As hurricanes slammed into Texas, then Florida, then Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands last summer, the White House said it wasn’t the right time to talk about climate change. Those types of questions politicized present disasters, officials said.
Months later, the Trump administration still hasn’t found a voice to discuss the impacts of rising temperatures. Now the omissions are seen by some observers as overtly political as the administration grapples with historic damages from extreme weather without mentioning greenhouse gases.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s strategic plan for 2018 through 2022 lacked the words “climate change,” “sea-level rise,” “extreme weather” or “global warming.”
Climate change is in FEMA’s wheelhouse. It’s the agency that helps prepare cities and states for deadly storms and for cleaning up after them. But FEMA officials, including Administrator Brock Long, have argued that using the term climate change would trigger negative sentiments by people—mainly, some on the political right—who have become increasingly agitated by the thought of addressing it (Climatewire, Aug. 24, 2017).
“It is evident that this strategic plan fully incorporates future risks from all hazards regardless of cause,” FEMA Director of Public Affairs William Booher said in an email when asked why climate change doesn’t appear in its planning strategy.
That strategy amounts to a dereliction of duty, experts said.
Government in stable societies are expected to promote evidence-based, actionable information to preserve lives and reduce damage. Think of how many illnesses might have been avoided by medical warnings to wash hands or get shots during flu season, said Ed Maibach, director of George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. Broadcasting that kind of information is not propaganda, nor does it advance government intrusion into daily lives; it’s sharing potentially lifesaving knowledge. Addressing climate change should be no different, Maibach said.
The federal government’s role in disseminating that information helps the public key into social and ideological cues from political elites, said Kaitlin Raimi, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy. That means the Trump administration’s refusal to name climate change could widen the partisan chasm on the issue.
“This is what worries me here. It’s one thing for a person on the ground to avoid this language so as to reach out to a neighbor or someone else and get them to act to adapt to climate change without triggering the political identities that ’climate change’ often does,” Raimi said in an email. “But by the federal government avoiding this language, it sends a message that this is NOT climate change, that the changes people are seeing around them are not part of this larger problem.”
FEMA occupies an outward perch on the issue. While average Americans don’t pore over the agency’s planning documents, civic leaders do. Local officials facing daily decisions about how to confront the next major storm or the threat of rising seas rely on the agency for credible information. Their choices have costs. Extreme weather events caused $306 billion in damages last year, making it the costliest year ever in the United States (E&E News PM, Jan. 8).
The disappearing act on climate change goes beyond FEMA. It was nowhere to be found in an annual report by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, a hotbed for climate policy under former President Obama. It was scrubbed from the Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy, the first compiled in a decade.
Those broader trends are translating into fewer opportunities for research, with potentially disastrous outcomes, said Kevin Trenberth, a meteorologist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
“People are making poor decisions especially for planning,” Trenberth said in an email. “Research is not getting done. The connections between multiple events are not being drawn and talked about. Communication within the science community and especially with the public is diminished.”
It’s true that Americans have never been more polarized about climate change than they are now, as a study in the journal Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Developmenthas found. Many journalists avoid using the words “climate change” when speaking with people who might express partisan animosity to the idea, according to a survey released last week by the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Center for Climate Change Communication. Even some advocacy groups pushing for climate action on the political right have argued it’s possible to promote greenhouse gas reduction policies without screeds about climate change and polar bears.
Keeping climate change out of the conversation is an outgrowth of President Trump coddling his political base, said Bob Inglis, a former GOP congressman from South Carolina who leads the carbon tax-advocacy group republicEN.
“I guess you’ve got to dance with the folks who’ve brung you, and if that’s what you told them in the rallies, I guess you’ve got to tell them again now that you run FEMA,” Inglis said. “My hope is that once the people have been sold the snake oil, turns out the elixir doesn’t work, that they turn on the snake oil salesman.”
The Trump administration’s silence, misrepresentations and falsehoods on climate contradict an update on the broader climate science published by 13 federal agencies last fall. It said humans are responsible for driving temperatures higher. Science agencies like NOAA and NASA also have published regular updates about climbing temperatures.
While the Trump administration hasn’t censored those studies as many feared, it hasn’t promoted them, either.
That’s a problem, Inglis said. What if President Franklin Roosevelt had called the attack on Pearl Harbor “a small incursion by the army of Japan”? he asked. Would the mobilization to defend the nation have been as swift? Would it have been a day that lived in infamy?
“Rhetoric matters, and seeing it correctly matters,” he said. “In downplaying it, you’re not rallying the nation to deal with the problem.”
Climate change isn’t an attack by a foreign adversary. Rather, it’s a slow boil that tallies victims along the way, Inglis noted.
That’s why planning documents like the one FEMA published last week are important, Maibach said in an email. Eschewing terms like climate change and failing to discuss its hazards may well leave Americans defenseless and at risk, he said. That’s doubly true for FEMA, which oversees emergency response and disaster preparedness.
“As a government agency with responsibility for the safety of Americans during emergency situations, they need to be speaking the truth, even if doing so might ruffle a few people’s feathers, because withholding the truth is an insidious and dangerous form of deception,” Maibach said.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from E&E News. E&E provides daily coverage of essential energy and environmental news at www.eenews.net.