A hurricane in the Pacific headed toward the California coast strengthened to a Category 4 storm yesterday. It is projected to hit Mexico’s Baja California peninsula as a hurricane Saturday night, then strike California as a tropical storm, marking the first time a tropical storm has struck the California coast in 84 years.

“Over the last 40 years, climate change has made hurricanes more powerful, both in terms of wind speed and the amount of water they deliver as rain,” said Dr. Kristy Dahl, principal climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “To see a storm of this magnitude in this part of the world—and at this time of year—is highly unusual.”

UCS’ “Danger Season” map shows that more than 28 million people in the Southwest are under flood alerts along Hilary’s potential path. The risk is especially pronounced for Palm Springs and the area south of the city.

UCS Danger Season Map for August 18, 2023
UCS Danger Season Map for August 18, 2023

Meanwhile, studies consistently show that the harm from storms is not borne equitably.

“Climate impacts and the risk of displacement are more likely among disadvantaged communities—many of which are communities of color,” said Bilingual Senior Social Scientist for Climate Vulnerability Dr. Juan Declet-Barreto. “Nearly 40% of people under flood alerts due to Hilary live in disadvantaged communities. These communities are already hard-pressed to deal with climate impacts that are more common in the Southwest such as heat waves, droughts, and wildfires. Climate change is adding unprecedented weather threats to areas that have not experienced them in recent memory.”

Potential hurricane impacts in California, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona should serve as a wake-up call that climate change is out of control and drastic action is needed to turn it around, according to UCS. What the world is living through is not normal, but the result of decades of dependence on fossil fuels, decades of deception and obstruction on the part of the fossil fuel industry, and decades of inaction on the part of policymakers who have been in their thrall.

“Ensuring a safer climate future starts with holding our elected officials and fossil fuel companies accountable,” said Dahl. “The effects of climate change will continue to worsen, but if we can make the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy more quickly, we can prevent some of the worst impacts.”

One of the best opportunities on the table right now is pushing to clean up the power sector as much as possible, as fast as possible—including seizing new clean energy incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act—and pushing EPA to finalize a strong power plant rule in the coming year, according to UCS.

In addition, all levels of government must scale up and implement wise investments and policies that help prepare communities, especially those hit first and worst, ahead of extreme events like Hilary. Affordable flood insurance would make a significant difference in helping people get back on their feet after a storm. To address those costs and enact other badly needed flood risk mitigation strategies, Congress must reform the National Flood Insurance Program now.

The Union of Concerned Scientists puts rigorous, independent science to work to solve our planet’s most pressing problems. Joining with people across the country, we combine technical analysis and effective advocacy to create innovative, practical solutions for a healthy, safe and sustainable future. For more information, go to www.ucsusa.org