In the Face of Climate-Related Disasters Hope Remains, but Action is Needed

Jasmine Huggins | September 15, 2021

It will take some time before we know the economic and toll of Hurricane Ida. America’s 6th most expensive storm, and Louisiana’s 2nd worst, came 16 years after the historic Katrina. As Americans recover from the horror of neighbors drowning in their own basements, as families as far north as Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York and New Jersey try to rebuild from lost homes and lost livelihoods, and as both urban and rural communities worry about a future of disrupted power and water supplies, we can estimate the social and psychological toll to last for years to come.  

Early estimates suggest $50 billion worth of damaged infrastructure and property—exacerbated by extreme flooding and rainfall, damaged water and sanitation supplies—but that’s likely to rise as the full picture emerges. Balance sheets will reflect the cost of rebuilding and ask if, as America must now prepare for future disasters, rebuilding in the same place is now worth the effort. Hurricane Ida came just within days of Tropical Storm Henri, which, although affecting more 120,000 people, seems like mild storm.  

This dramatic increase in the intensity and frequency of costly hurricanes has long been predicted by climate science, but its pace today has outstripped initial expectations.  July 2021 was the hottest month ever recorded on earth.  As the planet continues to warm, extreme weather events like this will become more disastrous and possibly harder to predict. Scientists continue to remind us that unless climate and emergency management policies are fixed, damage to infrastructure and loss of life will increase. 

Ida and Henri came just weeks after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) launched its most devastating report yet, and just days after a new survey showed that a majority of people in the G20i countries—including 60% of Americans polled—believe that humanity is pushing the planet beyond its limits. Eighty-three percent were willing to do more to address the crisis and 74 percent prioritized climate and protecting nature over jobs and profit. People are worried about the environment and their relationship with it. They feel a new urgency about taking personal action, even if they are unsure about what to do. 

As weary communities clean up after yet another record-breaking storm, this is encouraging. It suggests that hope remains, even during difficult times.   

CWS has worked for 75 years to reduce hunger and poverty, transform communities, and accompany migrants and refugees. We are responding to Hurricanes Ida and Henri today.  The recent IPCC report reiterates what our local partners and staff have long been telling us: dwindling crop yields, climate related illnesses, increasing water shortages, air pollution and hotter temperatures are getting worse, and hitting communities harder. They imperil progress that has taken years to achieve. Communities are facing unprecedented challenges for which they are yet to receive—and don’t have confidence they will get—technical and financial needed. 

Watching the news is proves this truth. But the cumulative effect of extreme weather last far longer than news cycles. Climate-related disasters have nearly doubled in twenty years. Here in America, their cost escalates every year. As wildfires, storms, floods and extreme heat incidents increase, CWS emergency and response teams are being challenged as never before. And it’s not just the sudden extreme events that are destructive, climate change incrementally affects us on a daily basis. Today, our program staff increasingly prioritizes risk awareness, adaptation and resilience into projects. CWS is also investing more into understanding who is vulnerable and in need of protection, how climate disruption disproportionately affects women and girls, and supporting climate displaced persons. 

Hope is a necessary balm in these troubling times, but it needs to be backed by action—broad, sweeping action, on a kind of scale not seen since World War Two. Just this week, in a joint editorial, editors of leading health journals said just that, appealing to world leaders to marshal resources and political will to limit global temperatures and restore biodiversity. Protecting vulnerable, at-risk communities is a cornerstone of peace and long-term public health, they remind us., and wealthy countries must do more because they have the resources and capacity to do so, but also because they are more responsible for causing climate disruption in the first place.  

CWS, too, has called on Congress to effect policy changes to these challenges. It has long advocated for legislation to lower greenhouse gas emissions, and for increased climate finance to help vulnerable communities—in America and around the world. We have called for action commensurate with America’s historic share of the global carbon budget, and its capacity to help the rest of the world. But, as low income communities at home and developing countries overseas become increasingly indebted by the cost of climate change,  legislators have not yet enacted changes on the scale required. The Biden administration has set welcome new climate targets and will take them to Glasgow, Scotland, this November where, at COP 26—the U.N.’s annual climate meeting—climate negotiators will hammer out what many hope is a fair deal for the developing world.  But early signs suggest that wealthy countries still lack the political will to deliver the level of climate finance promised, while collectively, governmental plans to cut emissions are nowhere near where climate science tells us we should be. 

But crisis is also opportunity and solutions are still available. We need to seize them. 

History has shown that when our political leaders don’t do what needs to be done, ordinary people step in. They learn, organize, mobilize and make political challenges personal. They call on their courage. People’s involvement led to women’s suffrage, the end of slavery and the civil rights movement.   

Now, as this recent study now shows, ordinary people are asking what action they can take. With each extreme weather event, Americans are asking more questions. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions may require ambitious federal legislation and policy implementation, but, when ordinary people get involved, we can usher in that needed change.   

CWS knows this. This summer, we asked supporters to take action to lower carbon emissions through Meatless Mondays, and other initiatives will soon follow. As climate affected Americans are forced to contemplate the impact of rising temperatures at home, it is important that they also demonstrate solidarity with their global neighbors who are also reaching out for hope and change.  

In this effort every little bit helps. This is what former Minnesota State Rep. Kate Knuth calls “climate citizenry”—where ordinary people choose how they want to respond: from what they buy, what they eat, and how they vote. Even by just speaking to their members of Congress, writing to the press, joining campaigns or talking with their relatives, friends and neighbors they can create change.   

Other experts agree: Prof. Michael E. Mann affirms the IPCC’s conclusions but reminds us of the importance of our “agency and urgency.” Dr. Elizabeth Sawin adds that, “just because you can’t stop all suffering is not a reason to not prevent what suffering you can; there’s no giving up, friends” 

As citizens, we hold enough power in our hands to be greener and more sustainable, to protect the vulnerable, and heal the planet for generations to come.     

You can support CWS’s climate advocacy work by donating to our Hurricane Ida relief fund.  Also consider subscribing to medical journals..