Two storms don’t change opin­ions on cli­mate

The Columbus Dispatch - - Nation&world - By Jen­nifer A. Dlouhy

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.

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