Natural Disasters Are No Longer Natural. So Who’s Paying for It?

We are in the anthropogenic era of man-made climate change. We impacted the speed at which the planet is warming, ocean temperatures are rising, polar ice caps are melting, and ultimately the frequency and consistency at which more extreme-weather events are occurring.

Hurricane Irma is on its way. Florida is bracing for a potential hit worse than the biggest Atlantic Basin Storm ever measured — Hurricane Wilma in 2005. The deceptively wonderful temperatures of the Gulf waters will only fuel Irma’s wrath as it reaches land, wreaks havoc and racks up a recovery bill in the billions.

Hurricane Harvey brought on the third “once in 500 year” flood to hit Texas within the last three years. Following Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put forward that “Sandy-like” storm surges and subsequent seawater inundation would occur more frequently from the combination of sea-level rise and warming waters by the end of this century. In fact, when my millennial counterparts and I reach our parents’ ages, the East Coast of the United States will be flooding at a minimum of Sandy-like levels every year. This is not that far in the future that we can leave it for another administration to deal with.

Heavy rainstorms are increasing in frequency and intensity worldwide. Within the lifetime of our mortgage cycles, 450 million people worldwide will be exposed to a doubling of flood frequency. This isn’t just a Florida, Houston or a U.S. East Coast problem. This is happening all over.

A warming planet has made the strongest hurricanes more intense because hurricanes draw their energy from ocean warmth. Once hurricanes form, warmer ocean temperatures provide more fuel. Warming sea temperatures also translate to more water vapor in the atmosphere, resulting in 5 percent to 10 percent more rainfall. We can attribute several inches (experts say as many as 30 percent) of the 60 inches of rainfall in some places during Harvey to climate change.

We know that human enterprises are emitting fossil fuels that are resulting in climate change. We can attribute climate change to extreme weather events like Harvey. By transitive property, are human enterprises then responsible for paying the recovery bill post-extreme weather events? And more specifically, who is responsible for the $180 billion bill Harvey is racking up in Texas?

Attributing damage by Hurricane Harvey to man-made climate change by even a small measure is already in the billions of dollars. Can contributors to climate change be sued? What about countries that don’t commit to the global effort to cut emissions?

Lawsuits attempting to attribute responsibility for climate events have generally failed, but this is changing. An emerging science referred to as “probabilistic risk attribution,” or quantifying whether and how much past emissions have contributed to the probability of an extreme event occurring, will have the potential to allow courts to decide to what extent individual climactic events can be appropriated to man-made climate change.

The threat of future lawsuits might provide the deterrent needed for countries and companies to play by the rules. Attribution science will inevitably strengthen in its findings, likely supported by cash-strapped economies simply unable to foot the bill.

We are moving toward the removal of “natural” from disasters. As future extreme weather events like Irma strike, we might be able to direct debit recovery funds from company checking accounts.

Sweta Chakraborty is the associate director at the Institute on Science for Global Policy, and a cognitive behavioral scientist and risk expert for the well-being of the planet who offers solutions to the challenges that threaten the survival of the human race.

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