Climate scientists, science communicators and journalists have been doing a great job responding to Hurricane Harvey. This is the result of many years of hard work and lessons we’ve learned about being heard clearly amidst a disaster.
There’s always discussion about climate change after a major weather event. Scientists can participate in that discussion or cede ground to climate deniers. This time around, I heard almost no one in my field say that we needed to wait days or weeks to talk about the long-term changes to our planet that are making storms like Harvey worse. The accelerated news cycle has probably contributed to that, but it’s also a strategic choice and a good one.
For years, journalists would ask scientists, “Can we blame this storm on global warming?” It’s a natural instinct and “blame game” style questions are often an outgrowth of how media outlets tend to cover politics. For scientists, research on attributing single events to climate change is not that far along. By contrast, the science linking long-term trends in sea level rise and heavier precipitation to making ALL coastal storms worse is quite clear. And importantly, it’s the latter science that is best suited to informing rebuilding and planning decisions.
Unfortunately, when scientists would answer “blame game” question by saying, “No, but…” journalists would naturally write stories downplaying climate links to storms. Scientists have learned their lesson. Now they say, “Here’s what we do know…” and talk about the long-term trends. Many journalists, too, have invested more time and energy in climate coverage, putting today’s storms in deeper context.
It’s impossible to separate politics from discussions of disasters. Harvey shows us how civic planning, long-term climate adaptation and community resilience intersect. ProPublica’s in-depth reporting on Houston’s infrastructure is a must-read. Hopefully, other cities will take heed before the next disaster strikes. And hopefully Houston can rebuild in ways that offer more protection to people. Disasters also remind us that our neighbors are often our best source of protection. Deep community organizing isn’t just something we need to strengthen our politics – it’s something we need to strengthen our relationship to one another as neighbors.
Right before the Christmas break, I posted about climate scientists’ experiences combating zombie myths for Poynter. As we know, some myths seem to defy factchecking, particularly conspiracy theories. I argued that journalists (and scientists!) need to do more to illustrate the dangers of basing policymaking on misinformation:
“…fact-checking is based on the unstated premises that facts themselves matter and that reliable evidence is necessary to make sound policy. Climate denial challenges these very premises….If there is a main lesson we can draw from climate change coverage it is this: Explicitly stating the facts is not enough; we have to be clear about what happens when they lose out to lies.