The media today: Harvey and climate change, a discussion worth having

August 30, 2017

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.

Sign up for CJR's daily email


Other notable stories

Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.