Gustav, global warming and Sarah Palin

A leading environmentalist counsels progressives to censor themselves over hurricanes and climate change. But that plays into the hands of deniers like Palin.

Published September 2, 2008 5:48PM (EDT)

A friend forwarded me an e-mail titled "Gustav and Hannah" that was written to environmental activists by one of the top environmental leaders in this country. (It was not intended for publication, and so I am withholding his name.) I want to respond to it because it is illustrative of the messaging failure of the environmental community on issues of climate, government action and energy. I strongly believe other progressives must not make the same mistakes.

Here are key quotes from the e-mail about "three potential areas where the message of the national environmental community" could supposedly be counterproductive:

  • Our first concern relates to the fact that any particular hurricane hitting Louisiana is not an example of how global warming is making everything worse ... Blaming this particular hurricane on global warming runs the serious risk of coming off as opportunism in a community that knows full well that hurricanes are a normal fact of life, and could well set back attempts to engage this community on the issue.
  • Second, a hurricane hitting Louisiana is not a good example of how federal flood policy has encouraged people to build in the way of danger.
  • Third, hurricane damage in Louisiana is not an example of how additional OCS drilling is a bad idea. Such an argument puts the national NGO community in the position of attacking an existing and major job creating force in a conservative state.

  • While I think these three points range from wrong to dead wrong, this preemptive muzzling is even worse because it does not put forward the messages that environmentalists should be pushing.

    Offshore drilling
    The e-mail author writes: "Using any damage to the existing infrastructure as an example of why offshore drilling is bad may very well be perceived as an attack on the existing industry and people employed in it." Duh! If the hurricane causes oil spills, then that is in fact an example of the dangers of drilling offshore. More important, it might at least make it harder for the GOP and notably McCain to keep lying about what happened three years ago; that is, that Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did not cause significant oil spillage.

    Obviously, McCain and the GOP think that creating the misimpression that offshore drill rigs or onshore infrastructure are impervious to strong hurricanes helps their case. They keep telling the same lie over and over again, even long after the facts have been made available. At least on the messaging side of things, they appear a lot savvier than the environmental leader who wrote this e-mail. Think about it: Does it matter whether the spill comes from an offshore drill rig or from onshore infrastructure? Of course not.

    The ecosystem doesn't care where spilled oil comes from. If we are going to do offshore drilling from, say, the Carolinas, then those states will need to build a new infrastructure to bring the oil to where the refineries are. If hurricanes were to hit and damage that infrastructure and release oil, it would still be an environmental disaster.

    By the author's logic, any attack on offshore drilling "may be perceived as an attack on the existing industry and people employed in it." So what? Most of the environmental community opposes coastal drilling. If it has to self-censor its most effective arguments, it should go back to college debating and leave the real political debates to those who know how to do it.

    The primary messages on drilling should be:

  • We already opened 80 percent of the offshore areas for drilling back in 2006 and since then oil prices doubled.
  • Opening our coastal plains to drilling will never have any impact whatsoever on the prices Americans pay at the pump.
  • Because there is so little additional oil in the Outer Continental Shelf that isn't open for drilling, a compromise that includes a multiyear extension of renewable tax credits, plus a big push on plug-in hybrids, could be a reasonable idea, especially as long as conservatives block any action that does not include drilling.

  • Federal policy
    The e-mail author writes: "There's a huge equity and class issue problem with using coastal Louisiana as an example of how we must reform federal flood policy or the insurance system that can only be handled sensitively, not as a 'lesson' right after a disaster." This is the kind of absurd red herring argument that conservatives try to claim progressives are making.

    The real issue here is that the federal government has refused to take the necessary action to preserve the vital wetlands that protect against hurricanes, and that the federal government has refused to build the levees strong enough to protect the citizens of New Orleans against a Category 5 hurricane making landfall. Gustav, a "mere" Category 2 at landfall, came close to breaching at least one levee.

    The government's refusal to take the necessary action to protect a major U.S. city like New Orleans from a major hurricane shows just how absurd it is to imagine that we can or will adapt to catastrophic global warming.

    Needless to say, if you deny that humans are the cause of global warming, like GOP V.P. choice Sarah Palin, then climate change is just a random cycle that will reverse itself, so the country would be crazy to spend billions adapting in advance. Palin was recently asked for her take on global warming, and she replied, "A changing environment will affect Alaska more than any other state," before adding, "I'm not one, though, who would attribute it to being man-made."

