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How Climate Change Is Fueling Hurricanes And Wildfires


Last week, Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana as one of the strongest storms to hit the region in decades. To be clear, scientists say climate change doesn't cause a weather event, but it is playing a role in increasing the severity of them. To understand why, we called climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe.

KATHARINE HAYHOE: In a warmer world, hurricanes are not getting more frequent, but they are getting stronger. They're intensifying faster. They're getting bigger and slower. And they have a lot more rainfall associated with them than they would have 50 or 100 years ago.

MARTIN: Hayhoe is co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University. She says a warmer world also affects the size of wildfires in California and elsewhere.

HAYHOE: Since the 1980s, due to climate change, wildfires have burned over twice the area than they would have normally because, of course, you get wildfires out West. That's just part of life in those ecosystems. But climate change is the great threat multiplier. It's making them worse.

MARTIN: Professor Hayhoe, taking everything into account that you just described, we also can't ignore that these events are happening during a pandemic that's already killed more than 180,000 people just in the United States. And I wonder, is that also what you're talking about when the Department of Defense views climate change or describes climate change as a threat multiplier? Is that part of it as well?

HAYHOE: It is. So climate change takes issues that we already have, that we already care about, and it exacerbates them or makes them worse - issues like poverty, even age.

For example, one of my colleagues, her parents live in the Houston area. They were very concerned about getting in the car and driving - you know, when everybody's evacuating, it could take hours to just get, you know, a hundred miles away - because of coronavirus. What if they ended up exposing themselves to coronavirus as they drove? And for people who are sheltering in shelters, typically, they're quite crowded. We are all vulnerable, and climate change is exacerbating the risks that we already face today, coronavirus included.

MARTIN: And if you don't mind my raising this, you've written about being a person who considers herself an evangelical Christian. And you are also a scientist sounding the alarm about climate change. Some Christians do seem to see those two things in conflict. And you just say that this is not true. You say that these two different commitments are actually in harmony. Could you just as briefly as you can just say why?

HAYHOE: You're absolutely right. In the United States - and that qualifier is very important - the people who are least concerned about climate change are white, conservative Protestants and white Catholics. But the interesting thing is that the most concerned people in the United States by denomination are Hispanic Catholics. And, of course, the pope wrote an encyclical five years ago explaining why climate change is such a global issue. So that sort of shows us, hey, what's going on here?

It turns out when social scientists dig deeper, rejecting climate - the reality of climate change and the need for climate solutions is exclusively tied to people who have bought into a right-wing ideology that somehow, this planet doesn't matter. But it does. It matters to every one of us.

And then for Christians, at the very beginning of the Bible, it talks about how God gave us humans responsibility over every living thing on this planet as well as how we are to care for those less fortunate than us. You know, the Bible talks about the widows and the orphans and the poor. And today, those are the very people being most affected by a changing climate. So if we take the Bible seriously, we are out at the front of the line demanding climate action, not dragging our feet at the end.

MARTIN: All right. That's Katharine Hayhoe. She's a climate scientist and co-director of the Climate Center at Texas Tech University.

Professor Hayhoe, thanks so much for talking to us once again.

HAYHOE: Thank you for having me.