'Slowing It Down Matters': What Harvey and Irma Tell Us About Climate Change

Recent hurricanes and other disasters give insight into the future of a livable planet

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, experiences the effects of Hurricane Irma, after it raked across the north coast of Cuba and made landfall in the Florida Keys. Credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

It's long past time to talk about climate change.

I wrote my first feature for Rolling Stone, about the already observable impacts of global warming, back in 2004. The piece, "Diary of a Dying Planet," leads with a heatwave that killed tens of thousands of Europeans in the summer of 2003 – mostly the elderly and the infirm – who baked to death in the heat, dropping dead in stairwells, expiring in garrett apartments. In Paris, their bodies needed to be stored in refrigerator trucks because there was no room in the city's morgues.

Global warming didn't cause that heatwave, any more than it sparks wildfires or spins up tropical storms. But climate change takes these naturally occurring phenomena and turns them up to 11 – or sometimes to 20. Attribution science has advanced, so that we now know that the 2003 heat wave was not only amplified by manmade pollution, but that human-induced warming was responsible for nearly two-thirds of the deaths in Paris.

In reporting that piece, I visited Stanford University to interview a giant of climate science, global change professor Stephen Schneider, who has since passed away. Schneider told me that the toll of the European heat wave was outside what even top scientists considered plausible. "If you had asked me how many people could have died in France by the most exaggerated heat wave – souped up by global warming – that I could imagine ... I would have said 500 – max," he said. "And I would have been off by a factor of 30."

Then Schneider then told me something that has always stuck with me.

When it comes to climate change, "slowing it down matters."

"The faster and harder you push on the ecological system, the more harm to nature – and the more the likelihood of surprise. I'm talking about nasty surprises," he added. "Are there more of those lurking? Undoubtedly."

This has been a summer of nasty climate surprises. Hurricane Harvey, the most extreme rain event in U.S. history, sucked up enough vapor from the overheated Gulf of Mexico to dump 33 trillion gallons on land. The deluge made a mockery of our metrics – with many communities recording what the models anticipate as 1-in-25,000 year flooding, and isolated areas experiencing unfathomable 1-in-500,000 year flood.

Then Irma, a Texas-sized mega hurricane, became the most extreme storm ever measured in the Atlantic. With sustained winds of 185 mph, Irma pushed to the edge of the theoretical maximum for hurricane intensity, generating, by itself, as much cyclone energy as an entire average hurricane season. The storm leveled Barbuda, crashed into Cuba as a category-five storm, and still had enough power to ravage Key West and then inundate Jacksonville, 500 miles to the Northeast. Irma's death rattle has spun off tornadoes in Alabama and flooded creeks in Tennessee.

Harvey and Irma have caused as much as $200 billion in damage in the United States and killed dozens from Houston to Havana. But we in the Americas are luckier than others. In another nasty surprise, worst-in-a-decade monsoon rains in South Asia have inundated millions and killed more than 1,200 across Nepal, Bangladesh and India.

We are learning through deadly experience.

Climate change means more than melting glaciers and creeping centimeters of sea-level rise. Climate change also means unpredictable bursts – nasty life-threatening and economy-shaking surprises. It is delivering threats against which we are powerless to harden our defenses. Even the most advanced countries in the world don't build for a 500-year flood – much less a 500,000-year flood.

If we are serious, there will be big costs to fighting climate change. But as Americans are now beginning to understand, in our guts, the price of inaction may be higher still. It's easy to give in to fatalism: Even heroic efforts cannot stop cold the ravages of climate change. More is coming.

But the wisdom of Stephen Schneider is crucial. "Slowing it down matters."

Let's talk about climate change.

Let's slow it down.

Today.