Will Irma Finally Change the Way We Talk About Climate?

Satellite image of Irma as of Saturday morning. Photo: NASA GFSC GOES Project

For decades, a kind of market logic has governed the way we talk about global warming, emanating from the moderate right: Climate change may well be real, the Chamber of Commerce types say, but the need for economic growth is much more urgent and climate action will hamper American business (perhaps even enough to delay development of new, dramatic planet-saving technologies). More recently, especially under Obama, progressives have pushed the positive-case counterargument: that green energy could be a booming growth sector and massive job creator. Which, by the way, it is already: Solar employs more people today than coal, and overall clean energy accounts for more jobs than dirty in almost every state (the job-growth numbers are even more impressive, with green energy generating work 12 times faster than fossil fuel). But the negative side of things is just as important — and here the calculus is just as clear. Even in the short term, and even with cost defined in the narrowest ways, inaction on climate change is likely to be devastatingly more expensive than action. That is what happens when centuries worth of natural disasters are compressed into a few decades — or in our case, a few weeks.

This month of extreme weather demolishes the old economic-cost paradigm — or should, if we could let ourselves really see climate change for what it is and what it does. Last week, Hurricane Harvey — an “unprecedented” storm, it was said, a “thousand year flood” — became the most expensive hurricane in American history, with damage running as high as $200 billion. A week later, we are looking at an even more unprecedentedly destructive storm, with Hurricane Irma now predicted to move up the Florida peninsula, potentially laying waste to Tampa and other cities along the state’s west coast, as well as Orlando and much of central Florida. Early estimates of potential damage run as far north as Atlanta and as high as $1 trillion.

When Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, he left any benefits from green-energy growth out of his tabulation and cited a probably inflated cost of cutting emissions to those goals of $3 trillion by 2040. The United States’ GDP is about $19 trillion, meaning that this one month of hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, Jose — could deliver an economic blow equivalent to 5 percent of all American economic activity, and possibly more. In a period of just two weeks. And then, on top of all that, there is the cost of the heat wave and wildfires that swept across the American west last week, blanketing almost a quarter of the country in smoke so thick you could see it by satellite.

No amount or kind of climate action is going to get that money back, of course. And because any action we do take — adopting a cap-and-trade system, greening our energy sector out of the goodness of our hearts, going all-Tesla — is likely to be gradual, with much of the next decade’s climate effects already baked in, the climate system is likely to get worse before it stabilizes, no matter what we do. The question is how much worse — whether a single hurricane season like this one, with three or more major storms making landfall, will continue to be an outlier, or whether it will very quickly become much more routine. Unfortunately, there is almost no routine of Category-5 pummeling that modern Florida — so much of it built on sandbars and swamps and speculators’ landfill — could really endure.

It’s been easy for Americans to feel that climate change, however “real,” mostly threatens people “elsewhere,” when they think of the danger primarily in terms of sea-level rise. Extreme weather represents a much more expansive threat — those heat waves and droughts, tornadoes, massive rainstorms, and monsoons, a grab bag of environmental horrors encircling everyone on the planet. As Irma shows, extreme weather will often strike the coastline first and low-lying communities most vulnerable to sea-level rise the hardest. But when the storms are big enough, or angled unluckily, the effects cascade inland. “You’ve got to get out,” Florida governor Rick Scott, himself a climate denier, told his constituents this week, warning about Irma. “You can’t wait.” Florida has a population over 20 million, and while only about 2 million live in mandatory evacuation zones, Scott said Friday that every resident of the state “should be prepared to evacuate.” Given how fast these storms move, that is tantamount to a statewide order, and the highways are already clogged by the millions fleeing north, the storm chasing after them and chewing up their homes and schools and supermarkets. The economic costs, of course, will spread wider still. The question is how we will choose to process, understand, and act on them.

On Thursday night, the climate writer and activist Alex Steffen posted a bracing series of tweets criticizing blinkered coverage of these storms — calling the failure to treat the hurricanes as climate-change news “media malpractice — and in particular laying into the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post. As an assessment of media performance during this string of storms, the critique is probably too pointed: the dangers and direct devastation brought by these natural disasters are worth covering on their own terms, and many outlets (including those that Steffen cited) have indeed taken time to discuss the contributing effects of climate change. But, as Steffen pointed out, much of that discussion has focused on the technical matter of just how responsible global warming is for these particular hurricanes — coverage that by its nature is equivocating and embroidered with caveats.

That kind of scrutiny is valuable, but the big picture is more so: This is an unprecedented hurricane season, and whether its unprecedentedness is 30 or 50 percent due to global warming is ultimately an academic question. The climate is changing, much faster than most appreciate, and that change is already bringing about a whole new scale and volume of natural disaster. Already, Irma has prompted meteorologists to suggest establishing an entirely new category of hurricane, since the old one tops out too low. Harvey has already invented a new category for hurricane damage. It’s not a great record to break twice in one month.

Will Irma Finally Change the Way We Talk About Climate?