Opinion: Acapulco and the refusal to recognize the climate emergency


Published: 11-13-2023 6:00 AM

Jonathan P. Baird lives in Wilmot.

On October 25, a category 5 hurricane, Otis, caused catastrophic damage to Acapulco and surrounding areas on the west coast of Mexico. Otis had winds of 165 miles per hour. It left Acapulco looking like a post-apocalyptic war zone.

High-rise hotels had their windows and interior walls blown out. Sunken and flipped-over boats littered the beaches and harbor areas. Residents are still searching for the missing and dead bodies continue to be pulled from coastal waters. The storm destroyed many homes, blew off roofs, uprooted trees and caused huge mudslides.

The National Hurricane Center said, “There are no hurricanes on record even close to this intensity for this part of Mexico.” So far there are 48 people dead and 58 people missing. The storm knocked out electricity and phone service and left Acapulco with no drinking water.

The most amazing thing about the storm was its rapid intensification. Immediately before the storm, weather forecasters predicted Otis to be a category 1 hurricane. Catching everyone by surprise, including the residents of Acapulco, within a period of twelve hours, Otis went from a tropical storm to a category 5 hurricane.

The water off Acapulco had a temperature of almost 90 degrees. Hurricanes draw energy from warm surface waters. I don’t think it has been realized that oceans have absorbed 90% of global warming. The writer Zoe Schlanger wrote in the Atlantic, “A hot ocean is hurricane food.”

Schlanger quoted Jeff Masters, a hurricane specialist, “Hurricanes are heat engines. They take heat energy from the oceans, in the form of the water vapor that they evaporate from it, and convert it to the kinetic energy of their winds.”

Considering the magnitude of Otis, it has garnered remarkably little attention. It was a blip in the news. I am afraid this is consistent with the way climate change is being reported. Denialism and ignorance reign. Sure there are many other competing news stories that merit great concern but the refusal to recognize climate is the story with the greatest potential to come back to bite us.

Everything happens in a context and Otis is one of 23 separate billion dollar climate disasters in 2023. Just off the top, there was the wildfire in Maui, Hurricane Idalia in Florida, the record-breaking heatwaves in South Europe and China, the crazy smoke from Canada’s wildfires that blanketed American cities with an orange sky, the floods in Libya in September that killed over 11,000 and the flood in Montpelier.

Living in New England seemed to offer some insulation from climate change but the events this summer in Montpelier showed that to be an illusion. Who would have thought that would happen? Probably like others, I nursed the mistaken belief that the northern New England ecosphere offered some of the best protection against climate disaster.

In spite of all these weather events staring us in the face, there is an ongoing failure to acknowledge the obvious. The U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres put his finger on it. “Climate breakdown has begun.” But instead of any unified global response, there is inaction. Where is the will to at least try and mitigate the damage? How many more disastrous storms will it take to engage mass motivation?

Hurricane Otis and the other 22 climate disasters this year are a direct result of the extraction and burning of fossil fuels. The evidence is in and it is not controverted except by climate change-denying quacks. There is an overwhelming consensus among scientists about climate change.

You might think humanity would have a stake in its own self-preservation but the pursuit of profit would appear to win out. Time is of the essence but humans don’t have a great track record of working together across national boundaries. Still, what alternative is there? Humanity must come together very quickly with a shared climate agenda.

The obstacles are admittedly enormous. There is already a huge amount of global warming in the pipeline because of the continued burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuel companies are pretending there is no climate emergency. Almost unbelievably, they are doubling down on fossil fuel expansion.

In a distracted world, they see no end to oil demand. ExxonMobil just spent $59.5 billion acquiring U.S. shale oil producer, Pioneer Natural Resources. Chevron announced it is purchasing Hess, an oil and gas company for $53 billion in stock. Their behavior is beyond selfish. It reflects the worst, most short-sighted capitalist mentality. They are depending on the world not paying attention.

Leadership on climate is sadly missing in our political parties. The Republicans are anti-intellectual and anti-science. An NPR poll in August found that 70% of Republicans saw climate change as either a minor threat or no threat at all. In the House, the Republicans just voted to slash 39% of the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency. They also voted to require the Biden administration to advance oil drilling off the Alaska coast.

The Democrats’ record on climate is, at best, mixed. While the Biden administration pushed and passed a significant climate-smart economic stimulus in 2022, it also approved a large drilling project known as Willow on federal land in Alaska. Based on the science, there should be absolutely no new investment in oil, gas or coal. Democratic urgency on climate is lacking.

The disaster in Acapulco is a window into the future. Surprise, rapidly intensifying super-storms will increasingly be with us, causing predictable death and mayhem. We are in uncharted waters. Brushing aside and minimizing epic storms is a pathway to hell.