The future is being rigged against vulnerable people by a system in which government and industry are complicit. No, we are not talking about the electoral system — we are talking about the climate.
The warming of the globe, spurred by humanity's dependence on fossil fuels, is weighting the dice, as scientists often put it, in favor of increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather phenomena. Extremely high temperatures are the easiest to predict as warming proceeds. Also relatively foreseeable is heavier rain, because warmer air carries more moisture. In other words, do not be surprised if the country sees more costly disasters such as the flooding that hit Baton Rouge over the past week.
The Louisiana inundation is probably the worst natural catastrophe the country has seen in four years. The cleanup — and the process of estimating the damage — is only just beginning, even as residents keep a wary eye on clouds that could bring yet more rain. The state reports that 60,000 homes were damaged or destroyed. At least 13 people died, and 30,000 people had to be rescued.
The nation's flood maps — which determine who needs to buy government-sponsored flood insurance — did not assess large portions of the area hit last week to be at high risk. This means that many of the people affected probably will not be able to call on an insurance policy. The government presses people who live in so-called 100-year flood zones, areas that annually face a 1 percent chance of being flooded, to purchase government-backed flood insurance. The Louisiana flooding was a 500-year event. It is the eighth 500-year event in the United States since May of last year. Not all of these resulted in as much damage; the recent flooding in Ellicott City, Md., is an example.
Attributing any individual disaster to climate change is a tricky business. The best that scientists can typically do is give people a sense of how much higher temperatures, which prime the system for extreme weather, may have increased the likelihood that a particular event would have occurred. Often these analyses come out long after floodwaters have receded and heat waves have ended.
But the kinds of disasters that scientists predict will be more frequent as the world warms should still serve as warnings. The infrastructure that sustains people's quality of life was built on the assumption that the past suggests what the future will look like. Increasingly, whether it is federal officials drawing up flood maps or state planners deciding how high to build levees, they will have to account for the reality that a warming climate will affect their communities in entirely new ways.