Why Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Won’t Lead to Action on Climate Change
By Scott Gabriel Knowles
Clustered disasters hold our attention in ways that singular events cannot—they open our minds to the possibility that these aren't just accidents or natural phenomena to be painfully endured. As such, they can provoke debates over the larger "disaster lessons" we should be learning. And I would argue the combination of Harvey and Irma has triggered such a moment.
The damages caused by the storms will undoubtedly lead to important lessons in disaster preparation and response. For many, though, the most urgent call for learning has been to acknowledge at long last the connection between climate change and severe weather.
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Will this cluster of disasters provide the lever that will move climate change in the U.S. from a "debate" to an action plan?
It's easy to view disaster history in this cause-effect way—to hop in time from disaster to disaster and spot the reforms as though they naturally emerge from adversity and commitment to change. But as a historian with a focus on risk and disasters, I can say this view can be misleading.
Early in the 20th century, the U.S. went through an era of profound concern over urban disasters that seemed to threaten city life itself.
In December 1903, the Iroquois Theatre Fire in Chicago killed more than 600 audience members due to faulty construction. Just over a month later, in February 1904, the Great Baltimore Fire consumed 140 acres of the city. That same month, a major fire ravaged Rochester. In June of the same year, more than 1,000 people died due to a fire aboard the General Slocum steamship in New York City.
Newspapers of the era were full of anger and fear over the dangers of fire and the unscrupulous actions of greedy builders and ship line operators. Despite the intensity of this 1903-04 disaster cluster, Americans would see many more such disasters (San Francisco 1906, Triangle Shirtwaist Fire 1911) before consequential reforms in fire safety were passed into law.
Eventually, those reforms did arrive, but not all at once, and not with one bill. The reforms were distributed in building codes, city plans and product safety standards that came into place by the 1930s. The disasters defined moments in time; reform was generational.
The aftermath of September 11 provides another telling example. The disaster led to multiple investigations and studies, including the best-selling 9/11 Commission Report. Perhaps the most lasting effect of September 11 was the restructuring of government that created the Department of Homeland Security.
However, we should be careful when we leap quickly from disaster to reform. The federal response to 9/11 appeared swift and decisive but was in fact following a script set in place over the previous decade through repeated attempts by some policymakers to reshape the government's capacity to respond to the terrorism threat.
It took years for scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology to finally explain the exact causes for the collapse of the Twin Towers. And in doing so, they uncovered fire, structural and evacuation vulnerabilities in the towers. These flaws were first witnessed in the 1993 bombing but dated back to the 1960s when the buildings were designed and built. The September 11 reforms did come, but only as part of a broad continuum of concern, research and debate over policy choices that had long preceded that terrible day.
Slow-moving disasters versus events
This brings us back to Harvey, Irma and the climate change connection. We have not seen any storm-day conversions on climate change in the Trump administration—indeed, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Sec. Scott Pruitt remarked that it was "insensitive" to even broach the topic while the storms were still active.
There is plenty of evidence in social psychology to indicate that individual perceptions of risk—or individual commitments to an ideology—cannot be easily shaken be external factors, even factors as dramatic as storms like Harvey, Irma or even Katrina.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
This fits the historical pattern: Clustered disasters might sharpen our senses to the risks in our midst and even disturb our complacency, but they will not necessarily lead directly to new legislation or personal ideological shifts. Strong commitments to land use, profits and real estate development have historically militated against calls for caution, restraint and mitigation, even though these types of laws make Americans safer from disasters. This dynamic will not be altered by two hurricanes, no matter how terrifying their effects.
Better indicators of change, drawing from history, have proven to be events that cluster over much larger stretches of time. A "slow disaster" frame allows civil society and scientific researchers to build a case for change that is strengthened by disaster events. For example, the red alert about the toxicity of DDT raised by Rachel Carson in 1962 had immediate effects, but that was only one early step in a series of events that followed. It should be seen as part of a much more impactful and slower process of reform that led to the creation of the EPA in 1970 and a wave of environmental regulations that took effect in that decade.
This relationship between discrete disaster events and slow disaster eras is a critical one for us to understand. We might just now be at the very beginning of such an era in the public consciousness over the connections between disasters such as hurricanes, fires, droughts and the slow disaster of climate change.
It's frustrating for people who want quick government action on climate change to be told they should play a "slow disaster" game. And why shouldn't they be angered if they have experienced the loss of a loved one or a home in the disasters of these past weeks? Still, it's useful for us to see that even the most devastating disasters are probably points on a longer timeline—one that might lead to reform if and when broad-based political action prepares the way.
Indeed, disaster victims making common cause with scientists and engineers has been one proven way to bring about a type of learning from disaster that might be more effective towards achieving ambitious changes. These could include the U.S. reentering the global community on climate action and the passage of laws that would require climate change planning to affect future construction.
But the hurricanes of Harvey and Irma will be a catalyst for a new age of realism regarding the hazards of climate change only once civil society and our politicians recognize them as part of a pattern that stretches over decades, not weeks. Our urgency to learn from disaster is important, and it is a moral imperative. We would be wise to harness this urgency to form a generational commitment to reducing the suffering from disasters.
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Conversation.
