Hurricanes Harvey and Irma have handed Democrats their most potent opportunity in half a decade to hammer Republicans on climate change — with the massive storms giving tens of millions of Americans an up-front glimpse of the types of devastation the world faces if the warming planet spawns a surge in extreme weather.
But instead, they’re mostly keeping quiet.
Aside from a handful of outliers like Hawaiian Sen. Brian Schatz, leading Democratic politicians have been slow to use the double whammy from the tropics to denounce President Donald Trump, who has dismissed climate change as a “hoax.”
That’s a contrast from past storms like 2012’s Hurricane Sandy, when Democratic New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the disaster a sign that “climate change is a reality.” Even then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an independent, cited the storm and climate change at the time among his reasons for endorsing Barack Obama’s reelection as president.
This time, Democrats appear to be heeding the warnings of Trump appointees like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who said last week that it’s “very, very insensitive to the people in Florida” to talk about climate change now.
The wariness of appearing to seize on a disaster is “part of” the party’s calculus behind keeping the climate politics to a minimum after the hurricanes, said the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Tom Carper of Delaware.
“When we’ve done a good deal more work in terms of cleanup and getting folks’ lives back to normal, I hope we do a deep dive into whether or not the warming in the Gulf of Mexico is really what’s causing this,” Carper added in an interview, vowing that a broader climate conversation is “coming soon.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), a climate hawk known for delivering more than 100 floor speeches on the issue, said he doesn’t view the immediate aftermath of Harvey and Irma as heightening the sense of urgency to talk about global warming.
“We have a lot of time to make that point, and I think we also have a lot of legislative opportunities as we look at reauthorizing flood insurance and funding the disaster relief,” Whitehouse said in a brief interview.
Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) late Friday noted climate change’s impact on extreme weather, citing the hurricanes as he unveiled a bill with Schatz and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) that would block Trump’s cancellation of an order requiring federally funded infrastructure to take global warming into account. But Van Hollen underscored that the bill was already in the works before Harvey and Irma made their devastating landfalls.
“We actually feel like we have not been talking about these bills during this period of time” while Gulf Coast residents recover, Van Hollen told POLITICO, adding that his proposal is “designed to focus on how we rebuild. The idea is, when we invest federal dollars in infrastructure, we want it to be safe. So this is going to be a constructive part of the rebuilding conversation.”
Trevor Houser, a former energy adviser to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, said Democrats indeed may see dangers in latching onto the climate issue so soon after the twin disasters.
“The response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma thus far has been more muted, likely in part because of a desire to keep the focus on immediate disaster relief,” said Houser, who is now at the think tank Rhodium Group.
It’s not a good idea to try to land a “punch to the gut of climate change deniers” while first responders are still “pulling bodies out of the water,” said Jeff Schlegelmilch, deputy director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
But green groups haven’t hesitated to take aim at Trump online, with the Natural Resources Defense Council criticizing his recent move to rescind climate standards for federal infrastructure and the League of Conservation Voters praising Miami’s Republican mayor, Tomás Regalado, for saying it is time to talk about climate change.
Bill McKibben, founder of the outspoken climate activist group 350.org, shied away from disparaging Democrats, though.
“We’ve got a much sterner test for Democrats than will they talk about climate change — it’s will they come out for 100% renewable energy,” he said by email. “Short of that, talk is cheap.”
Climate advocates argue that Irma’s aftermath is the best time to call attention to scientists’ abundant warnings that rising global temperatures may worsen extreme weather such as hurricanes, droughts or the wildfires now raging in California. Images of Irma’s flooding are still topping national news coverage, and the air of crisis may continue next week depending on where Hurricane Jose decides to land.
In contrast, Republicans who deny that humans are causing rising temperatures have mostly put their public focus on responding to the immediate danger of the storms. While acknowledging the historic nature of the flooding in Houston and the record-breaking intensity of Hurricane Irma, the Trump administration has brushed off questions about climate change, focusing instead on the recovery needs in Texas, Florida and hard-hit Caribbean territories like Puerto Rico.
Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, told reporters during a White House briefing Monday that it was too early to say whether climate change worsened the hurricanes, but he acknowledged a need to bolster flood and coastal defenses threatened by rising seas and powerful storms.
“We continue to take seriously the climate change, not the cause of it, but the things that we observe,” he said. “What President Trump remains committed to is making sure that federal dollars aren’t used to build things that will be in harm’s way later or that won’t be hardened against the future predictable floods that we see.”
Other administration officials have dodged climate change questions.
Pruitt told CNN that “to have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm, versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced.” White House adviser Kellyanne Conway chastised CNN’s Chris Cuomo for asking about the topic in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, saying, “We’re trying to help the people whose lives are literally underwater, and you want to have a conversation about climate change.” Energy Secretary Rick Perry similarly dismissed the issue, telling CBS that “everyone wants to run to the climate change debate, but that is very secondary at this particular time.”
Lawmakers and the federal government will have to confront future risks as they send money for recovery, however. Congress is moving ahead with an initial $15 billion aid package for Texas and Louisiana, and scientists say addressing the role of a changing climate is crucial to using that money effectively.
“Climate change has to be a part of the conversation … it’s inaccurate to think you could have a conversation about the changing nature of risk without talking about greenhouse gases and burning fossil fuels,” said Heidi Cullen, the chief scientist at the research group Climate Central, who studies how climate change affects extreme weather as part of the international science partnership called World Weather Attribution.
Scientists say man-made greenhouse gas emissions could make hurricanes more intense. Continued sea-level rise will also make storm surges higher and more dangerous. Both could complicate emergency response planning and investments to rebuild after the storms.
Despite Bossert’s comments, Trump is actively erasing climate considerations from government processes, nixing flood standards for federal projects, withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate change agreement, pulling back a regulation to limit carbon dioxide from power plants, and halting funding to help poor nations adapt to new weather extremes.
In previous years, climate advocates and scientists could have relied on the Obama White House to amplify their message. Now, they’ve got cabinet members who doubt whether human activity is causing global temperatures to increase, seas to rise and coastal communities to face more risks from storm surge and flooding.
Congressional opponents of government efforts to address climate change aren’t making any linkages between the two devastating storms, either.
“It’s terrible to have Category 4 in the Gulf Coast of Texas and then a Category 5 in the Atlantic, but sometimes bad things happen,” Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) said last week. “I guess we could pass a law saying you can’t have hurricanes, but I’m not sure Mother Nature would listen to us.”
Attributing extreme weather events to climate change is still an evolving area of research, although it has progressed quickly over the last few years. Scientists at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, which works cooperatively with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, believe that by the end of the century, global warming will mean more intense hurricanes that bring more rain. But they say it’s too early to detect whether man-made greenhouse gas emissions have changed hurricane activity so far. That’s because the extreme weather events are rare and difficult to model.
Michael Wehner, a senior staff scientist in the Computational Research Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has studied how 15 hurricanes might have behaved under lower temperatures, and so far has determined that a one-degree Celsius increase — 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit — raises rainfall about 6 percent.
That would mean that Harvey, which dumped more than 50 inches of water on Houston, brought between 10 and 15 percent more rain because of climate change.
“The public should know, and policymakers should know, that any planning that you might have made based on the historical record is inadequate,” Wehner said. “It’s a different world. It’s a warmer world, and storms behave differently.”
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