More Than A River Joke

The biggest story of the last several weeks is one of a needed conversation that I fear isn’t going to occur – a serious and sincere discussion about how we are going to deal with climate change. There is an old joke about what is the longest river in the world. The punchline is an intentional mispronunciation of the African river Nile. That is the genesis of today’s title. Let’s explore.

I’ll commence with a few honest disclaimers. I am not a bench scientist. I have no formal education or work experience in the sciences relevant to climate change. Now that that is dispensed with let me state a few facts. I have been blessed with an above average IQ and reading comprehension. I try to keep an open mind. While not extensive, I have made it a point to read quite a bit about the environment post the 2012 election. (Because of my commitment to the 2012 Obama campaign I had to turn down the opportunity to work with some doctoral candidates on this issue.)

Climate change is real and man’s activities have impacted it. Those are indisputable facts to anyone who is being objective. You wouldn’t stop urinating in your toilets and pee in your pool instead. Your little nephew having a small accident in your large swimming pool is not cause for alarm, but if the entire family keeps peeing in it the poll you will have major problems in time. So why do we keep “peeing” into the air and water?

Since the Industrial Revolution the developed countries have been discharging pollutants into the air and water. With the weak regulations and lax enforcement Republicans prefer (in the name of being business friendly) we are still doing much of that today. The sea level is demonstrably higher and the water temperature demonstrably warmer. Most major American metropolitan areas are located adjacent to a large body of water.

I’m not going to say that climate change has caused major storms or hurricanes. That would be preposterous. What I’m contending is that climate change is significantly contributing to them being more severe. Just the other day as Hurricanes Irma and Jose simultaneously were active in the Atlantic we had the most storm energy activity ever recorded in that ocean.

Having lived in Florida for about ten years I’m pretty familiar with the state’s geography. Other than the Keys, (a small land area that took a direct hit from Irma when it was still a category 5), the most damage was in heavily populated areas bordering on the Atlantic or the Gulf of Mexico. Climate change contributed to that damage. Water rushed in from the sea in a phenomenon known as storm surge. Since the waters Irma traversed on its way to Florida were warmer Irma was stronger. Warm water is like high octane fuel for a hurricane. Obviously if the water level is higher at the beginning of an episode it is going to overwhelm any seawalls, banks, dike, dams etc. sooner and the resulting flood waters will be deeper.

We have built major cities in areas that are hardly above (and in the case of New Orleans) below sea level. Houston suffered devastating flooding which was exacerbated by the fact that it is the largest city in America with no zoning ordinances. In a heavy rain there is literally no place for the water to go. (Many street in Miami experience daily flooding.) Wetlands bordering the shores are nature’s provision for absorbing a major rainfall and/or storm surge. We love our beachfront properties but we need a serious conversation about whether society can afford them.

The first step in problem solving is admitting that the problem exists. I live in North Carolina whose Republican legislators have dealt with the very real threat of sea level rise to the Outer Banks by effectively making sea level rise illegal. In Florida state employees are not permitted to use the term climate change. On the federal level, within the last month the Trump administration revoked an Obama-era directive that the effect of climate change be taken into account when planning projects. Ignoring a problem neither solves it nor makes it disappear.

Katrina, Sandy, Harvey and Irma were all going to be severe storms regardless of what we did or didn’t do. However, if we had done some better planning and polluted less the loss of life and treasure would have been less.

We can keep building major metropolitan center a few feet above a rising sea level; until Mother Nature floods them permanently that is. We may not live to see that day but future generations of our families will. It will be our fault not theirs. That long river will be an American river and it will back up with sea water if we keep our heads buried in the proverbial sand.

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