TEPIC, Mexico (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Unprecedented flooding unleashed by Hurricane Harvey in the southern United States underscores the need for even wealthy countries to ramp up their disaster plans to keep vulnerable people safe and help them deal with the knock-out blows climate change could bring, experts say.
Yet few expect the devastation wrought by Harvey to convince U.S. President Donald Trump to boost government funding to prevent disasters or reinstate regulations that would limit heat-trapping emissions and protect infrastructure from extreme weather, let alone reconsider his decision to quit the Paris Agreement on climate change.
“What Hurricane Harvey is demonstrating to those few hold-out climate change sceptics is that this is our new reality. And it’s only going to get worse,” said Heather Coleman, associate director for climate change and energy policy at Oxfam America. “As we’ve seen in other disasters here and around the world, it’s the poorest who are the most vulnerable.”
At least 11 people have been killed, while tens of thousands are fleeing their homes as Harvey, which slammed into Texas from the Gulf of Mexico at the weekend, brings major flooding.
Trump arrived in Texas on Tuesday to survey the damage from Harvey, now a slow-moving tropical storm, and said he wanted the relief effort to stand as an example of how to respond to a storm.
Police, National Guard troops, city officials and other rescue workers are helping people evacuate to shelters in Houston, the fourth most-populous U.S. city, and a state of emergency has been declared in Louisiana.
The biggest storm to hit Texas in 50 years, Harvey could cause up to $20 billion in insured losses, making it one of the costliest storms in U.S. history, according to Wall Street analysts.
Experts at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and the World Meteorological Organization have said Harvey’s record-setting rainfall was likely made worse by climate change.
“State governments, governors, city mayors (and) scientists all over the (United States) are very much agreeing that climate change is real,” said Saleemul Huq, director of the Dhaka-based International Centre for Climate Change and Development.
“Harvey is sending tonnes and tonnes of water on their heads as proof that this is what is likely to happen with human-induced climate change.”
Besides promising to pull the United States out of the 2015 Paris accord to curb global warming, Trump has threatened to cut billions of dollars in funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which is now coordinating the Texas relief response.
Key posts at U.S. weather-tracking agencies remain empty, while a swathe of Obama-era environmental regulation has been dismantled under the Republican president, who is facing the country’s biggest natural disaster since he took office in January.
Earlier this month, Trump rolled back rules for environmental reviews and restrictions on government-funded building projects in flood-prone areas, revoking an executive order by his predecessor aimed at reducing exposure to flooding, sea level rise and other consequences of climate change.
With disasters costing over $175 billion in economic losses last year, according to reinsurer Swiss Re, investing in measures to better protect those at greatest risk is essential, as the intensity and frequency of extreme weather is expected to increase, experts say.
“Let us stop playing politics around what is happening with climate change and nature, and really make the long-term decisions that deal not just with infrastructure, but the lives and livelihoods of people,” said Jo Scheuer, director for climate change and disaster risk reduction at the United Nations Development Programme.
Key measures include “building back better” after a disaster, forecasting climate trends decades ahead, and factoring in estimates of sea level rise and storm surges when deciding how to rebuild shattered communities to reduce the impact of future storms, he said.
In some cases, governments may have to decide to relocate people and infrastructure from disaster-prone areas, he added.
“What we’ve gotten pretty good at overall is dealing with the immediate disaster event - meaning moving people out of harm’s way... to eliminate the loss of life,” said Scheuer.
“In most cases, what we have not gotten good at is... to ensure that every investment we make is made with understanding the risk involved.”
Despite the hefty cost of Hurricane Harvey, many experts doubt that Trump will acknowledge the scientific link between climate change and weather disasters, or bolster funding and regulation to limit devastation from future floods and storms.
“The Trump administration so far has not really shown any inclination to create policy based on realities on the ground - and certainly not based on challenges that every day people are facing,” said Brandon Wu, director of policy and campaigns for ActionAid USA.