The lasting effect of two hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, may be settling the fundamental argument about climate change, although neither side in that bitter and costly dispute recognizes it just yet.
It’s hard to exaggerate the force of these storms, but despite fevered speculation in certain quarters, they’re not unique in either frequency or ferocity. Both set records for the damages, and both demonstrated the power of nature at what must be close to maximum strength. When the accounting is complete, Harvey is likely to have cost up to $75 billion, according to private analytics firm Enki Research in Savannah, Ga., and early estimates are that Irma will have cost $49.5 billion.
Weaker storms as well exhibit the power of natural forces and man’s inability to control them. Any human activity, whether in support of life or destructive of it, fades into relative insignificance in comparison to the power and authority of nature unbound.
The existence of climate change has never been in dispute. The climate changes all the time. The evidence of the extent of such change, accumulated in relatively recent times, is inconclusive, given the age we’re talking about. The debate has been to what extent human activity affects the weather, and whether man has the power to create or alter the long-term climate.
The power of man, however impressive it may be, is nevertheless puny in comparison with the ability of nature to change the climate, as Harvey and Irma have demonstrated.
Some speculators, ranging from learned meteorologists to the new Miss America, argue that human activity — whether intentional or simply coincidental to the growth of technology and industry — has such a profound effect as to alter the climate over the longer term. Therefore, their argument goes, public policy must be based on the assumption that human activity can do that. But the force and intensity of the storms we have just watched demonstrates just how hard and how far the storms blow beyond the control of man.
Environmental concerns are important, but it’s important to be realistic about how far society should go to curb industry and growth. Exaggerating man’s ability to control the weather and therefore the climate exacts considerable costs. Some of the policy initiatives the government has undertaken are not only virtually meaningless but costly to the economy and to the way Americans live their lives.
Violent weather is hardly unprecedented. Earlier storms were far more damaging, and would have been even more damaging today because there are far more people and much more infrastructure to take the hit. The most expensive measured hurricane to date was Katrina, which slammed into New Orleans in late summer of 2005, killing hundreds and inflicting damages of $160 billion. A hurricane with no name raked the Atlantic coast in 1893, when Florida was not yet fully settled, that was so fierce, so destructive, that such a storm today would exact damages approaching $1 trillion.
“We got very lucky [with Irma],” says Jeff Masters of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Mich. “If Irma had passed 20 miles west of Marco Island instead of striking it head-on on Sunday, the damage would have been astronomical.” The luck — some would call it divine providence — pushed Irma west, away from the state’s largest population center, Miami and Dade County.
Mortal man has accomplished mighty works, but a mighty storm demonstrates that nature and nature’s God are mightier still.