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Horowitz: The False Choice - Focusing on Hurricane Victims or Climate Change

Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Rob Horowitz

The Trump Administration shamelessly deflected questions about whether climate change was a contributing factor in the intensity of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma by claiming that a conversation about causes was somehow in the way of the focus required to help disaster victims.  Advancing this glaringly obvious false choice argument may have helped the Administration get through a couple of awkward news cycles, given their efforts to roll back Obama Administration greenhouse gas reduction initiatives and President Trump’s ill-advised intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement, but over the long-run they will not be able to wish the conversation away.

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt encapsulated the Administration’s argument: “To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced. To use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.”

Similarly, when asked about the role of climate change in the storms, Kellyanne Conway accused the interviewer, CNN’s Chris Cuomo of playing “amateur climatologist,” while she would play, “professional helper of those in need.”

Anyone thinking about these comments for more than 5 seconds can see their absurdity.  Answering the completely fair questions about climate change would not in any way impact the efforts of first responders and officials to provide rescue and recovery assistance to storm victims.  And Pruitt, Conway and other Administration officials who echoed these talking points know it. 

Mayor of Miami, Tomas Regalado, a Republican whose City was damaged by Hurricane Irma and whose residents hurriedly evacuated in advance of it, called out the Administration, “This is the time to talk about climate change. This is the time that the president and the E.P.A. and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change. If this isn’t climate change, I don’t know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come.”

The fact is increasing global temperatures are resulting in more intense storms with higher levels of rainfall.  As the 2017 Draft National Climate Assessment, which has been thoroughly peer reviewed, asserts: "The frequency and intensity of heavy precipitation and extreme heat events are increasing in most regions of the world, consistent with the expected physical responses to a warming climate.”

These stepped -up storms will not only grow most costly in human terms; they will become even more costly budget wise.  A 2016 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office concludes that,  “the costs associated with hurricane damage will increase more rapidly than the economy will grow. Consequently, hurricane damage will rise as a share of gross domestic product (GDP), which provides a measure of the nation’s ability to pay for that damage. According to the agency’s estimates, expected annual damage currently amounts to 0.16 percent of GDP (or about $28 billion); by 2075, however, that figure reaches 0.22 percent (equivalent to about $39 billion in today’s economy; see figure below). Roughly 45 percent of that increase is attributable to climate change and 55 percent to coastal development.”

It is time for the Administration to stop deflecting and face the reality and costs of climate change squarely. It is time for an honest conversation--one that reflects science and facts, not threadbare and self-serving political spin.

Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island..


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