Friday, September 18, 2020
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How is lung cancer like Hurricane Harvey?

It’s very difficult for someone with training in science like me to watch Hurricane Harvey’s destruction in Houston, Beaumont, and surrounding areas without seeing the effects of global climate change.

As of our press date, 43 people have been confirmed killed by the storm, and damage will be measured in the billions of dollars. Texas farmers were having a good year until the storm wiped out their crops. Schools were all set to open a week from Labor Day, but almost a hundred of them will have to remain closed because they were completely destroyed by the storm. Those that are minimally habitable have been converted to shelters, but many students will have lost everything in the storm.

The warnings were coming in years in advance. The Texas Tribune, working with ProPublica, reported last year that Houston was a prime target for a hurricane that would result in significant damage. Yet these warnings were ignored, mainly by climate change deniers. That brings me to my headline.

Hurricane Harvey reminds me a lot of lung cancer, and my mom died of lung cancer 23 years ago. I can’t say for sure that smoking cigarettes caused my mom to get lung cancer any more than I can say warmer temperatures caused Hurricane Harvey to be the killer storm it was—she was just an isolated case, as Harvey is an isolated weather event—but I can give you odds.

People who get lung cancer tend to be smokers, and extreme precipitation events like Hurricane Harvey tend to happen when the air and water temperatures are warmer. Yet, brave Americans have been less successful in their efforts to control climate change than they have been in their efforts to get people to quit smoking.

Much of the climate change deniers’ argument centers on the fact that “climate” isn’t the same thing as “weather.” And they’re right about that. Long-term climate trends, such as the fact that nine of the 10 rainiest years ever on the planet occurred in the last 40 years, don’t cause weather.

Again, it’s the same with lung cancer and smoking. We can’t say that non-smokers won’t get lung cancer, since there are many factors involved with the disease, but we can give people the good advice not to smoke.

Trends like the connection between smoking and a lone incidence of cancer are very much like the connection between warmer global temperatures and a lone weather event like Hurricane Harvey. Warmer global climate makes certain weather more likely to happen. These two cause-and-effect relationships I can state with absolute certainty:

  1. The frequency of high-category (3, 4 and 5) hurricanes will increase as the climate warms.
  2. As the air warms, it holds more water vapor, so the storms dump more rain.

Now, there are sides to the Harvey storyline about heroism of ordinary people, and I could focus only on those. JJ Watt, the professional football player for the Houston Texans, set out to raise $200,000 for hurricane victims, but his contribution amounts to more than $17 million, as of Sunday morning. “I think the worst times bring out the best in people, and we’re seeing that right now,” NBC News quoted him as saying.

Metea Valley High School in Aurora, Illinois, was just one of thousands of high schools across the country that collected money for hurricane relief efforts at football games Friday night and yesterday. Metea Valley sent their donations directly to the JJ Watt Foundation.

President Donald Trump visited Houston to get a firsthand picture of the disaster relief efforts going on there, and he said things were going well but that there was a lot of disruption to people’s lives.

There’s no doubt in my mind that a climate change denier like Mr Trump would want to focus on these heroic efforts, and they abound in the media.

But there’s also the side of this story that we need to make whatever policy changes we can that would promote a campaign similar to the stop-smoking campaigns of the 1970s:


That’s mainly a question of policy, not science. But Americans, including scientists, will always rise to a challenge to help others in a disaster, wherever and whenever help is needed. Can we rise to the challenge to reduce the predictable frequency of weather-related disasters we experience in the first place?

In other words, neither I nor US intelligence experts have a clue what North Korea is up to. I can’t say with any certainty at all that reducing the number of standardized tests students take will improve student learning.

But I can say that my mom might still be alive today if she hadn’t smoked cigarettes for 30 years. And I can say that extreme precipitation events like Hurricane Harvey will be less frequent if we reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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