Climate Change Supercharges Hurricane Florence as 1.5 Million Evacuate in Carolinas & Virginia

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More than 1.5 million people have been ordered to evacuate the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina as Hurricane Florence continues to gain strength as it barrels toward the East Coast. The enormous Category 4 storm is projected to make landfall on Thursday or Friday, bringing with it heavy rains and high winds that could linger for days after hitting land. People up and down the coast are preparing for extreme flooding and what the National Hurricane Center is calling a “life-threatening storm surge.” Experts are warning the damage could be catastrophic.

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AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show with Hurricane Florence. More than one-and-a-half million people have been ordered to evacuate the coasts of Virginia, North Carolina and the entire South Carolina coast as the enormous Category 4 storm continues to gain strength. The hurricane is barreling towards the East Coast, bringing with it heavy rains and high winds that could linger for days after hitting land. People up and down the coast are preparing for extreme flooding and what the National Hurricane Center is calling a “life-threatening” storm surge. It’s projected to make landfall on Thursday or Friday, and experts are warning the damage could be catastrophic. This is North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper.

GOV. ROY COOPER: The forecast places North Carolina in the bullseye of Hurricane Florence, and the storm is rapidly getting stronger. When weather forecasters tell us “life-threatening,” we know that it is serious. North Carolina faces three threats here: first, the ocean surge along our coast; then the strong winds, which may be higher than the other hurricanes that we have recently experienced; and, of course, inland flooding from heavy rains. And we here in North Carolina are bracing for a hard hit.

AMY GOODMAN: Hurricane Florence has grown more powerful due to unusually high sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic linked to climate change. Warmer temperatures also mean more moisture, which scientists say could lead to more extreme rainfall and flooding.

For more, we’re going to Pennsylvania to speak with Michael Mann, distinguished professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. His latest book, co-authored with political cartoonist Tom Toles, is titled The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Professor Mann. Talk about the significance of Hurricane Florence and why you believe it links directly to climate change.

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, thanks, Amy. It’s good to be with you. So, as you heard the governor say earlier, this hurricane is a triple threat. It poses a great risk in terms of the storm surge and the coastal flooding that is likely to come with that. It’s going to be packing powerful winds. Right now it’s a Category 4 storm. It could potentially strengthen to a Category 5 storm, so very damaging winds. And perhaps most significant of all, it’s predicted to stall when it makes landfall, and so that will lead to very large amounts of rainfall, flooding rainfall, perhaps rivaling what we saw with Hurricane Harvey last year, which was the worst flooding event on record.

Now, climate change is playing a role with each of those threats. Sea level rise, already a foot of sea level rise in that region, adding to the storm surge. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture, so you get more rainfall. And a warmer ocean has more energy to strengthen these storms. And part of the problem with storms like Florence, and with Harvey last year, is that they have intensified very rapidly. When you get those very warm ocean waters, which are near record levels right now off the U.S. East Coast, you get very rapid intensification, faster often than the models predict. And so, suddenly, you’re scrambling to deal with a Cat 4 monster storm that you didn’t expect.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the lingering of the storm—right now it’s Category 4, expected it may gain strength to Category 5—what it means when it lingers in an area, the inundation of the land the people will experience.

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, that’s right. So, again, if we look at Harvey last year, what made that storm so devastating—again, a record flooding event, the worst flooding event on record in the United States, in history—what made it a record flooding event was the fact that that storm stalled. It didn’t move on. So it’s sitting over the same location—in that case, Houston—dumping rain, day after day after day.

Florence is predicted to do the same thing over the East Coast of the U.S., the southeast coast and the interior sort of portions of South Carolina up into Virginia, potentially up even into Pennsylvania, the state that I live in. Now, one of the other more subtle potential impacts of climate change is this sort of behavior—storms like Harvey, and now with Florence, tending to stall, tending to stay in the same place day after day, which is what makes them such record soaking events.

We think that there’s a linkage with how climate change is influencing the jet stream. It’s influencing the jet stream in a way that sort of pushes it further north in the summer and into the fall, so that it’s unable to pick up those storms and carry them out to sea, which the jet stream would normally do. And that has to do with an expanding region of high pressure in the subtropics. Climate models were used to predict that particular climate change feature decades ago. And we’re seeing it happen, and it’s having an impact even on the effect of storms like Florence.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain more what the jet stream is, Professor Mann.

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, so the jet stream is this band of very strong winds that blow from west to east above the surface of the Earth. It’s the reason that the flight from the West Coast to the East Coast is so much quicker than the flight in the opposite direction, because you’ve got those very strong tail winds aloft. And those same strong winds aloft literally move weather systems along from west to east.

