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Cynthia Tucker: Nuanced effects of climate change batter the Deep South

Cynthia Tucker: Nuanced effects of climate change batter the Deep South

Cynthia Tucker

Cynthia Tucker

MOBILE, Ala. -- The tornadoes that roared through the Deep South in late March slammed southeastern and central Alabama, ripping homes apart, snapping utility poles, hurling cars into trees. The "super cell," as forecasters called it, lasted for days, starting in eastern Texas and gathering force before it petered out in Georgia.

Its damage was not confined to vicious winds. It hammered Nashville with record rainfall and flooding.

The days-long severe storm came little more than a week after a weaker system that struck in mid-March. That one also started in Texas and moved east, creating havoc as far north as Kentucky and as far east as Florida. Whatever else Mother Nature may have been trying to tell us, she was clear about the future: Climate change will cause more and more extreme weather events.

Climate scientists are reluctant to link any single tornado to global warming. Whatever you may have heard from the skeptics, climate experts are cautious researchers -- they are scientists, after all -- who draw conclusions only after thorough study. So far, the evidence doesn't suggest that the United States has seen more tornadoes as temperatures climb.

But evidence does show tornadoes are becoming more clustered -- the sort of "super-cell" event that ravaged parts of Alabama in late March. Climate scientists also believe the tornado threat zone is shifting eastward. In generations past, "tornado alley" was a less-populated area of the southern and western Plains states, including the Dakotas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Oklahoma and Kansas. Think "The Wizard of Oz."

Two severe-weather researchers -- Harold Brooks of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Dr. Victor Gensini of Northern Illinois University -- recently released a study proposing that the threat zone is moving to the more densely populated areas of the southeastern United States. That means more people, more schools, more houses and more businesses, which translates to more damage and more deaths.

"It's not a big jump to say that climate change is causing this shift east. The hypothesis and computer simulations support what we are observing and what we expect in the future," Gensini told CBS News.

Not that many of my fellow Southerners believe it. Most of them are fervent Republicans who scorn experts, doubt science and treat the word of Donald Trump as gospel truth. He infamously dismissed climate change as a "hoax," so his fans didn't need to know any more than that.

Many Trumpists insist severe weather is simply an act of God, a natural event over which humans have no control. But humans have not been good stewards of the planet. We have overused fossil fuels, which spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide is a "greenhouse gas." It traps heat closer to the surface of the planet.

The Deep South will suffer from those warming temperatures as much as any part of the country. The routinely hot summers will become unbearable as temperatures continue to climb, and the beautiful Gulf Coast beaches will be swallowed up as oceans rise.

Hurricanes are already growing in force, gathering velocity from warming oceans. The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was one for the record books, with so many named storms -- 30 -- that forecasters ran out of letters from the Roman alphabet and started naming from the Greek alphabet. My neighborhood was bruised by two hurricanes, but the most extensive damage occurred east of Mobile in the Florida Panhandle. It was the fifth consecutive year with an above-average Atlantic storm season, according to the NOAA.

Skeptics aside, Big Business takes science at its word. While the fossil fuel plutocrats have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to sow doubt about global warming, the insurance industry is pricing it in. Some property owners in areas that have already shown a propensity for high risk may soon find insurance rates unaffordable.

If there is any respite from the gloomy forecasts, it lies in the presidency of Joe Biden, who has replaced Trump's flat-earthers with an administration committed to science and intent on doing what it can to avert a climate disaster. Biden is not only rolling back Trump's ill-advised slash-and-burn environmental policies, but he has also offered an ambitious infrastructure plan that would curb our dependence on fossil fuels.

Let's hope it's not too late.

Tucker won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007: cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.

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