Why are the Crucial Questions About Hurricane Harvey Not Being Asked?

Portside Date:
Author: George Monbiot; Duncan Meisel
Date of source:
The Guardian
Why are the Crucial Questions About Hurricane Harvey Not Being Asked?
By George Monbiot
August 29, 2017
The Guardian
It is not only Donald Trump's government that censors the discussion of climate change; it is the entire body of polite opinion. This is why, though the links are clear and obvious, most reports on Hurricane Harvey have made no mention of the human contribution to it.
In 2016 the US elected a president who believes that human-driven global warming is a hoax. It was the hottest year on record, in which the US was hammered by a series of climate-related disasters. Yet the total combined coverage for the entire year on the evening and Sunday news programmes on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News amounted to 50 minutes. Our greatest predicament, the issue that will define our lives, has been blotted from the public's mind.
This is not an accident. But nor (with the exception of Fox News) is it likely to be a matter of policy. It reflects a deeply ingrained and scarcely conscious self-censorship. Reporters and editors ignore the subject because they have an instinct for avoiding trouble. To talk about climate breakdown (which in my view is a better term than the curiously bland labels we attach to this crisis) is to question not only Trump, not only current environmental policy, not only current economic policy - but the entire political and economic system.
It is to expose a programme that relies on robbing the future to fuel the present, that demands perpetual growth on a finite planet. It is to challenge the very basis of capitalism; to inform us that our lives are dominated by a system that cannot be sustained - a system that is destined, if it is not replaced, to destroy everything.
To claim there is no link between climate breakdown and the severity of Hurricane Harvey is like claiming there is no link between the warm summer we have experienced and the end of the last ice age. Every aspect of our weather is affected by the fact that global temperatures rose by about 4C between the ice age and the 19th century. And every aspect of our weather is affected by the 1C of global warming caused by human activities. While no weather event can be blamed solely on human-driven warming, none is unaffected by it.
We know that the severity and impact of hurricanes on coastal cities is exacerbated by at least two factors: higher sea levels, caused primarily by the thermal expansion of seawater; and greater storm intensity, caused by higher sea temperatures and the ability of warm air to hold more water than cold air.
Before it reached the Gulf of Mexico, Harvey had been demoted from a tropical storm to a tropical wave. But as it reached the Gulf, where temperatures this month have been far above average, it was upgraded first to a tropical depression, then to a category one hurricane. It might have been expected to weaken as it approached the coast, as hurricanes churn the sea, bringing cooler waters to the surface. But the water it brought up from 100 metres and more was also unusually warm. By the time it reached land, Harvey had intensified to a category four hurricane.
We were warned about this. In June, for instance, Robert Kopp, a professor of Earth sciences, predicted: "In the absence of major efforts to reduce emissions and strengthen resilience, the Gulf Coast will take a massive hit. Its exposure to sea-level rise - made worse by potentially stronger hurricanes - poses a major risk to its communities."
To raise this issue, I've been told on social media, is to politicise Hurricane Harvey. It is an insult to the victims and a distraction from their urgent need. The proper time to discuss it is when people have rebuilt their homes, and scientists have been able to conduct an analysis of just how great the contribution from climate breakdown might have been. In other words, talk about it only when it's out of the news. When researchers determined, nine years on, that human activity had made a significant contribution to Hurricane Katrina, the information scarcely registered.
I believe it is the silence that's political. To report the storm as if it were an entirely natural phenomenon, like last week's eclipse of the sun, is to take a position. By failing to make the obvious link and talk about climate breakdown, media organisations ensure our greatest challenge goes unanswered. They help push the world towards catastrophe.
Hurricane Harvey offers a glimpse of a likely global future; a future whose average temperatures are as different from ours as ours are from those of the last ice age. It is a future in which emergency becomes the norm, and no state has the capacity to respond. It is a future in which, as a paper in the journal Environmental Research Letters notes, disasters like Houston's occur in some cities several times a year. It is a future that, for people in countries such as Bangladesh, has already arrived, almost unremarked on by the rich world's media. It is the act of not talking that makes this nightmare likely to materialise.
In Texas, the connection could scarcely be more apparent. The storm ripped through the oil fields, forcing rigs and refineries to shut down, including those owned by some of the 25 companies that have produced more than half the greenhouse gas emissions humans have released since the start of the Industrial Revolution. Hurricane Harvey has devastated a place in which climate breakdown is generated, and in which the policies that prevent it from being addressed are formulated.
Like Trump, who denies human-driven global warming but who wants to build a wall around his golf resort in Ireland to protect it from the rising seas, these companies, some of which have spent millions sponsoring climate deniers, have progressively raised the height of their platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, in response to warnings about higher seas and stronger storms. They have grown from 40ft above sea level in 1940, to 70ft in the 1990s, to 91ft today.
This is not, however, a story of mortal justice. In Houston, as everywhere else, it is generally the poorer communities, least responsible for the problem, who are hit first and hit worst. But the connection between cause and effect should appeal to even the slowest minds.
The problem is not confined to the US. Across the world, the issue that hangs over every aspect of our lives is marginalised, except on the rare occasions where world leaders gather to discuss it in sombre tones (then sombrely agree to do almost nothing), whereupon the instinct to follow the machinations of power overrides the instinct to avoid a troubling subject. When they do cover the issue, they tend to mangle it.
In the UK, the BBC this month again invited the climate-change denier Nigel Lawson on to the Today programme, in the mistaken belief that impartiality requires a balance between correct facts and false ones. The broadcaster seldom makes such a mess of other topics, because it takes them more seriously.
When Trump's enforcers instruct officials and scientists to purge any mention of climate change from their publications, we are scandalised. But when the media does it, without the need for a memo, we let it pass. This censorship is invisible even to the perpetrators, woven into the fabric of organisations that are constitutionally destined to leave the major questions of our times unasked. To acknowledge this issue is to challenge everything. To challenge everything is to become an outcast.
[George Monbiot is a Guardian columnist. He is the author of the bestselling books Feral: rewilding the land, sea and human life, The Age of Consent: A Manifesto for a New World Order and Captive State: The Corporate Takeover of Britain, as well as the investigative travel books Poisoned Arrows, Amazon Watershed and No Man's Land. His latest book is How Did We Get into This Mess? Politics, Equality, Nature. His latest project is Breaking the Spell of Loneliness, a concept album written with the musician Ewan McLennan.]
It's a fact: climate change made Hurricane Harvey more deadly
We can't say that Hurricane Harvey was caused by climate change. But it was certainly worsened by it
By Michael E Mann
August 28, 2017
The Guardian
Harvey = Climate Change (let's say it)
By Duncan Meisel
August 30, 2017
I noticed a few large list progressive organizations sending out messages about Harvey that didn't mention anything about climate change. A rapidly intensifying, major rain storm that stalls out is about as strong of a climate change signal as you're likely to see -- and not talking about climate change, and Trump's active attacks on climate science is missing a huge, crucial moment to address an enormous problem. 