But when the jet stream gets pushed up north, as it is right now—and that is, again, a very robust feature of the projections of climate models, that the jet stream tends to get moved further north—it’s unable to move those storm systems like Florence from west to east out to sea. It appears that this particular phenomenon played a role not just with Florence, but with many of the extreme weather events we saw this summer. They were tied to a very highly meandering jet stream, a wiggling jet stream, bringing unusual weather around the entire Northern Hemisphere, and a slow jet stream so that that weather stays locked in place, and you get epic droughts, epic wildfires and, in this case with Florence, potentially an epic flooding event.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you about this latest news, the Trump administration planning to make it easier for oil and gas companies to pollute the atmosphere with methane gas, one of the most powerful greenhouse gases contributing to climate change. The administration could announce the rollback of these Obama-era rules requiring companies to monitor and repair methane leaks on oil and gas wells as early as this week. The significance of this?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, so this is just the latest assault by the Trump administration on basic environmental protections that have been put in place over decades, by Republican as well as Democratic administrations, and in this case, by allowing polluters to release more methane into the atmosphere. As you allude to, methane is an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Now, it exists in much lower concentrations, and it doesn’t hang around for as long, but if we release enough methane into the atmosphere over the next decade or so, that could boost the warming that we see.

And at the end of a summer now where we have seen unprecedented extreme weather events that signify how climate change isn’t a far-off threat—it’s impacting us now, today, where we live. At a time when the impacts of climate change are so obvious that not even the most fervent climate change denier can deny that they’re there, we see efforts by the Trump administration to roll back the very policies—regulation of carbon emissions, regulation of methane emissions in this case—that have the potential to stave off dangerous warming, that have the potential to help us meet our obligation to the Paris Agreement so that we do avoid catastrophic warming of the planet.

So this is just the latest assault by the Trump administration on global efforts and efforts here in the United States to avert catastrophic climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: And this latest news that at this point something like 1,600 federal workers have left the EPA—1,600, scientists leaving in droves—the significance of this?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, well, this administration doesn’t like what the scientists are telling them. This administration is basically a mouthpiece for polluting interests, and so they have basically used every avenue available to them, again, to roll back basic environmental protections, to intimidate government scientists, to prevent them from doing their work, prevent them from talking to the public and informing our public discourse. So this is, again, part of this assault by the current administration and enabling congressional Republicans on our efforts as a society to try to confront the greatest challenge that we face—human-caused climate change.

Here’s the good news. As you know, we have a midterm election now in just a matter of 60 or so days. We have an opportunity to send a signal that we want to be part of the larger solution to this problem. We don’t want to be the problem itself. And if people don’t like the fact that the current administration and congressional Republicans are doing everything they can to scuttle global efforts to tackle the climate change problem, they can turn out at the midterm election and make their voice heard at the voting booth.

AMY GOODMAN: And on more climate change news, we’re here in San Francisco. California Governor Jerry Brown has signed a new law to shift California to 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2045. Can you talk about the significance of this? And overall, we’re here for the entire week broadcasting because of the Global Climate Action Summit that is taking place here, a kind of mini-COP before the big climate summit in Poland. The significance of this kind of activism, Professor Mann?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, thanks. And I couldn’t be there for the conference because I’m teaching here back in Penn State University. But let me say in full disclosure that the governor, Jerry Brown, is a close friend of mine, and he’s a hero of mine, as well. He has really made climate change, addressing climate change, sort of the central sort of principle of his administration, of his governorship. And here now, thanks to the state Legislature, which has written this very tough new climate bill, and the governor, who has now signed that bill, California is sending a signal to the rest of the world.

Let’s not forget, California is the fifth-largest economy in the world. So when California speaks, people listen. Governments listen. Policymakers listen. And California has now sent a very strong signal: “We’re moving ahead. We want to be part of the solution. We realize that we can preserve the environment and grow our economy at the same time.” And California is doing that. The rest of the world needs to get on board, as well.

Most of the rest of the world is. Many states in this country, like California, the West Coast states, the New England states, Virginia, New Jersey, are on board. But we have, again, at the highest level of our government, our presidential administration and congressional Republicans doing everything they can to block progress. We need to change that. And one way to change that, of course, is voting in elections.

AMY GOODMAN: Let me ask you, given that you’re a good friend of, so have the ear of, Governor Brown, we were at the major march this weekend—the largest one in the United States, it was here in San Francisco. Tens of thousands of people came out. And among the criticisms was his continued support for fracking. They called it a huge smear on Governor Brown’s green record. Also, well, people like Californians Against Fracking said it’s hypocritical for Brown to call himself a climate leader. If you could comment on this?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, so he’s led in so many ways. And I think sometimes here there is the danger of the perfect being the enemy of the good. Perhaps one could argue there are some blind spots in those policies, but Governor Brown has probably done more than any other governor in the country to advance action on climate change. And at a time when we have inaction on the part of our administration and on the part of the congressional Republican leadership, we need every ally we can find.

