Extreme Weather and Climate Disruption Since Katrina

by David Driesen

August 28, 2015

CPR’s Unnatural Disaster report pointed out that current energy policies favoring fossil fuels made it “more likely that there will be disasters like Katrina in the future.” It explained that global climate disruption increases temperatures thereby causing sea level rise, a big threat to the Gulf Coast, and that climate disruption models suggest a shift toward extreme weather events.

Since Katrina, we have certainly seen lots of extreme weather. Perhaps most reminiscent of Katrina, on October 30, 2012, Superstorm Sandy hit much of the east coast, causing widespread flooding, especially in New York and New Jersey.[1] On February 5-6, 2010, an unusually severe snowstorm, labeled “smowmaggedon” buried Washington, D.C. Looking beyond our shores, super-typhoon Haiyan, one of the largest typhoons on record, devastated the Philippines in November of 2013.

Scientists have become increasingly confident that climate disruption has contributed to the intensity of these events and others like it around the world, although the relationship between climate disruption and storm frequency is less well understood. Scientists have clearly linked warming temperatures caused by greenhouse gases to observed increases in sea surface temperatures, high ocean heat content, and higher sea levels.[2] Increased sea surface temperatures made Superstorm Sandy a larger and more intense storm, with higher winds and more lashing rains than it would have unleashed without climate disruption.[3] Similarly, high seas, ocean heat, and sea surface temperatures created by climate disruption helped make Haiyan into a “super” typhoon.[4] It might seem strange to link warming temperatures to a snowstorm, but high sea surface temperatures provided an exceptional amount of moisture to help fuel snowmaggedon.[5]

Anticipating these sorts of problems if not the precise dimensions and locations of these and other disastrous weather events, CPR’s Katrina report called for a shift in energy policy to enhance energy efficiency and wean us from fossil fuels. Under President Obama, we have indeed seen the beginnings of such a shift. Most impressively, the federal government under his leadership has promulgated standards generally requiring new passenger vehicles to average more than 54 miles per gallon by 2025. The administration has also enacted standards enhancing the efficiency of trucks and appliances. Most recently, it moved to encourage greater efficiency and a move toward cleaner energy sources through power plant standards limiting carbon dioxide emissions from power plants, our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Yet, the move away from fossil fuels has not exactly matched the intensity, let alone the speed, of these storms and others like it. The federal government has not comprehensively regulated greenhouse gas emissions and has not consistently pursued a policy of weaning us from fossil fuels. Indeed, the official policy of President Obama has been an “all-of-the-above” policy, which welcomes all forms of energy, albeit with some actions favoring energy efficiency and renewables. Accordingly, the Obama administration has allowed drilling in sensitive ecosystems and places where drilling poses special hazards, like the Gulf, where Katrina originated.

We need an adequate government in order to make progress on the transition to efficient clean energy that climate disruption demands. We do not have an adequate government, in spite of President Obama’s efforts, because many politicians have sought to make government weak and ineffectual. We have the technical capacity to move away from 19th century energy technology toward a 21st century energy mix, as some of our competitors, such as Germany, are doing. But we simply have, in many quarters, abandoned the pragmatism and technological optimism that made us the leading 20th century power in favor of reflexive opposition to government even where it is most needed, favors to corporations, and a stubborn refusal to confront one of the most important challenges of our age. Unless we change this in a major way, we will find climate disruption fueling ever more ferocious storms as time goes on.    

Watch CPR Scholars discuss the lessons learned from Katrina in the CPR Roundtable on Katrina+10.


[1] See Adam Sobel, Storm Surge:  Hurricane Sandy, Our Changing Climate, and Extreme Weather of the Past and Future (2014).

[2] See IPCC, Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers, B2

[3] See Kevin E Trenberth, John T. Fasullo, and Theodore G. Shepherd, Attribution of Climate Extreme Events, 5 Nature Climate Change 725, 727 (August, 2015).

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

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Also from David Driesen

David M. Driesen is a University Professor at Syracuse University College of Law, and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry. He holds a J.D. from Yale Law School. He is a member of the editorial board of the Carbon and Climate Law Review, published in Berlin and Environmental Law, published in Oxford.

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