Washington Despatch International

The post-storm climate of conflict


Disasters often unite warring factions, but it is not quite so in the U.S. Two hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, that wreaked havoc on Texas and Florida, have also twisted the climate change debate into further deformity. Climate activists have seized upon the opportunity to call out President Donald Trump, the Governors of Texas and Florida and many federal officials for their climate-sceptic politics. In the meantime, a conservative commentator has coined a new phrase to characterise this criticism — Climate McCarthyism.

The issue of climate change has animated political debates for months now, though recent polls suggest that it is not a priority for the electorate. Mr. Trump was a cheerleader of climate deniers throughout his presidential campaign and repeatedly expressed scepticism over the scientific argument that human activity is contributing to climate change. President Trump reiterated his scepticism last week, telling that bigger storms had hit the U.S. in the 1930s and 1940s. He pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Accord earlier this year and has repeatedly said that environmental regulations are against the interests of the working people.

No linear causality, but...

Scientists have cautioned against suggesting any linear causality between climate change and particular climate events. However, all of them appear to agree on some basic facts. First, a warmer climate and higher atmospheric moisture make storms, causing more rain. Second, given the rise in sea levels — which is not a matter of debate but a fact — storm surges have become higher.

The Trump administration and many of its supporters say this is not the time to debate climate change but to respond to the disaster. “I will tell you that we continue to take seriously the climate change — not the cause of it, but the things that we observe,” Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert said. Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency Administrator who has been under fire for undermining a raft of environmental regulations, said the media was using “events like this to simply engage in a cause-and-effect type of discussion, and not focus upon the needs of people”. The Governors of Texas and Florida, both Republicans, have refused to discuss climate change in the context of the hurricanes. Florida Governor Rick Scott had earlier directed officials to avoid using terms such as ‘climate change’, ‘global warming’ and ‘sustainability’ in official communications.

Harvey and Irma were two ‘Category 4’ hurricanes, and it is for the first time in 166 years of weather records that two Atlantic storms of such intensity made landfall in the U.S. While the rarity of the events is indisputable, sceptics question the premise that storms are getting more frequent and more violent. The U.S. has not faced a huge hurricane since 2005, until this year, they point out. Popular Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh said: “In the official meteorological circles, you have an abundance of people who believe that man-made climate change is real. And, of course, when Harvey hit, it was the first hurricane that had hit in 12 years.”

Pope Francis also has not escaped the ire of the American Right for wading into the stormy politics of the U.S. “You can see the effects of climate change with your own eyes, and scientists tell us clearly the way forward.. When you don’t want to see, you don’t see,” he said. A caller on one radio show responded: “He should keep his opinions to matters of the church.”

For now, the only point on which there is a national consensus is that storms did indeed occur.

Varghese K. George works for The Hindu and is based in Washington DC

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Printable version | Jan 19, 2020 12:32:25 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/the-post-storm-climate-of-conflict/article19699233.ece

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