'Did climate change kill … people in Ellicott City?' | Will Bunch

APTOPIX Maryland Flash Flooding
Water rushes through Main Street in Ellicott City, Md., on Sunday.

On Memorial Day 2018, members of the Maryland National Guard and some residents of Ellicott City, Md., a historic mill town just west of Baltimore, were way too busy to honor fallen soldiers from America’s past wars. They were occupied instead with searching through the muck and debris from an almost Biblical flood the day before, praying with the increasingly dim hopes that a 39-year-old Air Force veteran and Guard member named Eddison Hermond might be found alive.

Hermond went missing after a small act of kindness in the midst of Sunday’s natural disaster. As the floodwaters caused by 6-to-10 inches of rapid rain cascaded like whitewater rapids through Ellicott City’s timeworn main streets, the National Guardsman told a desperate resident he would help find her lost cat, who went missing behind a restaurant. Instead, witnesses said Hermond was swept up and then under by the rapid floodwaters and disappeared.

Hermond’s body was found Tuesday afternoon, making him the third person in Ellicott City to die from floods in less than two years. In July 2016, a massive burst of rain that meteorologists blamed on unusually moist air in the depths of a heat wave caused a flood and two fatalities. At that time, officials said the flood has been Ellicott City’s once-in-a-1,000-years storm. Twenty-two months later, Ellicott City experienced its second once-in-1,000-years storm.

After the 2016 disaster, a top Maryland lawmaker — state Sen. James Rosapepe, chair of a key environmental subcommittee — asked, “Did climate change kill two people in Ellicott City…” — pointing to the mounting evidence that a hotter planet and a wetter atmosphere is making weather events more extreme and thus more deadly more often. He said government officials are making a mistake by not seeing flash floods from these 1,000-year storms that now happen every year or two as a part of the global-warming puzzle. Rosapepe argued in 2016 that “climate change is about more than polar bears and the rising sea level in the Chesapeake Bay.”

State officials had recently begun moving toward a major flood-mitigation program for Ellicott City, plagued by other problems such as suburban development that alters runoff patterns. But they weren’t able to act fast enough for Hermond and the city’s stunned residents. It’s another reminder that officials from Capitol Hill to Harrisburg aren’t moving nearly fast enough to reduce carbon pollution from fossil fuels — before climate change becomes completely unmanageable.

Remember 2017 and the spate of extreme weather — here in the United States around the world? The deadliest wildfire in the history of California? Hurricane Harvey, which dumped an unbelievable 50 inches of rainfall on America’s fourth-largest city, Houston, and which was described by the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency as “a storm the United States has not seen yet.”? Or Hurricane Maria, the Category 4 storm that slammed into Puerto Rico last summer and which — we just learned this week — is now estimated to have caused 4,645 deaths, or more than government officials had claimed by a factor of more than 70 times.

Look, we all know the drill by now. It’s difficult to prove the link between any specific weather event and long-term climate change, and, yes, these things — floods, hurricanes, wildfires — have happened since before the current breed of humans roamed the planet. It wasn’t carbon pollution that caused the great Johnstown Flood of 1889 (no, it was a shoddy dam for a resort for millionaire industrialists, but I digress…). But we ignore the rapid leap in extreme weather, and warnings that droughts on land and moisture air from a hotter planet are what’s exacerbating them, at our own risk.

Dr. Heidi Cullen, chief scientist for the environmental news site Climate Central, told the New York Times that as recently as the start of this decade “people were still of the mind-set that you couldn’t attribute any individual event to climate change. But with each subsequent issue, people are able to say that climate change really is increasing the risk.” That’s on top of the more obvious sign posts of a looming climate catastrophe, such as dangerous and unheard-of levels of CO2 in the atmosphere, low levels of Arctic ice, and the 400th consecutive month of record global average temperatures. So you could imagine this is setting off alarm bells for policy makers from Capitol Hill to Harrisburg.

The only thing is, they’re not listening. Last fall, according to a new report in the Washington Post, Michael Catanzaro, President Trump’s special assistant for domestic energy and environmental policy at the time, gave the president and his top staff several options on how to deal with government science showing that climate change is real and getting worse. One of the proposals was to simply “ignore” the evidence — while promoting the truth and alerting the American public wasn’t even considered.

We don’t know the exact response to Catanzaro’s memo, but Team Trump is still doing everything it can to “ignore” climate science. The administration is pulling out of the Paris climate accord and promoting the dirtiest fossil fuels such as coal at every turn, while watching China and other adversaries eat our lunch on clean alternative fuels like solar and wind. It’s probably just a coincidence that the countries that win with high prices for oil and natural gas — Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates — are the ones who seemed so eager to see Trump win the 2016 election.

At least we have state governments and City Halls to fight against greenhouse-gas pollution. Many are, and they’re doing a great job. The state capital of Pennsylvania is not one of them. The legislature is pretty much in the back pocket of Big Oil and Gas, while voters in the 2018 governor’s race get a choice of the incumbent Democrat Gov. Wolf — whose heart is in the right place on environmental matters but whose big idea of having a lot of fracking but taxing it for schools seems outdated as the climate crisis escalates — or the GOP’s Scott Wagner, who said last year that there’s a lot of people in the world so it may be “warm bodies” that are heating the planet.

Scott Wagner’s climate denial is so outrageous that it obscures that fact that Wolf — the heavy favorite — won’t go far enough. Earlier this month, a coalition calling itself Pennsylvania Fracking Health Impacts urged the governor to support a moratorium on fracking, citing scores of cases across the Keystone State of people who say they were made ill from natural-gas drilling. One of the group members is Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo, who said he’d had higher expectations for Wolf. Said Ruffalo: “He’s done nothing to hold the oil and gas industry accountable.”

Halting fracking in Pennsylvania is seen as a radical idea, and politically impossible. This despite that fact that the states immediately to our north and south — New York and Maryland — have managed to do exactly that. Maybe it’s time for Pennsylvania to stop focusing so much on whether we can afford to stop drilling, and start asking how many more events like Ellicott City or Houston will it take to begin understanding the new reality.