Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a columnist for CNN Opinion who focuses on climate change and social justice. Follow him on Snapchat, Facebook and email. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

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Sutter: Decisions we make about energy use today will define how deadly hurricanes will be for many generations

To stop storms like this from getting even more intense, we need to rid the economy of fossil fuels

CNN  — 

As Hurricane Matthew continues to churn through the Atlantic, leaving more than 260 dead in the Caribbean and threatening the Florida coast, the focus must be on public safety.

People in the storm’s path must seek refuge, as Florida’s governor has implored. And those in the Caribbean likely will need assistance as they mourn their dead and clean up the wreckage.

But as the impact of the storm becomes clear, there’s an uncomfortable truth the rest of us should wrestle with: Hurricane Matthew looks a lot like future climate change. And if we want to stop storms like this from getting even more intense, we need to do everything we can to rid the economy of fossil fuels.

“We expect to see more high-intensity events, Category 4 and 5 events, that are around 13% of total hurricanes but do a disproportionate amount of damage,” Kerry Emanuel, a professor of atmospheric science at MIT, told The Guardian. “The theory is robust and there are hints that we are already beginning to see it in nature.”

“Last year was the warmest our oceans have ever been on record. And that’s critical context,” Michael Mann, a professor of atmospheric science at Penn State University, told Democracy Now. “It’s that warmth that provides the energy that intensifies these storms. And it isn’t a coincidence that we’ve seen the strongest hurricane in both hemispheres within the last year.”

Emanuel, the MIT professor, told me it’s not possible to say Hurricane Matthew was caused by climate change. We just don’t know that. But we do know that by burning coal, natural gas and oil we are heating up the atmosphere and oceans, and that’s expected to strengthen hurricanes like this over time.

By 2100, tropical hurricanes are expected to be 2% to 11% more intense because of global warming, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric administration, citing UN data.

Global warming also is expected to make hurricanes produce about 20% more rain near the eye of the storm, according to a US government report. That’s critical because freshwater flooding is the second deadliest feature of hurricanes, Emanuel told me.

The top killer is storm surge, he said, and that also will be shaped by our fossil fuel addiction.

As the planet heats up, the ocean is expanding and ice sheets are melting from the land into the sea. That’s causing already noticeable increases in tide lines, leading to sunny-day flooding in Miami and Norfolk, Virginia, for example, as tides spill into streets and yards. Rising tides make hurricane storm surges even higher, causing greater risks for people living on the coast.

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    “Within the next 15 years, higher sea levels combined with storm surge will likely increase the average annual cost of coastal storms along the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico by $2 billion to $3.5 billion,” a 2014 report from the Risky Business Project, chaired by Michael Bloomberg, Henry Paulson, and Tom Steyer, found. “Adding in potential changes in hurricane activity, the likely increase in average annual losses grows to up to $7.3 billion, bringing the total annual price tag for hurricanes and other coastal storms to $35 billion.”

    The decisions we make about our energy use today will define how deadly and costly hurricanes like Matthew will be for many generations to come. We ignore these warnings at our peril.