WASHINGTON – When, if not now, is the time to talk about global warming and what to do about it? The answer from the Trump administration and the Republican Party, basically, is succinct in its willful ignorance: “How about never? Is never good for you?”
No rational U.S administration would look at the devastation from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and seek to deny climate change. At present, however, there is no rational U.S. administration.
We have instead a president and an Environmental Protection Agency chief who refuse to acknowledge the obvious. Thoughts and prayers are welcome at times like these, but they are insincere if not supplemented by analysis and action. Future megastorms will likely be worse, scientists say; the question for policymakers is to what degree.
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According to EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, for scientists to “use time and effort to address” the cause of these massive, anomalous storms would be “very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.” If I search the archives, I can come up with a few more irresponsible statements from Trump administration officials, but not many.
Why did Harvey dump unprecedented, almost biblical amounts of rainfall on Houston and its environs? Why did Irma spend longer as a Category 5 storm than any other hurricane on record? Why, for the first time anyone knows of, did we have two Category 4 storms make U.S. landfall in the same season? Why did we have two major hurricanes (Irma and Jose) and a third, somewhat lesser storm (Katia) churning at the same time?
As deniers frequently point out, no individual weather event can be definitively blamed on climate change. But the World Meteorological Organization released a statement concluding “the rainfall rates associated with Harvey were likely made more intense by anthropogenic climate change.” And regarding Irma, the WMO cited models showing “hurricanes in a warmer climate are likely to become more intense.”
There are established linkages between a storm’s severity and factors such as sea levels, ocean temperatures and the position of prevailing currents such as the jet stream. Global warming has altered all of those parameters.
This is precisely the moment when scientists at the EPA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service, NASA and other agencies ought to be laser-focused on climate change. They should study the characteristics and impacts of this season’s hurricanes to better understand what changes global warming has wrought thus far. And I’m confident they will do so – unless their work is hampered by political hacks.
Climate change never should have become a partisan issue in the first place. There is no red or blue spin on the fact that humans have burned enough fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution to increase the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere by 40 percent; or that carbon dioxide traps heat; or that global land and ocean temperatures have shot up; or that Arctic ice is melting; or that sea levels are rising. These things are directly measurable and true.
Global warming cuts no slack for political affiliation – as Republican Govs. Greg Abbott of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida now should humbly acknowledge.
But because the GOP cynically positioned itself as anti-science, times of trial can never be the right time to talk about climate change. Nor can times when there are no storms. We’re supposed to wait for the next Harvey, Irma or Katrina – then zip our lips out of “respect” for the victims.
President Trump may sincerely disbelieve the scientific consensus or he may be just pretending – it’s hard to tell. He continues to peddle his fantasy of “beautiful, clean coal” and his empty promise to bring back the industry. Maybe he really doesn’t grasp that coal was crushed not by government regulation but by the advent of cheap, plentiful natural gas due to fracking.
And maybe Trump doesn’t get the fact that the rest of the world recognizes both the environmental and the economic benefits of clean energy technologies. It is likely, I believe, that at some point there will be world-changing breakthroughs in solar power, battery capacity and nuclear fusion. I hope these advances are made in the United States; I fear they will be made in China, Japan or Germany.
The Trump administration should at least be insisting that coastal communities in Texas and Florida be rebuilt taking climate change into account. Sea level rise is an unquestioned fact; the cruelest insult to those now suffering would be to pretend it is not.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.