By Bobby Magill
In the wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma, whose impacts scientists overwhelmingly agree were made far more severe by climate change, even a few Republican voices joined the ranks of those finding that connection harder to ignore or deny. The most powerful one came from Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado, who declared after Irma struck his city, “If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is.” Even Sen. John McCain, who normally sticks close to his party’s line on climate issues, said in a television interview that it might be time to acknowledge the problem.
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, a Democrat, was already sold on climate change, but called for a new urgency among the disbelievers this week in his essay for the Huffington Post, titled “No Place for Climate Deniers to Hide.”
But it’s too soon to tell if the catastrophic damage wrought by hurricanes Irma and Harvey, in addition to intense western wildfires, will mark a turning point in policy debates about climate change, climate communications experts say.
“We are probably not at a turning point per se because for every action — in this case, two monster hurricanes — there is an equal and opposite reaction: ever more vigorous denial by members of the Trump administration,” said Edward Maibach, professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University. “But perhaps these storms are sowing the seeds of a more thoughtful approach to dealing with climate change.”
If anything, the storms are likely to change the conversation about the risks associated with natural disasters and climate change rather than the science, he said.
“A conversation that these hurricanes should help to start is related to the costs—in terms of dollars, and in terms of loss of life, health and productivity,” Maibach said. “The price tag associated with both of the storms will be enormous.”
Though climate change didn’t directly cause hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Katia and Jose, scientists say climate change is likely to have made them more intense as the storms fed off of higher than normal Atlantic Ocean temperatures. As climate change warms the air, it holds more moisture, leading to more intense rainfall.
The result has been storms breaking numerous records. Hurricane Harvey broke the rainfall record for the continental U.S. when it dumped more than four feet of rain on Cedar Bayou, Texas. More accumulated cyclone energy was generated on Sept. 8 in the Atlantic than any other day on record. Hurricane Irma remained at peak intensity with 185 mph winds or stronger longer than any other tropical cyclone on record anywhere on earth. The season marked the first time that two hurricanes — Irma and Jose — with at least 150 mph winds circulated in the Atlantic simultaneously.
Meanwhile, more than 8.2 million acres of forest have burned in the West following a historic drought and heatwave, likely exacerbated by climate change. So far, the Western wildfire season is the third-worst of the last 10 years in terms of acres burned.
Amid these crises, Trump administration officials have continued to deny connections between weather extremes and climate change. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt, a longtime climate denier, said discussing climate change in relation to Irma is “insensitive.” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the hurricanes have not prompted President Trump to change his view that climate change isn’t real.
But research shows that most voters nationwide want the government to take climate action seriously.
In Florida, which took the brunt of Hurricane Irma, 70 percent of residents there believe that climate change is real, but less than half believed prior to the storm that global warming would impact them personally, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
“It’s a pretty simple story – a majority of Floridians believe global warming is real and human caused,” Anthony Leiserowitz, the program’s director, said in a blog post. “They also support a variety of policies to address it. However, fewer perceive it as a personal risk. That could change in the wake of Irma, if climate scientists can attribute some of Irma’s intensity to global warming, and if the media widely reports on the links, some people will connect the dots between extreme weather and climate change.”
But many other experts say they doubt the hurricanes and wildfires will move public and policymaker opinion about climate.
Jon Krosnick, a Stanford University social psychologist who has conducted surveys on public attitudes about global warming over more than 20 years, said he expects this year’s hurricane season to have no effect on anyone’s attitudes toward climate change and understanding of climate science.
“Our studies of Hurricane Katrina and superstorm Sandy and other such events showed that they had no impact on public opinion about climate change,” he said. “I believe that’s because such events do not convey new information about climate change that people didn’t have before. We all know that such storms happen occasionally, and we know they can be devastating.”
Partisanship and tribalism among the public and lawmakers are also major factors in the persistence of climate denial.
“In a perfect world, in which people’s views about climate change were determined by evidence and experience rather than ideology and tribalism, and in which journalists drew appropriate links between extreme weather and climate change, I would expect the spate of unnatural disasters to shift public attitudes,” said Susan Joy Hassol, a climate communications consultant and director of Climate Communication Science and Outreach, part of the Aspen Global Change Institute.
“Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world,” she said.
Rachael Shwom, a Rutgers University sociologist who studies how society makes sense of energy and climate issues, said that public interpretation of extreme weather events is influenced mostly by party lines.
“Republicans write them off as random acts of nature and Democrats see them as signs of the worsening of climate change,” she said. “In fact, many Republicans suffering from disaster impacts are upset when you try to frame it as a climate change issue as they see it as Democrats using their suffering as a political opportunity.”
A turning point in public opinion and policymaking is likely to come when there is a “focusing event” — something that turns everyone’s attention to a major problem and puts a solution on political agendas. But it’s unclear if this year’s spate of global warming-fueled disasters will rise to that level, she said.
Lawrence Hamilton, a sociologist and master in public policy at the University of New Hampshire, said he has already seen several changes in the public policy debate about climate change since hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
“One is that weather affects everyone, and it’s happening now; so climate impacts can’t be dismissed as a problem for future generations or faraway people,” he said.
“Second, increasingly frequent storms, wildfires and other climate-linked disasters demonstrate that global warming is not like warming a room. It changes everything—how the wind blows, where the rain falls, what forests and crops and economies can survive,” he said. “Third, we see that even one hurricane can be hugely expensive, which puts complaints about mitigation costs in a more realistic perspective.”
Clues to an imminent turning point in the climate policy and science debate may come when lawmakers and the public are more willing to talk about risks, Hassol said.
“When we really reach a turning point in public and policymaker opinion, we will see decisions that reduce our risks in two major ways: by reducing the emissions that are causing climate change and by increasing our resilience to the changes that are already upon us,” she said.
Another clue is whether Harvey and Irma rebuilding efforts will factor in the future impacts and risks associated with climate change, said Rachel Cleetus, lead economist and climate policy manager for the Union of Concerned Scientists.
“Are we making sure that as we rebuild, we’re implementing measures that will keep people safer going forward with those risks in mind?” she said.
The Trump administration is standing in the way of such efforts, however.
Trump announced on Aug. 15 that he would reverse a 2015 Obama executive order requiring federally-funded infrastructure projects to account for the impacts of rising seas and other climate-related flood risks.
“While it certainly makes sense that any new construction should take account of sea level rise, heavier rainfall, higher temperatures, and other climate change-related impacts, we should note that just ten days before Hurricane Harvey put much of Houston under water, Trump rescinded Obama’s rule that did exactly that for any federally funded construction,” Hassol said.