The World Meteorological Organization has a master list of names for storms that originate in the Atlantic. The list, which alternates between male and female names, is recycled every six years. When, however, a storm crosses a certain threshold of destruction and notoriety, its name is retired. There won’t be another Anita, David, Gilbert, Hugo, Katrina, Mitch, Matthew or Ivan in our lifetimes; nor will there be a Harvey or an Irma. Retired names that occur in alphabetical sequence are a simple indicator of the severity of a hurricane season, but the growing familiarity of these infamous titles is also a worrying sign of the toll that climate change has taken on the Caribbean within the last few decades.
Hurricane Irma is the most powerful hurricane yet recorded in the Atlantic. When it passed over Barbuda and Saint Martin it clocked speeds of up to 150 miles an hour. One reason that it grew to such catastrophic proportions is that it was able to absorb seawater that was at least one degree celsius warmer than usual. Warmer oceans mean larger storms and these in turn require mitigation measures that are increasingly expensive. When individual islands are devastated by storms – such as hurricane Ivan’s levelling of Grenada in 2004 – our shock at the immediate damage, and the challenge of mounting an adequate response, often obscure larger questions about lack of a coherent international response to climate change. But unless one is developed soon, small and under-resourced nations like those in the Caribbean are doomed to suffer routine superstorms in the future.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration is staffed with climate change deniers and the US Republican party is beholden to corporate interests that deliberately understate the severity of climate change. This relationship is well documented. In the 2011 book Tropic of Chaos, Christian Parent cites a Greenpeace report that found that between 2005 and 2008 foundations controlled by the billionaire libertarian Koch brothers “contributed $24.9 million to organizations promoting climate denial.” One consequence of such vigorous misinformation is that fewer Americans believe that the earth is warming – 77 per cent in 2006, 56 per cent three years later, according to Pew polls. Such denial has kept the political pressure to address the crisis to a minimum, and allowed successive administrations to shirk their responsibilities in international efforts to tackle climate change such as the Paris climate accord. Similar self-interest has allowed China and India to play politics with the issue and ensured that even the current agreements aim to do no more than hold the already alarming degree of global change to a barely acceptable minimum.
For the immediate future, wealthy countries tend to believe that they can defer a full reckoning with climate change. Their economies are robust enough to absorb periodic hurricanes, flash floods and other temporary setbacks. But a trend towards larger and less manageable catastrophes is unmistakable. In July, for instance, a trillion metric tons of floating ice detached from the Antarctic Peninsula, creating an iceberg the size of Delaware. If the Antarctic ice sheet continues to fragment in this way the resulting sea levels will produce much greater storms and hurricanes than any we have yet faced. Methane from the thawing ice – it is dozens of times more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide – will produce accelerated global warming and our new normal could well be several superstorms like Harvey and Irma every hurricane season. Hurricanes are described as “acts of god” for insurance purposes, but the recent devastation in the Caribbean ought also to remind us that our negligent attitude to a warming planet needs urgent reform if we don’t wish to face even harsher treatment from the planet’s angry deity.