Quantcast

Why Hurricanes Harvey and Irma Won’t Lead to Action on Climate Change

Popular
Hurricane Irma damage in northeast Florida. St. Johns County Fire Rescue

By Scott Gabriel Knowles

It's not easy to hold the nation's attention for long, but three solid weeks of record-smashing hurricanes directly affecting multiple states and at least 20 million people will do it.

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.

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.

Generational reform

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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Jennifer Molidor, PhD

Climate change, habitat loss and pollution are overwhelming our planet. Thankfully, these enormous threats are being met by a bold new wave of environmental activism.

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump mocked water-efficiency standards in new constructions last week. Trump said, "People are flushing toilets 10 times, 15 times, as opposed to once. They end up using more water. So, EPA is looking at that very strongly, at my suggestion." Trump asked the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for a federal review of those standards since, he claimed with no evidence, that they are making bathrooms unusable and wasting water, as NBC News reported.

Read More Show Less
Sponsored
(L) Rushing waters of Victoria Falls at Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, Zimbabwe pictured in January 2018. Edwin Remsberg / VW PICS / UIG / Getty Images (R) Stark contrast of Victory Falls is seen on Nov. 13, 2019 after drought has caused a decline. ZINYANGE AUNTONY / AFP / Getty Images

The climate crisis is already threatening the Great Barrier Reef. Now, another of the seven natural wonders of the world may be in its crosshairs — Southern Africa's iconic Victoria Falls.

Read More Show Less

Monsanto's former chairman and CEO Hugh Grant speaks about "The Coming Agricultural Revolution" on May 17, 2016. Fortune Brainstorm E / Flickr

By Carey Gillam

Former Monsanto Chairman and CEO Hugh Grant will have to testify in person at a St. Louis-area trial set for January in litigation brought by a cancer-stricken woman who claims her disease was caused by exposure to the company's Roundup herbicide and that Monsanto covered up the risks instead of warning consumers.

Read More Show Less
A volcano erupts on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island on Dec. 9, 2019. Michael Schade / Twitter

A powerful volcano on Monday rocked an uninhabited island frequented by tourists about 30 miles off New Zealand's coast. Authorities have confirmed that five people died. They expect that number to rise as some are missing and police officials issued a statement that flights around the islands revealed "no signs of life had been seen at any point,", as The Guardian reported.

"Based on the information we have, we do not believe there are any survivors on the island," the police said in their official statement. "Police is working urgently to confirm the exact number of those who have died, further to the five confirmed deceased already."

The eruption happened on New Zealand's Whakaari/White Island, an islet jutting out of the Bay of Plenty, off the country's North Island. The island is privately owned and is typically visited for day-trips by thousands of tourists every year, according to The New York Times.

Michael Schade / Twitter

At the time of the eruption on Monday, about 50 passengers from the Ovation of Seas were on the island, including more than 30 who were part of a Royal Caribbean cruise trip, according to CNN. Twenty-three people, including the five dead, were evacuated from the island.

The eruption occurred at 2:11 pm local time on Monday, as footage from a crater camera owned and operated by GeoNet, New Zealand's geological hazards agency, shows. The camera also shows dozens of people walking near the rim as white smoke billows just before the eruption, according to Reuters.

Police were unable to reach the island because searing white ash posed imminent danger to rescue workers, said John Tims, New Zealand's deputy police commissioner, as he stood next to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in a press conference, as The New York Times reported. Tims said rescue workers would assess the safety of approaching the island on Tuesday morning. "We know the urgency to go back to the island," he told reporters.

"The physical environment is unsafe for us to return to the island," Tims added, as CNN reported. "It's important that we consider the health and safety of rescuers, so we're taking advice from experts going forward."

Authorities have had no communication with anyone on the island. They are frantically working to identify how many people remain and who they are, according to CNN.

Geologists said the eruption is not unexpected and some questioned why the island is open to tourism.

"The volcano has been restless for a few weeks, resulting in the raising of the alert level, so that this eruption is not really a surprise," said Bill McGuire, emeritus professor of geophysical and climate hazards at University College London, as The Guardian reported.

"White Island has been a disaster waiting to happen for many years," said Raymond Cas, emeritus professor at Monash University's school of earth, atmosphere and environment, as The Guardian reported. "Having visited it twice, I have always felt that it was too dangerous to allow the daily tour groups that visit the uninhabited island volcano by boat and helicopter."

The prime minister arrived Monday night in Whakatane, the town closest to the eruption, where day boats visiting the island are docked. Whakatane has a large Maori population.

Ardern met with local council leaders on Monday. She is scheduled to meet with search and rescue teams and will speak to the media at 7 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EST), after drones survey the island, as CNN reported.