In the United States, the most memorable images of weather disaster so far this summer have probably come from heartland flooding events. In the Midwest, where extreme precipitation events have grown by 42 percent, some neighborhoods were flooded last week by seven feet of water and firefighters had to rescue children from their homes. In St. Louis, which got two months’ worth of rain in the space of six hours, families swam to safety out their front doors. The same weather system delivered another deluge, considerably more deadly, to eastern Kentucky. Both were considered once-in-a-thousand-year events; overnight into Wednesday, another thousand-year storm hit Illinois.
The climate, and the world, are changing. What challenges will the future bring, and how should we respond to them?
The death toll in Kentucky was officially 37 as of Tuesday, though state officials expect the total will grow. The youngest identified victim was just two. With officials still boating through floodwaters trawling for victims, the region now faces a wave of extreme heat and the possibility of power outages.
“I wish I could tell you why we keep getting hit here in Kentucky,” Governor Andy Beshear, a Democrat, said. “I wish I could tell you why areas where people may not have much continue to get hit and lose everything,” he went on. “I can’t give you the why, but I know what we do in response to it. And the answer is everything we can.”
It used to be, when the scariest climate impacts were more common in models than on television screens, that climate advocates sometimes found themselves wondering what scale of disaster might shake the world from its basic complacency.
Then, when large disasters did strike — Hurricane Katrina, for instance, or Hurricane Sandy, or the Camp Fire — without much altering the shape of public concern, they sometimes wondered if it would take a string of disasters.
The intervals between such events are now shorter than ever. The world is finally moving to decarbonize, but haltingly, and too slowly to offer real protection from warming. “Some 35 million homes, almost one-third of the nation’s housing stock, are at high risk for disasters,” The Times recently reported. And of course climate vulnerability is greatest in the poorest parts of the world, where residents are least responsible for the perturbation of the climate and least equipped to protect themselves from the ravages of warming.