Hard lessons from the hard rain

Anthony Iarrapino

Our hearts go out to New Englanders dealing with the flood disaster caused by record-setting rainfall over the last couple days.  The director of CLF’s Rhode Island Director, Tricia Jedele, has circulated some extraordinary pictures of the deluge that really bring home the scope of the devastation.

The tragic events playing out on the ground in Rhode Island–flooding and subsequent failure of public health infrastructure like sewage treatment plants–have been eerily predicted as likely outcomes of human-caused climate change.  But when you see the destruction occurring in Rhode Island and elsewhere in southern New England, you realize that terms like “climate change” or even “global warming” are grossly inadequate descriptions of what is really going on: total climate chaos.

Here are just some of those eery predictions taken from a 2008 EPA National Water Program strategy document titled “Response to Climate Change” at p. 11 (note that this document was created during the Bush Administration so it probably underplays the science a bit).  The report cites the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) conclusion that “annual mean precipitation is very likely to increase in Canada and the northeast United States” as a result of climate chaos.  It concludes that the climate chaos we are causing with our greenhouse gas pollution will “alter the hydrological cycle, especially characteristics of precipitation (amount, frequency, intensity, duration, type) and extremes” p. 10 The report also concludes that:

increased frequency and intensity of rainfall in some areas will produce more pollution and erosion and sedimentation due to runoff (EPA 2007h);
“[w]ater-borne diseases and degraded water quality are very likely to increase with more heavy precipitation” (IPCC 2008, p. 103);
potential increases in heavy precipitation, with expanding impervious surfaces, could increase urban flood risks and create additional design challenges and costs for stormwater management” (Field et al. 2007, p. 633);
flooding can affect water quality, as large volumes of water can transport contaminants into waterbodies and also overload storm and wastewater systems (EPA 2007h)

Tens of thousands of homeowners in Warwick and West Warwick are learning firsthand how flooding can shut down wastewater systems, badly contaminating the rivers and backing raw sewage up into people’s homes.  Yesterday’s Providence Journal reports that it may take days or even weeks to get the plants in those communities up and running again.

The serious water pollution is not limited to raw sewage.  Today’s Burlington Free Press carries a stunning AP photo of a massive oil slick running through a flooded industrial area near the Pawtuxet River under the headline “Worst Flooding in 200 years.”  The story goes on to recount the serious damage to bridges, highways, dams, and personal property caused by the floodwaters throughout New England.  Incidentally, right next to the headline about flooding, the Free Press reports that “Vermont headed for record heat” this weekend.

Sadly, above the stories on record-breaking flooding and record-breaking heat in the Burlington Free Press , the top headline reads “Obama expands drilling.” 

We must learn the hard lessons from this hard rain: Climate chaos is happening and it is already costing our society billions in hidden costs associated with climate disasters like the recent flooding.  The longer we wait to take serious actions to stem our emissions of greenhouse gases, the higher the price we will have to pay.  This week, the price is being measured in destroyed infrastructure, lost productivity from businesses that must stay closed during flood disasters, badly-contaminated-disease-bearing water, displacement of people whose homes are destoryed, and the list goes on.

The message that Tricia Jedele sent along with her pictures brings home another point about the environmental justice aspects of this most-pressing human problem. “There is a connection here to how our failure to respond appropriately to climate change and address adaptation will disproportionately impact the poorer communities.  The small mom and pop, main street types of businesses will be hardest hit.”

These costs MUST be part of the cost-benefit analysis that is driving debates over issues like expanding offshore drilling for more fossil fuels to burn in America’s cars.  When your car is under water and the bridges and roads you need to drive on are too, are you really all that excited that we sacrificed our oceans and increased our reliance on the fuel sources causing climate chaos, all so we could save 3 or 4 pennies per gallon at the pump?


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