Yet another former Trump administration staffer has come out with an endorsement for former Vice President Joe Biden, this time in response to President Donald Trump's handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
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By D. André Green II
One of nature's epic events is underway: Monarch butterflies' fall migration. Departing from all across the United States and Canada, the butterflies travel up to 2,500 miles to cluster at the same locations in Mexico or along the Pacific Coast where their great-grandparents spent the previous winter.
Millions of People Care About Monarchs<p>I will never forget the sights and sounds the first time I visited monarchs' overwintering sites in Mexico. Our guide pointed in the distance to what looked like hanging branches covered with dead leaves. But then I saw the leaves flash orange every so often, revealing what were actually thousands of tightly packed butterflies. The monarchs made their most striking sounds in the Sun, when they burst from the trees in massive fluttering plumes or landed on the ground in the tussle of mating.</p><p>Decades of educational outreach by teachers, researchers and hobbyists has cultivated a generation of monarch admirers who want to help preserve this phenomenon. This global network has helped restore not only monarchs' summer breeding habitat by planting milkweed, but also general pollinator habitat by planting nectaring flowers across North America.</p><p>Scientists have calculated that restoring the monarch population to a stable level of about 120 million butterflies will require <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/icad.12198" target="_blank">planting 1.6 billion new milkweed stems</a>. And they need them fast. This is too large a target to achieve through grassroots efforts alone. A <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/CCAA.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">new plan</a>, announced in the spring of 2020, is designed to help fill the gap.</p>
Pros and Cons of Regulation<p>The top-down strategy for saving monarchs gained energy in 2014, when the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service <a href="https://www.fws.gov/southeast/pdf/petition/monarch.pdf" target="_blank">proposed</a> listing them as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. A decision is expected in December 2020.</p><p>Listing a species as endangered or threatened <a href="https://www.fws.gov/endangered/esa-library/pdf/listing.pdf" target="_blank">triggers restrictions</a> on "taking" (hunting, collecting or killing), transporting or selling it, and on activities that negatively affect its habitat. Listing monarchs would impose restrictions on landowners in areas where monarchs are found, over vast swaths of land in the U.S.</p><p>In my opinion, this is not a reason to avoid a listing. However, a "threatened" listing might inadvertently threaten one of the best conservation tools that we have: public education.</p><p>It would severely restrict common practices, such as rearing monarchs in classrooms and back yards, as well as scientific research. Anyone who wants to take monarchs and milkweed for these purposes would have to apply for special permits. But these efforts have had a multigenerational educational impact, and they should be protected. Few public campaigns have been more successful at raising awareness of conservation issues.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="91165203d4ec0efc30e4632a00fdf57d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/KilPRvjbMrA?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Rescue Attempt<p>To preempt the need for this kind of regulation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service approved a <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/pdfs/Monarch%20CCAA-CCA%20Public%20Comment%20Documents/Monarch-Nationwide_CCAA-CCA_Draft.pdf" target="_blank">Nationwide Candidate Conservation Agreement for Monarch Butterflies</a>. Under this plan, "rights-of-way" landowners – energy and transportation companies and private owners – commit to restoring and creating millions of acres of pollinator habitat that have been decimated by land development and herbicide use in the past half-century.</p><p>The agreement was spearheaded by the <a href="http://rightofway.erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank">Rights-of-Way Habitat Working Group</a>, a collaboration between the University of Illinois Chicago's <a href="https://erc.uic.edu/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Energy Resources Center</a>, the Fish and Wildlife Service and over 40 organizations from the energy and transportation sectors. These sectors control "rights-of-way" corridors such as lands near power lines, oil pipelines, railroad tracks and interstates, all valuable to monarch habitat restoration.</p><p>Under the plan, partners voluntarily agree to commit a percentage of their land to host protected monarch habitat. In exchange, general operations on their land that might directly harm monarchs or destroy milkweed will not be subject to the enhanced regulation of the Endangered Species Act – protection that would last for 25 years if monarchs are listed as threatened. The agreement is expected to create up to 2.3 million acres of new protected habitat, which ideally would avoid the need for a "threatened" listing.</p>
A Model for Collaboration<p>This agreement could be one of the few specific interventions that is big enough to allow researchers to quantify its impact on the size of the monarch population. Even if the agreement produces only 20% of its 2.3 million acre goal, this would still yield nearly half a million acres of new protected habitat. This would provide a powerful test of the role of declining breeding and nectaring habitat compared to other challenges to monarchs, such as climate change or pollution.</p><p>Scientists hope that data from this agreement will be made publicly available, like projects in the <a href="https://www.fws.gov/savethemonarch/MCD.html" target="_blank">Monarch Conservation Database</a>, which has tracked smaller on-the-ground conservation efforts since 2014. With this information we can continue to develop powerful new models with better accuracy for determining how different habitat factors, such as the number of milkweed stems or nectaring flowers on a landscape scale, affect the monarch population.</p><p>North America's monarch butterfly migration is one of the most awe-inspiring feats in the natural world. If this rescue plan succeeds, it could become a model for bridging different interests to achieve a common conservation goal.</p>
The annual Ig Nobel prizes were awarded Thursday by the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research for scientific experiments that seem somewhat absurd, but are also thought-provoking. This was the 30th year the awards have been presented, but the first time they were not presented at Harvard University. Instead, they were delivered in a 75-minute pre-recorded ceremony.