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The ‘Greatest Hoax’ Strikes Florida

Denying climate change doesn’t stop its devastating effects.

© Douglas R. Clifford/Tampa Bay Times, via Associated Press Hurricane Michael hit Port St. Joe, Fla., with full force on Wednesday.

By NICHOLAS KRISTOF, The New York Times

As Hurricane Michael rips through homes and communities, we send our sympathies to all those in its path, but let’s also review what some leading Florida residents have said about climate change.

“One of the most preposterous hoaxes in the history of the planet,” scoffed Rush Limbaugh of Palm Beach. Gov. Rick Scott’s administration went so far as to bar some agencies from even using the term “climate change,” according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting (Scott denied this).

Myopic Floridians have plenty of company. President Trump dismissed climate change as a hoax “created by and for the Chinese.” Senator James Inhofe, a Republican of Oklahoma, “disproved” climate change by taking a snowball onto the Senate floor and noting that it was chilly outside; using similarly rigorous scientific methods, he wrote a book about climate change called “The Greatest Hoax.”

Alas, denying climate change doesn’t actually prevent it. North Carolina passed a law in 2012 prohibiting the use of climate science in certain state planning, yet that didn’t intimidate Hurricane Florence last month. And banning the words “climate change” isn’t helping Florida now.

Some folks will say this isn’t the moment for politics. But don’t we have a responsibility to mitigate the next disaster?

Consider that the three warmest years on record are the last three. And that the 10 years of greatest loss of sea ice are all in the last dozen years.

It’s true that we can’t definitively link the damage from any one hurricane (or drought or forest fire) to rising carbon emissions. But think of it as playing with loaded dice: A double six might have occurred anyway, but much less often.

“There is strong consensus among scientists who study hurricanes and climate that warming temperatures should make more intense hurricanes possible,” Kerry Emanuel, a hurricane expert at M.I.T., told me. He said that the probability of Hurricane Florence-magnitude rains in North Carolina has roughly tripled since the middle of the 20th century.

Flooding actually causes more hurricane deaths than wind, and climate change amplifies flooding in two ways. First, it raises the base sea level, on top of which a tidal surge occurs. Second, warmer air holds more moisture — about 10 percent more so far — and that means more rain.

Prof. Michael E. Mann of Penn State told me that Hurricane Michael should be a wake-up call. “As should have Katrina, Irene, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Florence,” he added wryly. “In each of these storms we can see the impact of climate change: Warmer seas means more energy to intensify these storms, more wind damage, bigger storm surge and more coastal flooding.”

As recently as the early 2000s, there wasn’t much difference between the parties on climate policy, and Senator John McCain campaigned in 2008 as a leader in reducing carbon emissions. In 2009, Donald Trump joined other business executives in backing more action to address climate change.

Yet in the following years Al Gore helped make climate change a Democratic issue, and the Koch brothers helped make climate denial a litmus test of Republican authenticity. Tribalism took over, and climate skepticism became part of the Republican creed. So polls show that today climate denial is far greater in the United States, home to the greatest scientific research in the world, than in just about any other major country.

Trump says he will pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord, and he had nothing substantive to say about a new United Nations report, which has been called a “deafening, piercing smoke alarm” of catastrophic consequences ahead from climate change.

Republicans are correct that all this is uncertain. But in every other context, we try to prevent threats that are uncertain, and it’s irrational for Trump to be obsessed with, say, Iran, when he seems indifferent to the prospect that we are collectively cooking our entire planet.

There are legitimate debates about the best way to reduce carbon emissions, and there is reason for skepticism that we will succeed. Carbon taxes would have to be very substantial to have a large impact, geoengineering is uncertain, and there will be painful trade-offs ahead.

We also should curb the dysfunctional National Flood Insurance Program, which encourages people to live in low-lying areas. One Mississippi home flooded 34 times in 32 years, resulting in payouts totaling almost 10 times what the home was worth.

But we’re not even having these debates.

I worry that television coverage in the coming days will be dominated by heroes on boats rescuing widows on rooftops. Yes, that human drama is riveting — but it doesn’t address the larger problem.

The way to tackle lung cancer wasn’t to celebrate heroic doctors treating patients in the cancer ward, while ignoring cigarette smoking, but rather to reduce cigarette use.

Climate change may be the most important issue we face, reshaping our children’s world. At some point, those calling “hoax” will fade away and we’ll reach a new consensus about the perils. But by then, it may be too late.

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Politics News: The ‘Greatest Hoax’ Strikes Florida
The ‘Greatest Hoax’ Strikes Florida
Denying climate change doesn’t stop its devastating effects.
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