Did The Hurricanes Change The Climate Debate?

When strident denial meets vivid reality, it creates a political storm, and that's what we’re beginning to see.
My parents in our flooded living room after Tropical Storm Doria. The water would rise to 6 feet.
My parents in our flooded living room after Tropical Storm Doria. The water would rise to 6 feet.

Will the terrible destructive power of Harvey and Irma be enough to break the partisan stalemate on climate change? Probably not right away — the opponents of action, their base supporters, and their favorite media outlets have been too dug in for too long to change that quickly.

But this could be an inflection point in the national conversation, because these extreme weather events arrived at a moment of extreme political rhetoric, too. The contrast between the anti-science misinformation from our political leadership and the obvious facts is playing out for the American people.

When strident denial meets vivid reality, it creates a political storm, and that’s what we’re beginning to see.

Denial meets reality

Never before has the mainland United States been hit by such a powerful combination of hurricanes in the same season—and never before have we had an administration so loudly and unapologetically deny the reality of pollution-caused climate change.

Whether it’s the economy or war or science, the contrast between propaganda and reality can help shift public opinion. Just as you can’t claim the economy is strong if people see the opposite in their daily lives, you expose the lie of climate denial when you shout it into 185 mile per hour winds.

Will Congress move with shifting public opinion?

Over the last decade or so, public concern about climate change has moved up and down, mostly in reaction to politics. Partisan divisions in President George W. Bush’s first term caused the country to split over the issue. As he grew more unpopular in his second term, so did his lack of action.

Conversely, when President Obama pushed for a law to limit carbon pollution, and later did it by executive and diplomatic action, the divisions around his Presidency hardened opposition.

But public concern has been moving in the right direction lately, boosted by opposition to President Trump’s cavalier attitude about this threat—and that is likely to be accelerated by the latest events.

Congress, locked into partisan positions by gerrymandering and Citizens United-fueled threats from outside interests, will likely lag behind. Look at the gun debate to see how unspeakable tragedies can move public opinion but elected officials don’t always keep up.

That doesn’t mean things won’t change, but it requires organizing, political activism, and perseverance—a storm, no matter how vicious, will not change the politics on its own.

Is it smart to talk about climate change now?

Some have wondered if it is politically smarter to avoid talking about climate change so soon after the hurricanes, to avoid a backlash in a time of crisis. It’s an understandable worry, but I think it’s unfounded.

Many Americans have experienced disasters, to one degree or another, or know someone how has—and they understand that we need to provide both immediate aid and find ways to mitigate future damage.

When I was seven years old, Tropical Storm Doria swept up the Eastern Seaboard and broke a dam on the Millstone River in New Jersey, flooding our house. We’d had floods before, but this one rose to six feet in our living room.

After a few nights sleeping on the floor of the church across the street, we came home and found everything we owned was ruined.

For a kid, the whole thing was more interesting than scary—I remember being fascinated that the mayor of a town of 200 people wore a gun on his belt in case there was looting—but for my parents it must have been devastating.

The people of Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean are going through something much worse. The level of destruction is far greater. There’s the soup of toxics from chemical plants and industrial facilities in Houston.

Helping them and the rest of the country understand that this is, in part, a consequence of the pollution we’re putting in the atmosphere is simply a matter of dealing with the real facts. In a democracy, that’s how we make progress—public discussion of the facts, and a debate about solutions.

Human activity is causing stronger storms, but it’s political inactivity that is endangering our future.

Our house in New Jersey when the Millstone River rose.
Our house in New Jersey when the Millstone River rose.

On Twitter @RealKeithGaby