Now is never the time to talk about climate change

Washington: It's as bizarre as it is American - the immediate aftermath of a crisis is never the time to debate what might have caused it.

Big losses in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? No - to question the wisdom or management of the wars was to disrespect the memory of soldiers who had died.

Gun violence? No, no - talking about gun control after yet another massacre is insensitive to the grief of the victims' families.

And so it was in the weekend, when a reporter was rude enough to ask US Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt??? about the impact of climate change on monster hurricanes that have been smashing southern states, he responded: "To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm; versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced???very, very insensitive to this people in Florida."

Whether it's the sledgehammer blows of this year's serial bushfires or hurricanes, with their huge human and economic impact, Americans might be forgiven for thinking this is the perfect moment to examine how the preponderance of scientific evidence on climate change dovetails, or doesn't with government policy-making.

Hurricane Irma has earned its place in the history books for its sheer ferocity. At close to 300kph, its peak winds were a whisker shy of the strongest ever recorded, but it sustained that wind speed for a record 37hrs. In maintaining its Category 5 status for more than three days, it tied with the previously most enduring hurricane.

Scientists are not running around, claiming that climate change caused either of Hurricanes Harvey or Irma - but there is near unanimity among them that climate change is a significant contributing factor to the severity of some such storms.

Pruitt didn't surprise many - he came to the job with a long rap sheet.

On being appointed by President Donald Trump, he proceeded cautiously - dodging the question when asked if he accepts the science, arguing that the scientific debate was "far from settled"; and even telling his Senate confirmation hearing that his personal opinion on climate change "is immaterial to the job" of running the EPA.

But after a couple of months in the job he revealed himself as a denier when he told an interviewer that carbon dioxide didn't cause global warming: "I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do and there's tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact???so no, I would not agree that it's a primary contributor to the global warming that we see."

It's hardly surprising that he got the gig. Trump, after all, campaigned arguing that climate change was a Chinese hoax. In office he has walked away from Washington's leadership role in the climate debate, by withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Accord; and he and Pruitt have busied themselves undoing a raft of Obama era regulations aimed at reducing carbon emissions.

Scientists parse their arguments carefully. Before the onset of atmospheric and ocean warming three quarters of a century ago, the meteorological fundamentals would have ensured that both Harvey and Irma were big and brutal. But today's big hurricanes are likely to be even bigger because extra heat in the air and sea water ratchets up their horsepower.

As explained by Kate Gordon, a senior adviser at the Paulson Institute, a Chicago-based NGO on sustainable economic growth: "With warmer air comes warmer water, which evaporates quickly, putting water vapor into the atmosphere. In turn, the warm air holds the vapor longer, so when a storm happens, it drops more rain.

"At the same time, the extra heat in the air and water means there is more energy to feed the storm, raising the wind speed of the hurricane. Finally, higher sea levels (also a result of warmer water) leads to storm surge."

Resorting to an ever-reliable sporting metaphor, a science team writing for Scientific American explained: "If a baseball player on steroids is hitting 20 percent more home runs, we can't attribute a particular home run to steroids. But we can say steroids made it 20 percent more likely to have occurred???one can view increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere as steroids for the storms."

The latest draft of a wide-ranging study by 13 American federal agencies as part of the National Climate Assessment makes the same argument, with a caveat. It found theory and computer modeling indicates storms are becoming more intense in a warmer world but "the trend signal has not yet had time to rise above the background variability of natural processes."

But the report's author, Texas Tech University climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, told The New York Times that tropical storms and hurricanes do gain energy from warm water, so the unusually warm water that has accompanied climate change "can have a role in intensifying a storm that already exists."

In Washington, the EPA under Pruitt is purging the agency's website of mentions of climate change. And beyond the capital, Florida is denial central - there, scientists complain that Governor Rick Scott's aversion to the words "climate change" forces them to self-censor their work.

But in Miami, Republican mayor Tom??s Regalado, challenged Pruitt's refusal to engage on climate change as Irma lashed his city.

"This is the time to talk about climate change. This is the time that the President and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change," the mayor said. "If this isn't climate change, I don't know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come."

But no - that's politicising tragedy and it's downright cruel.

As comic commentator Seth Meyers put it on Monday, not talking about climate change as Florida recovers, "is like crashing your car into a telephone pole and telling the cops, 'This is not the time to talk about my drinking problem.'"

The story Now is never the time to talk about climate change first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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