanding of climate change. Even if a candidate denies the science of climate change, he or she cannot ignore the climate disasters happening in our state, our country and around the world -- regardless of the cause.
Better watershed management will reduce the risk of drought and future flooding - both in Iowa and downstream. Rebuilding must incorporate safeguards against future disasters. Roads, bridges, sewers and other infrastructure must be built to accommodate the more extreme weather our future holds. We need quicker and more effective disaster recovery.
This agenda will save future taxpayer costs, create jobs and - most importantly - safeguard our people and property as the climate continues to change and as Americans experience the types of climate disasters now unfolding on the lower Mississippi.
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