In the aftermath of Harvey’s deluge, the media focus has rightly been on the response to the catastrophe, the danger to those on the ground, and the heroism of rescuers. But there’s another aspect to the story that deserves attention. In a time of crisis, conversations about climate change can come across as insensitive. That doesn’t mean they should be avoided.
Did climate change “cause” Harvey? That’s the wrong question. Hurricanes and flooding have always been part of life in the Gulf region. But climate change made Harvey more dangerous, and, encouragingly, many journalists and climate scientists are tackling the issue with nuance and clear arguments. Vox’s David Roberts has a good overview of what we can and can’t say about the role of our changing climate, writing, “Climate is not central, but by the same token it is grossly irresponsible to leave climate out of the story, for the simple reason that climate change is, as the US military puts it, a threat multiplier.”
The response from many conservative politicians, think tanks, and media outlets has been to deny or ignore any connection between Harvey’s intensity and climate change. The Guardian’s Oliver Milman rounded up responses from conservative groups that shrug off the link between the storm and warming temperatures, while The Daily Caller criticized media members for “working double time to turn the Hurricane Harvey disaster into a conversation about climate change.”
Tragedies often have political dimensions that, if not proximate causes, are at least part of the picture. That means that when mass shootings occur, it’s fair to talk about gun control, mental health, or extremist ideologies. When, amidst rising seas and warmer temperatures, a storm dumps a biblical deluge on a city, it’s fair to talk about how we address climate change.
We know that warmer water and air temperatures increase the amount of moisture in the air, and that more moisture leads to more rain. Harvey’s damage has been largely attributable to the incredible amount of water that has fallen on the greater Houston region, topping 50 inches in some areas. Until we have peer-reviewed studies of the storm and its impact, we won’t know precisely how much of its devastation we can attribute to our changing climate, but we shouldn’t wait to talk about how we address the underlying causes that made Harvey more deadly.
Below, notes from a discussion worth having.
- Advice from a scientist: Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State, writes in The Guardian: “Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage and a larger storm surge.”
- Overview of the connection: Roberts’s explainer for Vox, mentioned above, is a clear-eyed look at the issue.
- Local experience: Writing in The Washington Post, Houston Chronicle Managing Editor Vernon Loeb says “Harvey should be the turning point in fighting climate change.”
- A storm humans helped cause: The New York Times’s David Leonhardt writes that “it’s time to shed some of the fussy over-precision about the relationship between climate change and weather.”
- How scientists communicate: For CJR in May, Rob Verger looked at the squabbles among scientists about how to talk to the media about hurricanes and climate change.
Other notable stories
- The LA Times’s Matt Pearce captures the situation on the ground in Harvey’s aftermath, writing: “The rain is less an atmospheric condition at this point than a kind of state of being, like mourning, that can’t be forgotten unless you’re asleep.”
- How does Facebook’s algorithm make suggestions about who you might know? It won’t tell. Gizmodo’s Kashmir Hill looks into a creepy aspect of the company’s use of big data.
- A federal judge has thrown out Sarah Palin’s defamation suit against The New York Times, writing, “Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not.” The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple has an overview of the case and its dismissal.
- Fox News is being pulled off the air in Britain. Low ratings and concerns about the Murdoch’s planned takeover of Sky, the country’s top pay TV network, led to the decision, reports CNN’s Charles Riley.
- Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo has a report from the trenches of President Trump’s war on leaks, where reporters from The Washington Post are feeling betrayed by one of their own.
- For CJR, Nicole Zhu breaks down the heated response to a tweet from The New York Times that elicited a “collective groan of disgust” from many readers and resulted in an apology from the Times.