I realize climate science is complex and sometimes hard to talk about, so I wanted to share some resources and examples of how you can soundly connect the dots. 

A few things I've found helpful in this kind of storytelling: 

Be specific. July 2017 was the hottest month measured on earth. The temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico were several degrees hotter than they should be. The waters in the Gulf have risen between 6 in and 1 foot already. These are all contributing factors that can ground the story about the climate impacts on the storm. 

Talk about effects, not causes. It's not useful to debate whether Harvey was 'caused' by climate change. What you can say is that climate change made Harvey into a monster -- bringing more rain, more storm surge, and more flooding. These are real manifestations of the problem. 

Connect to the human level. The fossil fuel industry's agenda and climate denial have put millions of people in harm's way. Talk about how there are homes that would not be under water today without the effects of carbon pollution and the steadfast denial of the need to act -- because there are more lives hanging in the balance of what we do next.

Connect with specific communities. Climate change -- and Harvey in particular -- will impact the poor, people of color and other vulnerable communities disproportionately hard. There are huge refineries that are spewing toxins into the air and water, and they are almost all located near poor neighborhoods. ICE was keeping checkpoints up ahead of the storm, and the fear of deportation is keeping people out of shelters. These are crucial parts of the story that ground the impacts in real lived experience. 

Here is 350 trying to apply some of these things in a blog post

Here's why it's so important that you talk about climate change right now: 

Until our leaders reckon with the problem, by way of pressure from us, we will be building and re-building in harm's way. Climate denial puts lives at risk: there is a train coming towards us, and we need to both stop it, and get people off the tracks before it starts to slow down. 

The problem is, the train is invisible, and most people forget it's there. The windows to talk about climate change concretely can be vanishingly small, and when a moment like this emerges, it is doing an active disservice to the people at risk to ignore it.  

Needless to say, I really agree with Naomi Klein on this one

Here are some resources about the specific connections with Harvey: 

The Climate Signals guide on Harvey is a very strong starting point: http://www.climatesignals.org/headlines/events/tropical-storm-harvey-2017

As is scientist Michael Mann's op-ed in the Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/28/climate-change-hurricane-harvey-more-deadly

Here's a review of the hurricanes and climate change debate in the Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2017/08/30/katrina-sandy-harvey-the-debate-over-climate-and-hurricanes-is-getting-louder-and-louder/

If you're worried about how to talk about this or want to figure out how to do it more, I'm happy to discuss, or find a way to connect you with other orgs and resources. 

We are living on a hotter planet and that will spin out many more storms like Harvey, or the monsoons in South Asia or the flash floods in Yemen. The sooner we talk about it fearlessly and effectively, the fewer people will have to go through the nightmare unfolding on the Gulf right now.

Source URL: https://portside.org/2017-08-31/why-are-crucial-questions-about-hurricane-harvey-not-being-asked