The heartbreaking stories and images of destruction in the Carolinas make it easy to feel that humans are helpless against nature’s most powerful forces. No one can stop a hurricane. Unlike most natural disasters, though, massive storms like Florence come with some advance warning. In spite of heroic efforts from first responders and volunteers, this storm has already claimed scores of lives — but how many more might have been lost if a million people had not evacuated before it hit?
Of course, even after the floodwaters recede, a prolonged relief effort will be necessary to aid the many thousands of people whose lives have been upended by this disaster. Many of those most harmed by the storm and flooding will be people who were already living in communities put at risk by toxic pollution and, as we did after Hurricanes Harvey and Maria, the Sierra Club will focus its own response on helping them to recover.
But as essential as the short- and long-term relief efforts are, they shouldn’t be our only reaction to this disaster. We must also prepare for the storms that will follow. That means, first of all, acknowledging that these extreme weather events are our new reality. In just the past year, four states have set tropical storm rainfall records. And let’s not forget that Typhoon Mangkhut was wreaking havoc in the Philippines and China at the same time Florence was landing on our coastline.
Instead of attempting to legislate sea-level rise out of existence, as pro-development climate-deniers in North Carolina’s statehouse did, we need to absorb this new reality and rethink everything from infrastructure to wetlands protection. Much of the misery and suffering from Florence and the ensuing floods, for instance, will be the result of inundated toxic sites like hog manure lagoons and coal ash dumps, both of which the Sierra Club has long fought against. They were disasters waiting to happen and, tragically, that wait is over.
If we zoom out even further, the unprecedented scale of these disasters reinforces that we must do everything in our power to limit the extent of the climate change that is already making storms wetter and wildfires hotter. As we all know, that’s simply not happening at the federal level (exactly the opposite, in fact) — but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening at all.
Even as Florence churned toward the Atlantic coast, an ambitious Global Climate Action Summit was happening 2,500 miles away in San Francisco. The big takeaway from the three-day event? In the U.S., climate action remains a high priority for leaders of local and state governments and global businesses — there were nearly 400 announcements of 100 percent renewable energy targets at the summit. A bipartisan alliance of 17 governors announced a new set of policies to combat climate change and counter horrible federal policies like the rollback of methane pollution standards. Multiple states pledged huge investments for U.S. electric-vehicle infrastructure (enough for 3.5 million new charging stations), and 42 financial institutions that represent more than $13 trillion in assets committed to help cities, states, and regions finance climate action. That’s just scratching the surface. For a full accounting of all the commitments made, see here. At a time when hope was desperately needed, the Global Climate Action Summit delivered.
During this past week, we’ve watched two incredibly powerful storms profoundly affect the lives of millions of people on opposite sides of the globe. Right now, the most important thing we can do is help them recover from this disaster. At the same time, though, let’s take a moment to consider the gathering storm that threatens all of humanity — a storm that could be destructive beyond calculation.
The good news is that we do have advance warning. We are not powerless. We do still have time to act — and it’s especially important that we keep doing so when those with the greatest power are behaving the most irresponsibly. No one can stop a hurricane — but we can halt the climate change that’s making them more destructive.