Hurricanes struggle to sway opinions
Monster storms appear to have had little impact on views of politicians in US
Back- to- back hurricanes fuelled by warm Atlantic waters may have altered the coasts of Texas and Florida, but there’s no indication they are shifting the politics of climate change in the United States.
“We cannot ignore that carbon emissions are causing our ocean temperatures to get warmer, which is fuelling more powerful hurricanes,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, at a lightly attended hearing on carbon- capture technology.
Yet that is exactly what many are doing on an issue that increasingly breaks down along partisan lines. Republicans in charge of the House and Senate haven’t scheduled hearings to examine the phenomenon. President Donald Trump has ignored shouted questions on the topic and Administration officials have brushed the whole issue aside as a distraction.
Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, told CNN it is “very, very insensitive” to storm victims to “have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm versus helping people.”
Research shows monster storms may only harden people’s position, underscoring already entrenched beliefs about the role humans play in warming the planet.
“The climate movement can’t depend on the weather to make its political case,” said Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University who studies environmental activism. “We have a window of opportunity to draw attention to the issue — and then three weeks from now we’ll be talking about something else.”
Environmental disasters have helped catalyse the modern- day ecological movement, shifting public views. But unlike climate change, the causes were clearer; there was no need for scientists to interpret data or model scenarios.
It’s much harder to attack the science of an oil spill, Brulle said. “You can’t have a tactic of denying the science when you can see it right there with your very eyes.”
Some environmental activists say hurricanes Harvey and Irma should be a wake- up call, vividly illustrating the potential consequences of extreme weather events made worse by climate change. Scientists haven’t linked either hurricane directly to climate change — and they may never be able to — though they stress global warming is leading to more intense, more frequent storms. Decades into the debate over climate change, people’s views on the subject are tied up with their political ideology. And it takes more than 300km/ h winds to change their beliefs.
People in areas that have experienced extreme weather are only marginally more likely to support climate adaption policies such as elevation requirements and restrictions on coastal development, according to research published in the this month’s i ssue of Global Environmental Change. Instead, political party identification is a much bigger factor in how people viewed the issue, according to the study that examined public opinion data coupled with geographic information about extreme weather events. And any changes in thinking after extreme weather are likely to be temporary.
“There was no discernible difference after a month between people who experienced more extreme weather and those who did not,” Llewelyn Hughes, a professor at Australian National University, and David Konisky, a professor at Indiana University, said in a Washington Post essay describing their research. “Even though events like Hurricane Irma are tragic, it may very well be that people tend to forget about them quite quickly and get on with the rest of their lives.”
Researchers also have found that living through a disaster changes the way people think — effectively making them more sceptical of leaders and less open- minded. A 2011 study of Honduran villages hit by Hurricane Mitch in 1998 found that severe damage reduces people’s willingness to work together.
There are also parallels to the gun control debate, which didn’t dram- atically shift after shootings of schoolchildren in Connecticut and a congressman in Virginia. In both cases, “there i s a very powerful special interest influence group” that has effectively squelched debate, Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said in an interview.
President Barack Obama, a Democrat, made fighting climate change a signature policy of his Administration. Trump and Republicans in Congress have sought to roll back those efforts.
Some environmental advocates may be wary of being seen as exploiting a natural disaster for longterm policy changes when homeowners are still ripping sodden carpet from their floors and utilities are still working to restore electricity.
Whitehouse says there is plenty of time to talk about the i ssue as lawmakers debate hurricanespending relief packages and stormravaged cities rebuild.
“We should be talking about this issue on a regular basis; I don’t think there is a key moment in which we have to say it or we lose the opportunity,” Whitehouse said.
Extreme weather events could provide an opening to GOP lawmakers — particularly those in affected states — to justify or explain a shift in how they approach the issue, said Joseph Majkut, director of climate science at the Niskanen Centre, a libertarian thinktank. “I don’t expect any one storm is going to change the debate on climate, which is now sort of sophisticated and entrenched,” Majkut said. “I do think it can make a difference at the margins, so one thing to watch for will be individual members, individual districts and how much of a role it might play in 2018.” rabbits to 15 communities as part of a trial. Maduro recounted to laughter from assembled ministers: “When he returned, surprise! The people had the bunnies with little bows and they were keeping them as pets.”
Bernal blamed a “cultural problem”, saying: “A lot of people give names to rabbits, put on a bow, they take the rabbit to sleep in their bed.”
But, he said, Venezuelans needed to adjust their attitudes towards rabbits and see them “from the point of view of the economic war”.
He added: “We need a publicity campaign so that the people understand that rabbits aren’t pets but twoand- a- half kilos of meat.”
Henrique Capriles, an opposition leader, said: “You are those responsible for this food crisis. If you can’t solve this problem then go once and for all,” he said.
A survey this year indicated that 75 per cent of Venezuelans have lost an average of 8.6kg as the country plunges into economic collapse.
Llewelyn Hughes and David Konisky
Irma, the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the open Atlantic, wreaked havoc on Cuba.