Hurricane Havoc and the Climate Conversation

Will they say this was the moment when America finally grew up on climate?

After the multi-billion-dollar impact of Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria, it’s safe to say that if the ideological barriers preventing Americans from working together to solve the climate crisis have not been knocked down yet, those barriers will never fall. It’s not easy to be optimistic after nearly thirty years of intransigence and obstruction on climate…but as former Secretary of State John Kerry observes, such optimism may indeed be warranted:

The felt needs of communities and businesses are also ripening a new bipartisan consensus. We can’t prove that climate change caused any single weather event, but scientists tell us that we can expect more of them with greater frequency as the impacts of climate change worsen. Extreme weather events don’t come with a (D) or (R) after names like Harvey and Irma, and there’s nothing political about the havoc increasingly injurious storms have wreaked in places like Texas, Louisiana, Florida, and the Caribbean.

Hurricane Katrina created environmentalists out of business people and civic leaders as never before, because they know that coastal economies cannot endure if we don’t protect and restore wetlands and meet the climate threat. There’s nothing partisan about wildfires burning in the West, which have already charred an area larger than the state of Maryland, or 100-year droughts that hurt farmers and ranchers. Governors like Jerry Brown of California and Jay Inslee of Washington, who live the reality of these challenges every day, attest to the growing demand for action bubbling up among their respective constituents. Across the country, mayors, governors, and business leaders answered President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement with their own pledges to meet the commitments of Paris — or exceed them.

These are American issues, not partisan ones, and they’re galvanizing a new coalition that doesn’t blur party lines; it erases them. I do remember a time in the Senate when the environment was a bipartisan issue. I believe it will be again, not out of nostalgia but out of necessity — because Americans from every state and every sector of our economy are demanding it. The felt needs are ripening the moment. Now it’s in your hands to make the most of the harvest.

After Senator John McCain ended his eight-year-long silence on the threat posed by the climate crisis, acclaimed climate scientist Michael Mann declared:

The era of Trump, as adverse as it might feel when it comes to climate action, may ironically be creating a divide within the Republican Party that could end up leading to a governing coalition for action on climate. I don’t think we can rule that out…The Trump phenomenon (of extreme climate denialism) has created space for moderate Republicans to reassert themselves, and I think that’s what we’re seeing happen.

It’s quite likely that McCain dropped his climate concern in 2009 because he figured that Barack Obama would wind up getting the lion’s share of the credit for the passage of a climate bill. Mann suggests that McCain is concerned about his legacy, and it’s hard to imagine McCain wanting to be remembered as a man who put his own ego ahead of the interests of subsequent generations.

As for Republican members of the House who have expressed interest in working on solutions to the climate crisis, we should consider the idea that not every Republican has the luxury of trafficking in Inhofe/Pruitt/Limbaugh denialism. Disavowing climate science is a manifestation of political privilege; one doesn’t run around calling climate science a hoax unless one is absolutely confident of reelection. While far too many House and Senate Republicans can rely upon constituencies brainwashed by three decades of Limbaugh and two decades of Fox into believing that settled science isn’t settled, not every Republican member of Congress has it that good–and the ones who don’t are under intense pressure to distance themselves from denialism.

Something’s got to give. It’s been nearly a decade since Congress took serious action on climate. Even if there is a changing of the guard in the House and Senate in the aftermath of the 2018 midterm elections, Republicans facing newfound pressure to act on climate will still be a part of the mix on Capitol Hill. The question is: in 2019, will there be enough climate-concerned Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill to pass, by a veto-proof majority, strong legislation to reduce carbon pollution? If not, there should be storms of protest by the public.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.