As Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc on Florida this week, the northeastern city of Jacksonville issued an abrupt evacuation order as the St. Johns River unexpectedly flooded downtown streets: “Get out NOW.”
As video and images of Irma’s destruction dominate the news, President Donald Trump and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt continue to avoid addressing the elephant in the room: That Irma, particularly coming on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, urgently calls on us to focus our attention on climate change.
Asked Tuesday about the connection between climate change and intensified storms in a White House briefing, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert dodged the question of causation, saying, “causality is something outside my ability to analyze right now.”
Scientists agree that climate change is making storms like Irma and Harvey more intense. As Americans view the devastation, and as millions experience it, one has to wonder if these storms will be a wake-up call for Republican voters, if not for their leaders.
Think of it: Millions of Floridians are without power and officials are just beginning to assess the damage to life and property. Billions of taxpayer dollars in relief will be required. In the hard-hit Florida Keys, Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt called the situation a “humanitarian crisis” with “disaster mortuary teams” being dispatched along with federal assistance to the area.
If the words “disaster mortuary teams” fail to stun you into recognizing how destructive Irma was, perhaps you had not already paid attention to how it decimated Caribbean islands, leaving Barbuda “barely habitable.” FEMA administrator Brock Long branded it “truly devastating.” Irma has claimed nearly two dozen lives in the United States, more in the Caribbean. The death toll from Harvey stands at more than 70.
While some locations such as Tampa did not get the worst-case scenario pummeling they feared, Irma was nonetheless a monster-sized, unprecedented hurricane. Yet as it approached Florida and meteorologists issued dire warnings of what lay ahead for the country’s third-most populous state, Pruitt, a longtime climate-change denier, told CNN it wasn’t the right time to talk climate change: “To use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.” Right.
At least one key resident of Florida begs to differ: Tomás Regalado, the Republican mayor of Miami. The day after Pruitt characterized climate-change talk as a thoughtless digression for people fearing their house would be washed away in a flood, Regalado dubbed Irma the “poster child” for climate change. He told the Miami Herald: “This is the time that the president and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change.”
Thus far, though, there’s been silence on the topic from Pruitt and Trump. A visit to the climate section of the EPA’s website yields an erasure of the prior administration’s groundbreaking work on the subject. “This page is being updated,” it says. “We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt.” Those priorities thus far: Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accords and set in motion an effort to unravel Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions.
To justify reversing Obama’s regulations, Trump dubiously claimed his reversal of those regulations would create coal-mining jobs. But all this really amounts to is an effort to deny and subvert science. In 2015, when Obama enacted these “historic standards,” the Union of Concerned Scientists praised them as “the most significant opportunity in years to help curb the growing consequences of climate change.” But Trump dismantled those standards without even a modicum of discussion of the science underlying them or any consequences to the planet.
Climate scientists have no doubt we’re seeing intensified storms like Irma and Harvey because of climate change. As Penn State climate scientist Michael E. Mann wrote after Hurricane Harvey dropped rain on Houston measured in feet, not inches, “climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Harvey.” The impact of climate change, he wrote, includes sea-level rise and rising sea surface temperatures, which make storms like Harvey more intense, with “far more flooding and destruction.”
Yet the Trump administration shows no signs of acknowledging climate change’s existence or potential. Trump just nominated William Wehrun to lead the EPA’s air office where he is expected to further roll back Obama-era rules intended to combat climate change. It’s a “horrendous” choice for climate issues, an environmental activist told Bloomberg.
Trump, of course, did not bring climate-change denial to the GOP. It has long been a feature of Republican orthodoxy, egged on by conservative media and other anti-science elements of the Republican base who portray it, like Trump has, as a “hoax” and a pretext for burdensome and costly government regulations.
Yet even now, the Trump administration and Republican leadership appear in thrall to climate-change denialism or uninterested in any sort of action. It remains to be seen, for Harvey and Irma’s victims who deny climate change but lost loved ones or homes or businesses, if these storms will prove a political wake-up call.