Five Crucial Climate Lessons from Hurricane Ida

BY: Ethan Brown

Source: Tommy Gao

On August 29, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Ida made landfall in Louisiana, recording a gust of 172 miles per hour in Port Fourchon as it came ashore. By September 1, Ida had still not dissipated, making its way up the east coast and breaking multiple rainfall records across the northeastern United States. As of September 11, 84 deaths have been confirmed in relation to Ida. Ida was historic in both its severity and reach, prompting reflections about the role of climate change in this storm, and what it means for the future. 

Here are five takeaways from Hurricane Ida: 

1. “Protecting the earth for our children and grandchildren” is out the door.

As a young adult born in 1999, I hear some variation of this all the time: “We have to save the earth for our children and grandchildren.” “Kids are the future.” “You’ll be the ones to fix our mistakes.” “Climate change is your generation’s problem.” 

Yeah, it is our generation’s problem. It’s also older generations’ problem. 

An analysis by the US National Climatic Data Center looked at ocean and land temperatures from 1880 to 2014 and calculated the average temperature of each month in the twentieth century. In other words, they took the average temperature of each month in 1900, and 1901, and 1902, and so on until 2000, and then averaged all those numbers together. The last time there was a month with average ocean temperatures below that 1900s average was February 1976. The last time a month’s average land temperature dipped below the 1900s average was February 1985. That means anyone 36 or younger has never experienced a month with below average land temperatures, and anyone 45 or younger has never witnessed ocean temperatures dip below average either. 

This data provides evidence for something everyone can already see: Climate change is not only here now, but in cases like Hurricane Ida, it is causing mass destruction now. It is, in fact, affecting older generations. Ida made its way from Louisiana all the way up to the Northeast, so much of the U.S. was directly affected, but even if you weren’t in Ida’s path, you still may have had loved ones affected, and you most definitely will see your tax dollars be put toward the recovery. 

If policymakers or CEOs or even voters are motivated by a promise of a habitable planet to their children or grandchildren, then there’s nothing wrong with that. But to say in 2021 that climate change is a future problem for children and grandchildren would be wrong. Climate change will worsen, but Ida serves as a stark reminder that climate change is here right now. 

2. Climate change actually affects individual storms.

Scientists have understood for some time that climate change would affect hurricanes. (1) Climate change leads to increased ocean and air temperatures, and as every high school physics teacher would say, heat is energy. That means when storms are brewing, they’ll pick up speed a lot faster. (2) Climate change leads to sea level rise, by melting ice sheets and by warming the ocean, causing the water to expand. If water is creeping up the coast already, hurricanes can make their way much further inland than they otherwise would. (3) Climate change leads to more rainfall, because warmer air can hold more moisture. These three factors help explain why climate change would worsen hurricanes. 

Now, a new field called attribution science uses these principles to determine to what degree climate change influenced an individual storm. One of these analyses determined, for example, that the record 60 inches of rain during Hurricane Harvey were directly linked to the record high temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico. While it will take time for scientists to complete such an analysis for Hurricane Ida, the Gulf of Mexico temperatures are once again suspect. As Ida developed, it traveled over the hottest parts of the gulf, turning that heat into energy and rapidly intensifying from an unnamed tropical depression on August 26th to 150 mile per hour winds on August 29th. Experts suggest that fast acceleration is abnormal, and climate change paved the way for it. 

3. The consequences of hurricanes are not experienced equally.

Among the many haunting images during Hurricane Ida were videos of water pouring into New York City basement apartments at speeds and quantities so fast that many people failed to escape their homes. These images prompted the question: why are people allowed to live there? But in fact, many of these basement dwellings were already illegal. In one of the most expensive housing markets in the world, low-income New Yorkers including many working-class families and immigrants moved into these illegal apartments to have an affordable place to live. With them being illegal, tenants didn’t raise concerns about safety for fear of being fined or losing their home. Based on that fact, it seems unlikely these tenants would find immediate relief in the aftermath of Ida. 

This socioeconomic disparity in hurricane impacts has happened before. A study in Environmental Research after Harvey found that racial and ethnic minority households and lower socioeconomic status households experienced disproportionately more flooding at their home sites than white households and higher socioeconomic status households. On top of the hurricane damage itself, a survey of 1,600 Texans in 24 counties found that 52% of white respondents were able to get the relief they needed, as opposed to 46% of Hispanic respondents and 32% of Black respondents. In other words, the communities that experienced the most damage saw the least relief.  

Though we don’t know yet how recovery resources for Ida will be allocated in the years to come, New York City’s basements were perhaps one of the most obvious reminders that climate change disproportionately affects low-income and minority communities, even when they experience the same extreme weather event as the rest of the region. 

4. Climate policy is not at odds with economic development.

For decades, environmental policy has been framed as a tradeoff of environment versus economy, or environment versus development. In practice, that’s rarely the case. From 2005 to 2017, 41 U.S. states reduced carbon dioxide emissions while growing their Gross Domestic Product. Not only are wind and solar becoming increasingly cheaper than fossil fuel alternatives, but reducing carbon emissions is, at its core, a question of efficiency—using less energy to perform the same task saves on both emissions and money. On its own, climate action boosts the economy more than inaction. 

Hurricane Ida adds another element. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Hurricane Laura in 2020 cost 19 billion dollars. Hurricane Harvey cost 125 billion dollars. Hurricane Katrina cost 161 billion dollars. In fact, the total cost of damages from weather and climate disasters from 1980 to 2020 added up to 1.875 trillion dollars. Seeing how Ida’s damage spans from Louisiana all the way to the Northeast, it wouldn’t be surprising if Ida’s economic impact broke a record. If Ida doesn’t, the next even worse storm might. 

No matter what, governments will have to spend a substantial amount of money and resources on climate change. Whether it’s spent on cleaning up increasingly worse disasters or mitigating climate change—and boosting the economy in doing so—is their choice. 

5. This isn’t normal.

Whenever a horrific storm like Ida happens, it’s easy to forget about all the other ones. But while many social and political issues see a shift in public opinion during a moment of crisis, climate change doesn’t. In an article for TIME, Jon Krosnick, a social psychologist at Stanford University who studies public opinion on climate change, explained, “The fact that these events are happening is not a smoking gun for Americans. Hurricane Katrina had no measurable impact on public opinion on climate at all. Hurricane Sandy had no measurable impact on public opinion on climate at all. Unusually cold winters in the East Coast had no impact.” In fact, this article revealed that the historical record over the past few decades shows little shift in national public opinion on climate change driven by the increased frequency of hurricanes, droughts and wildfires that one might have expected. 

To solve a problem, people must understand the root cause. For a storm to traverse a substantial chunk of the continent without dissipating is not normal, or just some bad weather. Hurricanes, heat waves, cold waves, droughts, wildfires, and many more weather phenomena are worsening at a rate that humans have never had to experience, and climate change is unequivocally the reason. There are plenty of ways to make this situation better, so hope is far from lost, but everyone must see Ida and Laura and Harvey and Maria and the Pacific Northwest heat wave and the California wildfires and every uncharacteristically hot or cold or rainy day as wake-up calls. If each one of these events spurred a conversation about climate change, maybe that would create the attention necessary for leaders to take decisive action. At the very least, it would make awkward small talk about the weather a little more interesting.