Hurricane Irma continues to wreak havoc on Florida, with the northeastern city of Jacksonville issuing an abrupt evacuation order on Monday as the St. Johns River unexpectedly flooded downtown streets. “Get out NOW,” the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office tweeted just before 10 a.m.
As video and images of Irma’s destruction dominate the news, President Donald Trump and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt continue to avoid addressing the elephant in the room: That Irma, particularly coming on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, urgently calls on us to focus our attention on climate change.
Asked today about the connection between climate change and intensified storms today in a White House briefing, Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert dodged the question of causation, saying, “causality is something outside my ability to analyze right now.”
Scientists agree that climate change is making storms like Irma and Harvey more intense. As Americans view the devastation, and as millions experience it, one has to wonder if these storms will be a wake-up call for Republican voters, if not for their leaders.
Think about it: More than six million Floridians are without power as Irma travels northward to torment the state’s neighbors, and officials are just beginning to assess the damage to life and property. In the hard-hit Florida Keys yesterday, Monroe County Emergency Management Director Martin Senterfitt called the situation a “humanitarian crisis,” with “disaster mortuary teams” being dispatched along with federal assistance to the area.
If the words “disaster mortuary teams” fail to stun you into recognizing how destructive Irma is, perhaps you had not already paid attention to how it decimated Caribbean islands, killed 28 people, and left Barbuda “barely habitable.” And it was only getting started; ahead of its Florida landfall, FEMA administrator Brock Long bluntly warned it would be “truly devastating” for the state.
While some locations, like Tampa, did not get the worst-case-scenario pummeling they feared, Irma was nonetheless a monster, unprecedented hurricane. Yet as Irma approached Florida, and meteorologists issued dire warnings of why lay ahead for the country’s third-most populous state, Pruitt, a longtime climate change denier, told CNN on Thursday that it wasn’t the right time to talk about climate change.
“To use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to this people in Florida,” he said.
At least one resident of Florida, though, begged to differ: Tomás Regalado, the Republican mayor of Miami. The day after Pruitt characterized climate change talk as a thoughtless digression for people fearing their house would be washed away in a flood, Regalado called Irma the “poster child” for climate change. He told the Miami Herald: “This is the time that the president and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change.”
Thus far, though, there’s been silence on the topic from Pruitt, and from Trump. A visit to the climate section of the EPA’s website, www.epa.gov/climatechange, yields an erasure of the prior administration’s groundbreaking work on the subject. “This page is being updated,” it says. “We are currently updating our website to reflect EPA’s priorities under the leadership of President Trump and Administrator Pruitt.” Those priorities thus far: Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Accords and set in motion an effort to unravel Obama’s Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions.
To justify reversing Obama’s regulations, Trump dubiously claimed his reversal of the those regulations would create coal mining jobs. But all this really amounts to is an effort to deny and subvert science. In 2015, when Obama enacted these “historic standards,” the Union of Concerned Scientists praised them as “the most significant opportunity in years to help curb the growing consequences of climate change.” But Trump dismantled those standards without even a modicum of discussion of the science underlying them, or any apparent thought of any kind to the consequences of his action to the planet.
Climate scientists have no doubt that we are seeing intensified storms like Irma and Harvey because of climate change. As Penn State climate scientist Michael E. Mann wrote after Hurricane Harvey dropped rain on Houston that was measured in feet, not inches, “climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Harvey.” The impact of climate change, he wrote, includes sea level rise and rising sea surface temperatures, which make storms like Harvey more intense, with “far more flooding and destruction.”
Yet the Trump administration still shows no signs of acknowledging climate change’s existence. Trump has just nominated William Wehrun to lead EPA’s air office, where he is expected to further roll back Obama-era rules intended to combat climate change. It’s a “horrendous” choice for climate issues, according to an environmental activist who spoke to Bloomberg BNA.
Trump, of course, did not bring climate change denial to the GOP. It has long been a feature of Republican orthodoxy, egged on by conservative media and other anti-science elements of the Republican base, who portray it, like Trump has, as a “hoax” and a pretext for burdensome and costly government regulations.
Yet even now, the Trump administration and Republican leadership appear totally in thrall to climate change denialism or uninterested in any sort of action. It remains to be seen if, for Harvey’s and Irma’s victims who deny climate change but lost loved ones or homes or businesses, if these storms will be a political wake-up call.
It’s a step forward for the mayor of Miami to call out Trump and Pruitt. Time will tell if Republican voters follow his lead.
Sarah Posner is a Washington Post columnist.