As Hurricane Michael rips through homes and communities, we send our sympathies to all those in its path, but let’s also review what some leading Florida residents have said about climate change.
“One of the most preposterous hoaxes in the history of the planet,” scoffed Rush Limbaugh of Palm Beach. Gov. Rick Scott’s administration went so far as to bar some agencies from even using the term “climate change,” according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (Scott denied this).
Myopic Floridians have plenty of company. President Donald Trump dismissed climate change as a hoax “created by and for the Chinese.” Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, “disproved” climate change by taking a snowball onto the Senate floor and noting that it was chilly outside; using similarly rigorous scientific methods, he wrote a book about climate change called “The Greatest Hoax.”
Alas, denying climate change doesn’t actually prevent it. North Carolina passed a law in 2012 prohibiting the use of climate science in certain state planning, yet that didn’t intimidate Hurricane Florence last month. And banning the words “climate change” isn’t helping Florida now.
Some folks will say this isn’t the moment for politics. But don’t we have a responsibility to mitigate the next disaster?
Consider that the three warmest years on record are the last three. And that the 10 years of greatest loss of sea ice are all in the last dozen years.
It’s true that we can’t definitively link the damage from any one hurricane (or drought or forest fire) to rising carbon emissions. But think of it as playing with loaded dice: A double six might have occurred anyway, but much less often.
“There is strong consensus among scientists who study hurricanes and climate that warming temperatures should make more intense hurricanes possible,” Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane expert at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told me. He said that the probability of Hurricane Florence-magnitude rains in North Carolina had roughly tripled since the middle of the 20th century.
Flooding actually causes more hurricane deaths than wind, and climate change amplifies flooding in two ways. First, it raises the base sea level, on top of which a tidal surge occurs. Second, warmer air holds more moisture — about 10 percent more so far — and that means more rain.
Professor Michael Mann of Penn State told me that Hurricane Michael should be a wake-up call. “As should have Katrina, Irene, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Florence,” he added wryly. “In each of these storms we can see the impact of climate change: Warmer seas means more energy to intensify these storms, more wind damage, bigger storm surge and more coastal flooding.”
As recently as the early 2000s, there wasn’t much difference between the parties on climate policy, and Sen. John McCain campaigned in 2008 as a leader in reducing carbon emissions. In 2009, Trump joined other business executives in backing more action to address climate change.
Yet in the following years Al Gore helped make climate change a Democratic issue, and the Koch brothers helped make climate denial a litmus test of Republican authenticity. Tribalism took over, and climate skepticism became part of the Republican creed. So polls show that today climate denial is far greater in the United States, home to the greatest scientific research in the world, than in just about any other major country.