Florida, parts of Texas and the U.S. Virgin Island are facing months or years of recovery after hurricanes Irma and Harvey pummeled communities, turned streets into rivers and upended lives, but it does not appear that the catastrophic storms have changed the conversation about climate change in Washington.
GOP lawmakers skeptical of climate science didn’t announce new views or a sense of urgency in addressing the global warming that scientists say exacerbated the impact of the storms.
That inertia was no surprise to the scientific community, which is beginning to acknowledge that science alone has not been able to change many GOP minds.
“Obviously Harvey and Irma have been dominating the headlines,” said Rachel Cleetus, the Union of Concerned Scientists’ lead economist and climate policy manager. She pointed out that climate change is also manifesting itself in wildfires raging in the West.
“I don’t think there is going to be some big ‘come to Jesus’ moment about climate change,” Cleetus said. But, she added, “just putting their heads in the sand and denying the science is unacceptable.”
Sen. James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., a senior Environment and Public Works Committee member and climate change skeptic who famously brought a snowball to the Senate floor to show it was cold outside, jeered attempts to link the recent weather events to climate change.
“Even the other side admits that single weather events don’t have anything to do with climate,” Inhofe, a former committee chairman, told CQ. “There’s a difference between weather and climate.”
In fact, scientists have not said the historic storms — Irma packed the strongest winds ever recorded for Atlantic Ocean storm and Harvey set a record for rainfall in the continental U.S. — were a direct result of climate change. They do say, as they long have, that global warming makes such storms worse and could catalyze more extreme weather events.
“Climate change puts hurricanes and other storms on steroids, leading to more destructive rainfall, winds and storm surges,” said Jeremy Symons, vice president of climate political affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund. “There is no reason climate change should be a partisan issue. When you need to be rescued from a flood and a helicopter drops you a life line, you don’t ask if the rescuer is Republican or Democrat, you just work together to secure the life line.”
Warmer air traps more moisture in the atmosphere, causing heavier rains, and rising sea levels exacerbate storm surges allowing more water to reach farther inland, scientists say. That warm air helped turn Harvey into the biggest rain event in U.S. history. The two storms marked the first time that the mainland U.S. was hit by two Category 4 or higher hurricanes in the same year.
Scientists also warn that fire seasons may get more intense and last longer as western states experience warmer temperatures and severe droughts. In September alone, 62 large fires have consumed more than 1.6 million acres in nine Western states, including California, Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Colorado, according to the National Interagency Fire Center.
For many conservatives, regulating carbon emissions is seen as harmful to industry, job creation and energy development. Moreover, climate change has remained a touchy and politically sensitive topic for most GOP lawmakers, who fear acknowledging or addressing it would cost them votes. Even when some acknowledge a changing climate, they question the human role and that of carbon emissions.
Texas Republican Lamar Smith, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman and a vehement critic of the EPA and climate science, told CQ that the storms, “while unquestionably devastating” do not indicate a climate trend.
“It is inappropriate to attempt to link each and every extreme weather event to climate change,” Smith said in an email, adding instead that it is important to get displaced residents back to their homes, assess damage and rebuild in a way that limits losses caused by flooding and storms.
And Inhofe said attempts to connect recent extreme events to climate change are a ploy to drum up support for the climate change movement.
“Because of the fact that there has been a wakeup call to the American people and they no longer see global warming as that big issue it used to be . . . and so they [scientists] are trying to attribute these to it to try to rebuild the support which they had at one point,” Inhofe said.
But EPW Chairman John Barrasso, one of a small section of Republicans who publicly acknowledge climate science, said lawmakers from both parties can help reduce earth warming carbon emissions by supporting nuclear energy legislation.
“Doesn’t affect my opinion of climate change, which I believe is real,” Barrasso told CQ of the storms and fires. “For those people who are really focused on carbon dioxide, they should be embracing nuclear power.”
Barrasso made it clear he does not speak for the rest of the GOP when asked if the storms would change the discussion among those skeptical of climate science.
“You have to ask each individual,” he said.
The bipartisan House Climate Solutions Caucus, which consists of 52 lawmakers with an equal number from both parties, gives the environmental community some hope that support will grow over time. Caucus founder Rep. Carlos Curbelo, R-Fla., was not immediately available to respond to CQ questions.
Democrats meanwhile are highlighting the storms and wildfires to reiterate calls for urgent action.
“As Harvey, Irma, and the western wildfires have shown us, climate change is not a Democratic or a Republican issue,” House Science Committee top Democrat Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas said through an aide. “We are all impacted by our changing planet and must work together to confront this threat. I will continue to reach across the aisle to discuss what we in Congress can do to address the issue of climate change.”
On Friday, Senate EPW ranking member Thomas R. Carper of Delaware sent a letter to President Donald Trump asking him to reinstate climate policies the president has recently revoked or suppressed. Those include funding federal climate change actions, which the White House has said is a waste of money, and reinstating the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard. On Aug. 15, just days before Harvey made landfall, Trump signed an executive order revoking the Obama administration’s framework that required federally funded projects to meet certain building and elevation requirements in order to improve the nation’s resilience to the risk of flooding.
“At the same time while we mourn those whose lives have been lost and try to help other people get back on their feet, we need to address the symptoms of the damage from the storm and we also need to focus on the underlying root cause,” Carper told CQ.
Early estimates from AccuWeather, a global provider of weather data, places the damage from Harvey at $190 billion, the costliest in U.S. history, and Irma at around $100 billion.
Trump has signed a $15.3 billion emergency relief package that also includes a provision to cover a shortfall in the Interior Department’s wildfire suppression budget. Florida lawmakers are likely to seek separate funding for Irma recovery.
Some in the environmental community hope the impact of the storms will cause fiscal conservatives to view planning for extreme weather events and rebuilding resilient infrastructure as a way to save taxpayer money. There is also hope that the few who believe in climate change will join Democrats to block further cuts to the EPA in the fiscal 2018 funding bill.
“This is creating a loss of life, which is tragic, but also a loss of taxpayer dollars,” said Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director of the League of Conservation Voters said. “I hold out hope that it does change the conversation.”
Environmental advocates, with no new strategy at hand yet, also are hoping constituents impacted by extreme weather events will put pressure on their lawmakers to start acting on climate solutions.
“It’s increasingly untenable to represent a community impacted by severe weather and ignore one of the reasons that the weather is getting more severe,” said Senate Minority Chief Deputy Whip Brian Schatz, a climate advocate from Hawaii. “This is going to take time to move through the political process, but voters are not going to have a lot of patience for a Republican who adheres to talking points given to them in Washington when we’ve got devastation across the country as a result of severe weather.”
What will it take for the climate debate to change among the GOP?
According to Inhofe, “it takes science to change and the science has been on our side.”