Hurricane Harvey made landfall in Texas last week, dumping more than 50 inches of rain in parts of Houston, the fourth largest U.S. city. After drifting back out over the Gulf of Mexico as a tropical storm, Harvey made a second landfall near the Texas and Louisiana border Wednesday. By the time this extreme storm dissipates, damage is expected to be in the tens of billions of dollars.
As news coverage documents large swaths of destruction from flooding and high winds, many are asking whether climate change makes storms like Harvey more likely and more severe.
“Climate is not central, but by the same token it is grossly irresponsible to leave climate out of the story, for the simple reason that climate change is, as the U.S. military puts it, a threat multiplier. The storms, the challenges of emergency response, the consequences of poor adaptation—they all predate climate change. But climate change will steadily make them worse,” writes David Roberts in Vox.
Roberts’ words were echoed by said Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist and professor of political science at Texas Tech University.
“The hurricane is a naturally occurring hazard that is exacerbated by climate change, but the actual risk to Houston is a combination of the hazard—rainfall, storm surge and wind, the vulnerability, and the exposure,” said Hayhoe of Houston’s particularly high vulnerability. “It’s a rapidly growing city with vast areas of impervious surfaces. Its infrastructure is crumbling. And it’s difficult for people to get out of harm’s way.”
The Washington Post also points a finger at a warming climate’s effect on storm surge, rainfall, and storm intensity.
Others, like Meteorologist Eric Holthaus, put it more bluntly. He writes in Politico that “Harvey is what climate change looks like. More specifically, Harvey is what climate change looks like in a world that has decided, over and over, that it doesn’t want to take climate change seriously.”
What’s clear is that like Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Katrina before it, Harvey has reopened the debate over the connection between hurricanes and climate change, and promises to increase climate’s resonance in the political debate.
Harvey is also leaving a mark on the infrastructure of the country’s largest oil and gas firms. Forbes offered a reminder that in 2008, refinery utilization dropped from 78 percent before Hurricane Ike and to 67 percent the week of the hurricane. Harvey has already knocked out 11 percent of U.S. refining capacity and a quarter of oil production from the U.S. Gulf of Mexico as well as closed ports along the Texas coast. The shutdowns are resulting in a spike in gas prices across the United States.
The environmental fallout—escaping gasoline and releases of hazardous gases from refineries—could worsen.
RGGI States Look to Further Reduce Utility Emissions
Nine Northeast and Mid-Atlantic governors last week agreed to move forward with an extension of and additional emissions cuts through the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a state-driven cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.
According to their proposal, the RGGI states―Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont―would cap emissions at some 75 million tons in 2021 and decrease those emissions by 2.25 million tons every year until 2030, resulting in a total decline of 30 percent and leading to an overall reduction of 65 percent of emissions since RGGI began eight years ago. A separate provision would allow for deeper cuts, if not prohibitively costly to states.
The group is also proposing changes to the program’s rules, such as adjusting the emissions cap to remove some excess allowances, allowing states to delay the sale of some emissions allowances if they are too cheap and taking steps to mitigate excess allowances. Starting in 2021, an emissions containment reserve, in which New Hampshire and Maine will not participate, would hold back 10 percent of allowances if the price on carbon credits falls below $6 per ton. After 2021, the emissions containment reserve trigger price would increase by 7 percent annually.
After seeking public comments on the proposal at a hearing in Baltimore on Sept. 25, the RGGI group will conduct additional economic analysis and publish a revised proposal. Each of the nine states must then follow its own statutes to implement the new plan.
“With today’s announcement, the RGGI states are demonstrating our commitment to a strengthened RGGI program that will utilize innovative new mechanisms to secure significant carbon reductions at a reasonable price on into the next decade, working in concert with our competitive energy markets and reliability goals,” said RGGI Chairwoman Katie Dykes.
The RGGI auctions permits for utilities to buy electricity produced at power plants that produce greenhouse gases. RGGI officials say those auctions have raised more than $2.7 billion to invest in cleaner energy since 2009.
Program advocates point to several studies suggesting the program’s success, reported the Boston Globe. One by the Acadia Center in 2016 found that RGGI states reduced emissions by 16 percent more than other states, while growing the region’s economy 3.6 percent more than the rest of the country. At the same time, energy prices in RGGI states fell by an average of 3.4 percent, while electricity rates in other states rose by 7.2 percent.
Inside Climate News reported that although other regions have seen lower carbon emissions courtesy of low-cost natural gas, a study by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions and the Duke University Energy Initiative found the cap-and-trade market was responsible for about half of the region’s post-2009 emissions reductions, which are far greater than those achieved in the rest of the United States.
Tillerson Signals Intent to Remove Climate Envoy Post
In a letter to Senate Committee on Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Corker, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shared his intent to reorganize, shift, or eliminate almost half of the agency’s nearly 70 special envoy positions. Among the positions in question: a high-profile representative on the issue of climate change.
“I believe that the department will be able to better execute its mission by integrating certain envoys and special representative offices within the regional and functional bureaus, and eliminating those that have accomplished or outlived their original purpose,” Tillerson wrote.
Tillerson goes on to say that the U.S. Special Envoy for Climate Change—in charge of engaging partners and allies around the world on climate change issues—will be removed and that the functions and staff will be moved to the Bureau of Oceans and International and Scientific Affairs.
“This will involve realigning 7 positions and $761,000 in support costs within D&CP from the Office of the Secretary to the Bureau of Oceans and International and Scientific Affairs (OES),” the letter states.
The Climate Post offers a rundown of the week in climate and energy news. It is produced each Thursday by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions.