As Hurricane Irma barrels toward Florida and sends residents fleeing, reputable climate scientists are pretty united in saying that while climate change does not cause individual storms, it is making the impact of certain storms generally more severe.
So, while climate change isn't the root cause of storms like Harvey and Irma, and while Earth has had hurricanes for millennia, it can be said that climate change is making storms worse. Consequences of climate change include higher temperatures in oceans—warm water feeds hurricanes—and rising sea levels, which means flooding can result from less rain or lower storm surges than in the past.
Many people who care about climate change and its effects are talking about Irma and Harvey in this context. That's because climate change is often a difficult topic to get people interested in: It's a planet-wide problem, but the worst effects are on a time lag, and solving it would mean giving things up. Frankly, it's a total bummer and we'd all rather read about, say, this weird translucent lobster.
But a giant hurricane like Irma, and the likelihood that it is more severe than it would have been without climate change, is at least a tangible impact doubters could wrap their heads around, climate evangelists often think. And perhaps it will terrify some deniers into accepting the overwhelming evidence scientists have gathered.
But a common response is resistance, with deniers complaining that scientists shouldn't politicize tragedies.
On Thursday, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, echoed those complaints, according to a CNN report about his remarks as Hurricane Irma approaches Florida. Really, it wasn't all that surprising.
Pruitt refuses to acknowledge that humans have caused planet-wide warming with our carbon dioxide emissions. (That means he doubts one of the most ironclad scientific conclusions there is.) Before his nomination to the EPA, he defended fossil fuel companies and sued the very same agency over its attempts to reduce carbon emissions.
So, his phone interview with CNN was in character. "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," Pruitt reportedly said. He went on to talk about how the EPA plans to help people affected by the storm, including getting gas to those trying to evacuate and supporting their access to clean water.
Of course, evacuating people and addressing the immediate needs of survivors should be everyone's top priorities. But as head of the EPA, Pruitt could spearhead regulation that would address climate change. That's because carbon dioxide, methane and other climate-changing greenhouse gases can be interpreted as air pollution, which the EPA has the authority to regulate under the Clean Air Act. Instead, he has dramatically rolled back Obama-era policies that would have reduced carbon emissions.
Don't expect Pruitt to suddenly become more amenable to talking about climate change once Irma is over. When the winds die down and the waters recede, Floridians and others in the hurricane's path will set to rebuilding, just as Americans always have. And Pruitt will likely find a new reason why now is not the time to talk about climate change.