Could Hurricane Harvey Deal a Fatal Blow to Climate Change Skepticism?

A growing body of research suggests that perceptions of climate change are influenced by experience with climate-related natural disasters.
By Jared Keller,
A damaged home is seen after Hurricane Harvey passed through on August 26th, 2017, in Rockport, Texas.

Hurricane Harvey, the strongest storm to make landfall in the United States in more than a decade, is leaving a brutal mark on the Texas Gulf Coast.

The Category 4 storm has brought catastrophic flooding to the Lone Star State, leaving more than 200,000 people without power, Reuters reports. So far, three people are confirmed dead, and ABC News reports that emergency authorities in Houston are receiving thousands of calls for rescue as rapidly rising floodwaters have forced residents to seek higher ground on their rooftops.

The White House, facing its first major natural disaster of the Trump administration, is certainly not sitting by the sidelines. President Donald Trump on August 25th signed a disaster relief declaration to funnel federal aid and emergency resources to rescue and recovery efforts along the Gulf Coast. "You are doing a great job - the world is watching! Be safe," Trump tweeted, addressing Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long. In a later tweet, Trump added: "We are leaving nothing to chance. City, State and Federal Govs. working great together!"

Unfortunately, Trump's declaration may be too little, too late for this storm. And depending on the total damage it causes, Hurricane Harvey might actually end up hurting the very climate skepticism that helped catapult Trump to the presidency in the first place.

Trump has made no secret of his skepticism of man-made climate change, perhaps most famously with his assertion in 2012 that climate change was a hoax perpetrated by China. Climate skepticism has thus been a part of U.S. domestic policy since Trump took office, most notably with his appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency. (Pruitt has, in turn, stacked the agency with other climate skeptics.) Ironically enough, since assuming his post, Pruitt has proposed slashing the FEMA budget by $667 million.

But while the full-on embrace of climate skepticism may make political sense for the White House—only 25 percent of Trump voters think climate change is caused by humans—it likely won't resonate with the Texans who must now live through Harvey and its long-term effects.

A growing body of research suggests that perceptions of climate change are influenced by experience with climate-related natural disasters. A 2016 analysis in the Journal of Environmental Studies and Science found that, between Hurricane Katrina and the pre-election Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the public discourse surrounding extreme weather shifted dramatically from a purely economic and energy discussion to one focused on climate. And a 2013 study by the Association for Psychological Science found that direct experiences with intense events like Sandy and Hurricane Irene were more likely to re-orient survivors toward "green" and climate-positive political stances. Naturally, the correlation is a bit more nuanced, but the fact remains that climate change concerns are at a three-decade high, and something like Harvey may only weaken confidence in Trump's climate skepticism.

Since assuming his post, Pruitt has proposed slashing the FEMA budget by $667 million.

The potential conflict facing Trump has become more pronounced thanks to his administration's actions in the weeks leading up to Harvey. On August 7th, a broad climate change report drafted by government scientists from 13 federal agencies that was leaked to the press indicated the average U.S. temperature "has risen rapidly and drastically" to historic levels since the 1980s. Its findings "directly contradict claims by President Trump and members of his cabinet," as the New York Times put it. The report was apparently leaked in an effort to bypass any efforts the White House might make to dispute and dilute its findings, a not unfounded concern among scientists and career civil servants at the agency.

One week after the leak, the Trump administration announced plans to rescind an Obama-era rule requiring the federal government to provide $10 billion in annual funding to go toward storm-proofing infrastructure projects against the storm surges and heavy rains that accompany 90 percent of U.S. natural disasters. In an even more alarming move, the White House decided on August 20th to disband the National Climate Assessment federal advisory panel, which was tasked with helping state, local, and federal officials and private-sector decision-makers plan for the long-term effects of climate change. It was also the same body responsible for producing and leaking the climate change report earlier in the month.

While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration notes that it's "premature" to directly correlate rising greenhouse gas emissions with with a higher frequency of U.S. hurricane strikes, the NOAA admits these weather events will only become "more intense." And it's not just hurricanes: Research suggests the risks associated with catastrophic weather systems will escalate dramatically over the next century. Ours looks to be a global future of blistering heatwaves that will push the limits of human survivability, insane thunderstorms that bring down hail and tornadoes, and destructive rain storms that will continue to pummel the Gulf Coast.

And the irony, of course, is that it's the voters who helped inject Trump's climate skepticism into the federal government who will endure the brunt of the consequences, despite believing otherwise. A June study in Science found that Southern and mid-Atlantic states—Trump-leaning places like Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, South Carolina, and Mississippi—could experience gross domestic product losses of up to 28 percent, lower productivity, lower agricultural yields, and increases in mortality rates as a result of climate-related weather events through the end of the century.

Should all that happen, a legislative agenda that leans heavily on climate skepticism probably won't look too appealing to voters.

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