Two storms don’t change opinions on climate
WASHINGTON — Back-to-back hurricanes fueled by warm Atlantic waters might have altered the coasts of Texas and Florida, but there’s no indication they are shifting the politics of climate change.
“We cannot ignore that carbon emissions are causing our ocean temperatures to get warmer, which is fueling more powerful hurricanes,” said Sen. 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 might actually harden people’s position, underscoring already entrenched beliefs about the role that 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, including an oil spill off the California coast, toxic pollution emanating from New York’s Love Canal and Ohio’s Cuyahoga River bursting into flames,
helped catalyze 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 — something they might never be able to do — 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 185-mileper-hour 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 September issue of “Global Environmental Change.” Instead, political party identification is a much bigger factor in how people view the issue, according to the study.
There are parallels to the gun-control debate, which didn’t dramatically shift after shootings of schoolchildren in Connecticut and a congressman in Virginia.
In both cases, “there is a very powerful special-interest influence group” that has effectively squelched debate, U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island, said.
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 might be wary of being seen as exploiting a natural disaster for long-term 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 issue as lawmakers debate hurricane-spending relief packages and stormravaged cities rebuild.
Some environmental activists say Hurricanes Harvey and Irma should be a wake-up call that climate change is linked to the intensity and frequency of storms. Hurricane Harvey, shown here last month, devastated Houston.