The stories and images streaming out Houston and other affected parts of Texas are already giving way to a familiar, predictable debate, with climate hawks citing the obvious connections to a warming atmosphere and U.S. conservatives accusing advocates of making “political” points on a community’s misery.
For Grist social media manager Cory Permenter—who grew up in Danbury, TX, about an hour south of Houston—it’s time for a more careful, subtle balance.
“Yes, we should be having the conversation about climate change and Hurricane Harvey, and anyone who tells you otherwise probably has ulterior motives,” he writes. “But before we go there, we need to show the people of the Gulf Coast that we genuinely care about them.”
Particularly in a situation where narratives are so polarized, “if you truly care about mitigating climate change, playing ‘I told you so’ while people are dying and losing their homes isn’t the way to do it,” he adds. “That approach only plays into right-wing talking points.”
Permenter traces the “present and documented” role of rising sea surface temperatures and atmospheric moisture content in driving a “stronger, wetter storm that moved slowly because of the lack of prevailing winds.” But he warns that “there are risks involved with serving up climate talk without nuance or compassion during a natural disaster. To an audience that already distrusts mainstream, well, anything, you can easily come across as callous and uncaring toward victims of the storm.”
And even with the basic climate facts pointing toward a connection to this week’s disaster, the Washington Post argues that it’s (still) wrong to definitively connect any single event to climate change. “It would be strange to ignore the role of a changing climate when it comes to hurricanes, because they themselves have a climatology—that is, certain conditions make them more likely to form and also to worsen,” writes climate and environment specialist Chris Mooney. “But it’s August, and the Gulf of Mexico can certainly sustain fierce hurricanes this time of year. Singling out Harvey as some kind of climate-driven anomaly would be a big mistake.”
“My feeling is, when there’s a hurricane, there’s an occasion to talk about the subject,” MIT hurricane specialist Kerry Emanuel told Mooney. “But attributing a particular event to anything, whether it’s climate change or anything else, is a badly posed question, really.” Instead, he recommends referring to climate-related factors that can make hurricanes worse—and Mooney’s article goes into detail on how those factors play out.
Compassion and nuance certainly weren’t on the menu when Donald Trump passed through the region earlier in the week. “Yet again, Trump managed to turn attention on himself. His responses to the devastation caused by Hurricane Harvey have been more focused on the power of the storm and his administration’s response than on the millions of Texans whose lives have been dramatically altered by the floodwaters,” the Post reports.
“As of late Tuesday afternoon, the president had yet to mention those killed, call on other Americans to help, or directly encourage donations to relief organizations.”