And Jerry Brown has been a leader on this issue, and he continues to lead on this issue. And he does have our ear. And, you know, maybe there is an opportunity to make some progress on the issue of natural gas and fracking. It’s a problem here in Pennsylvania, as well. We have an economy that is substantially driven by the natural gas industry. So these are tough issues to deal with. They do get sort of at the heart of the economies in many of our larger states. But we need to make progress on this issue, as well, no question about that.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, on this issue of climate change, your overall assessment of President Trump, what you would say to him right now, and the new EPA head, Andrew Wheeler, the former coal lobbyist who replaced the disgraced Scott Pruitt, who was forced out over so many corruption investigations?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, well, I would give him an F, but that would be unfair because that would imply that maybe he gets 60 percent, which is normally our cutoff for a failing grade. He actually gets zero percent. He gets negative percent in the—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about Trump?

MICHAEL MANN: —sense that—Trump has taken us backward. He has actually done everything in his power to dismantle existing environmental protections, including the policy advances that were made under the previous administration, under the Obama administration, when it comes to fuel efficiency standards and the Clean Power Plan to cut our emissions from the power sector—all those things that Obama did to try to meet our obligations to the rest of the world in keeping up our end of the Paris accord. Of course, Trump has tried to undo all of that, and, as you mentioned earlier, now he’s rolling back these key methane rules.

So, you know, I think it’s probably fair to say that when it comes to the environment, Donald Trump is the worst president we have ever had. Past Republican presidents, like Nixon, Reagan, both Bushes, actually acted to support policies to protect the environment. Nixon created the EPA. George H.W. Bush created cap and trade to deal with the problem of acid rain. Ronald Reagan signed the Montreal Protocol to ban the chlorofluorocarbons that were destroying the ozone layer, these pollutants that were destroying the ozone layer.

So it’s actually unprecedented to have a president who is actually trying to take us backward rather than forward when it comes to acting on the greatest environmental threats we face. And, to me, it’s ironic because if you’re a true conservative, you should want to conserve the environment, conserve the planet. And Trump is doing just the opposite, and that has dire implications for our children and grandchildren. Donald Trump may be the greatest threat that we face because of his policies that favor environmental destruction.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Michael Mann—although I said finally about four times right now—but there is nonstop coverage, as there should be, of this Category 4, possibly 5, hurricane that’s barreling down on the Carolinas and Virginia—one-and-a-half million people being evacuated–and yet there is rarely a mention by these meteorologists, when people are watching TV, of the connection to climate change. This is when people are taking in the most information. Your thoughts on this, on the TV meteorologists’ coverage? I’m not talking about the specials that are occasionally done on a network, but the daily drumbeat coverage of these catastrophes, linking them to climate change?

MICHAEL MANN: Yeah, you know, there are some great meteorologists out there who are trying to connect the dots for the public. Rob Marciano of Good Morning America comes to mind. But too often, our meteorologists, broadcast meteorologists, don’t really connect the dots for the public when it comes to the role that climate change is playing here.

And I think there are a number of reasons for that. One of them is just that it requires context, it requires explanation. And in a soundbite-driven media environment that we live in today, and the 24-hour news—the very rapid 24-hour news cycle, sometimes it’s difficult to work that context into discussions of weather, what role is climate change playing with these extreme weather events.

We actually did see some good coverage this summer in the wake of these unprecedented weather events—the California wildfires, unprecedented floods and heat waves and drought around the globe, in fact. We did see network news coverage where they were talking about the role that climate change was playing. But that was only after many of us complained about the lack of that context. They were listening to us, and there was eventually an opportunity to provide that. I hope that will happen here.

We’re at the very beginning right now of the discussion of the news cycle that’s going to be driven by Florence and its impacts. And so, my hope is that we will, as the coverage proceeds, see that context, that network news programs will be inviting climate scientists like myself onto those programs to talk about these linkages, because it’s a huge lost opportunity if we don’t explain to the public the fact that much of the threat that we’re seeing today, when it comes to these unprecedented weather extremes, is being caused by the aggravating effect of climate change. The public needs to understand that so they can force policymakers to act on this problem.

AMY GOODMAN: Michael Mann, I want to thank you for being with us, distinguished professor and director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State University. His latest book is titled The Madhouse Effect: How Climate Change Denial Is Threatening Our Planet, Destroying Our Politics, and Driving Us Crazy.

Coming up, President Trump’s national security adviser attacking the International Criminal Court, saying they will not allow ICC judges into the United States, among other things. Stay with us.

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