    If we won't adapt to the realities of having one city below sea level in hurricane alley, what are the chances we are going to adapt to the realities of having all our great Gulf and Atlantic Coast cities at risk for the same fate as New Orleans? After all, sea level from climate change will ultimately put many cities, like Miami, below sea level. And how do you adapt to sea levels rising 6 to 12 inches a decade for centuries, which well may be our fate by 2100 if we don't reverse greenhouse gas emissions trends soon. Climate change driven by humans' greenhouse gases is already happening much faster than past climate change from natural causes -- and it is accelerating.

    Of course, the primary message on federal energy policy is that we can't solve our energy problems without strong progressive policies, as even über-conservative T. Boone Pickens admits in a pickle. (He embraces progressive policies but not progressive politicians.) However, conservatives like McCain ("The truly clean technologies don't work") and Palin ("alternative-energy solutions are far from imminent and would require more than 10 years to develop") have long bitterly opposed such policies, no matter how they lie about such support today.

    Hurricanes and global warming
    The e-mail author writes: "Blaming this particular hurricane on global warming runs the serious risk of coming off as opportunism in a community that knows full well that hurricanes are a normal fact of life, and could well set back attempts to engage this community on the issue."

    As I have written before, this statement reflects one of the great messaging triumphs of the global warming deniers. The right wing has succeeded in browbeating much of the media (and the environmental community) to not talk about the connection between global warming and extreme weather.

    While it is almost certainly true that global warming makes any particular hurricane stronger, the issue has not ever been whether a particular hurricane can be blamed on global warming. Other issues are much more important and deserve elevation by progressives during times of extreme weather.

    One key issue is that the devastation from a strong hurricane -- particularly of a city that is mostly below sea level -- is the shape of things to come in a globally warmed and flooded world. Another key issue is just basic climate messaging, which in this case should be: "Global warming makes the weather more extreme." If even the Bush administration accepts that basic fact of climate science, why shouldn't the environmental community stop self-censoring itself on this issue?

    This is simple stuff. As the climate changes because of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, the weather becomes more extreme. That's what climate change is. I understand why deniers don't want the rest of us talking about the connection between global warming and the surge in extreme weather events that has been documented statistically by scientists, including NOAA's National Climactic Data Center. That would shut down most discussion of climate impacts today and for many years to come. But I don't understand why major environmental leaders play along.

    It is now officially absurd to take the view of the deniers or would-be censors. Back in June, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (aka the Bush administration) issued "Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate," which acknowledged the basic climate science: "Changes in extreme weather and climate events have significant impacts and are among the most serious challenges to society in coping with a changing climate."

    Many extremes and their associated impacts are now changing ... The power and frequency of Atlantic hurricanes have increased substantially in recent decades, though North American mainland land-falling hurricanes do not appear to have increased over the past century. Outside the tropics, storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are becoming even stronger.

    It is well established through formal attribution studies that the global warming of the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced increases in heat-trapping gases ... There is evidence suggesting a human contribution to recent changes in hurricane activity as well as in storms outside the tropics, though a confident assessment will require further study.

    In the future, with continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity. Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity. Hurricane wind speeds, rainfall intensity, and storm surge levels are likely to increase. The strongest cold season storms are likely to become more frequent, with stronger winds and more extreme wave heights.

    Is it so hard for the environmental community to say what the Bush administration has already acknowledged? Especially with multiple hurricanes bearing down on the U.S. coast?

    Environmentalists have, to a large extent, taken themselves out of the political messaging game as it is now played. They have been playing slow-pitch softball, while conservatives have been planning major league baseball. We face yet another Rovian presidential candidate, one who is unafraid to lie repeatedly about the potential benefit of offshore drilling and about his long history of opposing clean energy, one whose election will lead to another global warming denier in the White House, a heartbeat away from running our nation. Progressives must not follow environmentalists down the path of wishy-washy messaging.

    An earlier version of this story appeared on Climate Progress.

    By Joseph Romm

    Joseph Romm is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he oversees He is the author of "Hell and High Water: Global Warming -- The Solution and the Politics." Romm served as acting assistant secretary of energy for energy efficiency and renewable energy in 1997. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from MIT.

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