Hurricanes, Trump Bring Asheville Climate Work Into Focus

Sep 12, 2017

Recent hurricanes Irma and Harvey were a stark reminder of the catastrophic impacts of climate change.   But the words “climate change” have become so politically polarizing that some even avoid saying them.  In Asheville, that’s not the case. 

Within a few weeks, two hurricanes set records.  Hurricane Harvey for dumping a record amount of rain on the Houston, Texas area, and Hurricane Irma, which was possibly the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean.  With those events and record-breaking temperatures, you might think climate change would be among the nation’s primary concerns.  It’s not with the current administration.  President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement and appointed a climate change denier, Scott Pruitt, as head of the EPA.  Some, like Pruitt, have suggested even talking about climate change while people are recovering from devastating storms is insensitive.  Eileen Shea disagrees.

“It’s a diversion to say that it’s insensitive.  So I think that’s a ridiculous position to take.”

Shea is a senior climate policy adviser for CASE Consultants International in Asheville, and spent a quarter century as a climate scientist at NOAA, working for what was then the National Climate Data Center in Asheville, now the National Centers for Environmental Information.  Shea says now’s the appropriate time to be talking about climate change, and she takes issue with the administration’s stance in general.

“I think it’s uninformed.  I don’t think they’ve done their own research to understand what data is out there and what that data is demonstrating.  There are far, far, far more people in the scientific community who do believe that we have the evidence.  I’ve seen it and I certainly trust the evidence that climate change is real, it’s happening, it’s affecting us now, and it will affect us in the future.”

So what about Harvey and Irma?  What role did climate play in those storms?

“No scientist worth their salt will blame any individual event on climate change, but these storms are certainly being exacerbated by climate change, partly because hurricanes, especially, take their energy from the ocean, their energy and their moisture from the ocean, and the warm the water, the stronger the hurricane can grow.  And the more expansive the warm water, the further the hurricane can go and stay strong.”

Shea is one of the many climate scientists working in Asheville, sometimes referred to as “climate city.”  For them, the debate over climate change has been long-settled.  They’re looking instead at what to do about it.  Matt Hutchins is a research scientist for UNC Asheville’s National Environmental Modeling and Analysis Center, or NEMAC, housed at the Collider – climate science business center in downtown Asheville. 

“I think about when these events come up, is they become urgent when they’re about to happen, but it’s really the preparedness and forethought of dealing with things before they happen.” 

Hutchins describes his work as solutions-oriented.

“We look at ways communities can better prepare, be more adaptive, or respond better.”

The debate is also over for Jeff Hicks, CEO of FernLeaf Interactive, a community resilience solutions firm that’s partnered with NEMAC.

“There’s not any question at this point about the changes that we’re seeing.  I mean, you can be in Miami on a clear day, and many of the roads are completely flooded.”

As Hicks puts it, events like Irma and Harvey will become more frequent and stronger with the changing climate and communities don’t have unlimited resources to respond after the fact.

“We can’t afford, as a society, to continue to make the same mistakes, with planning for these major events.  I like to say let’s only make new mistakes.”

So regardless of the position of the current administration, regardless of whether it’s being talked about, the work on climate change will continue.  And between the many scientists doing their work right in Asheville at the Collider or NOAA, much of that work will be done locally.