Fewer Denialists: The Tiny Silver Lining of Irma & Harvey

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Hurricanes Irma and Harvey were worsened by global warming and some people will change their minds and start accepting the science. But it’s not a straight line between the two.

The devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey is still being tallied up. Families and business owners are still figuring out what their lives will look like for the next months and years. Despite what some senior Trump administration officials say, it’s worth looking at the fingerprints of climate change on the hurricanes. Further, it’s worth looking at what impacts these events will have on perspectives on global warming and climate change.

There’s no reason to doubt that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma were worsened by global warming. They have climate change fingerprints all over them. Michael Mann points at 15 cm of sea level rise, air temperature increases, ocean surface and deep water warming and resultant water vapour in the air as the simple causal chain for Harvey for example. Harvey had much more water and lingered longer over the Houston area due to these factors. Irma was much wider and had higher winds for longer due to climate change, resulting in a higher storm surge. Combined, this is the first time two Category 4 hurricanes have reached land in the USA since record keeping began 166 years ago. These are unprecedented increases in severity.

But how will this impact belief sets about climate change that both accelerate and hinder our response to this key issue facing humanity?

There was a decent effort not long ago to determine why people change their minds about climate change using data gathered from reddit deniers who had shifted their opinions to acceptance of the science of climate change. This is not a peer-reviewed study with excellent methodology but is around the case study level of evidence. It’s informative and interesting but not definitive. So what does it say that is relevant to mindsets after Irma and Harvey.

A big reason why people changed their minds about climate change was weird, warm, and wild weather. About a fifth of respondents cited big weather shifts as a primary reason why they shifted from denial to acceptance. I’ve seen acknowledgment of that from someone who is otherwise a “skeptic” as recently as today.

That means that Harvey and Irma will very probably cause some percentage of people in the USA and elsewhere to start accepting that the scientists who say we are changing the climate are right. They’ll set aside the biases against the overwhelming evidence that’s already there and instead let that information in. And they’ll make better decisions as a result of it. Accepting reality leads to better decisions.

The reasons and percentage of people who cited them in the study were:

  • Science — 47% — A bunch of them looked at the science and data and it convinced them. This isn’t at all unreasonable. The evidence is overwhelming, after all. This is a very promising result, and a positive finding given the prevalence and strength of fake news on the right at present.
  • Stewardship — 29% Wanting to make the world a better rather than worse place is almost universal. And regardless of anything else, the environmental benefits of renewables over fossil fuels are almost impossible to ignore.
  • Weather — 21% Enough said.
  • Credibility — 17% Almost one in five former denialists and skeptics said that the other people denying climate change were just hard to believe. The fossil fuel funding, the outright lies, the distortions, the tissue thin explanations and the outright frothing that is in the space makes for an uncompelling sense of authority. Meanwhile, look at the other side of the discussion. There are a lot of incredibly compelling authorities who are really hard to dismiss without hurting your brain.

It’s hard to say how many people will change to accepting the science.

Many of the people in Houston have lived through major flooding events before. By one count, six 100 year floods have occurred in 30 years. By another, three 500 year floods have occurred in 15 years. By yet another, this is the third 500 year flood in three years. All of the floods over the last 30 years featured much less flooding than Harvey. The people who deal with weather are all pretty clear that Harvey is the worst ever and more, that it’s well beyond anything previously considered likely. When the US National Weather Service, a bastion of clarity and understatement, says it is unprecedented and impacts are impossible to predict, you tend to sit up and take notice.

A photo from one of our own Florida writers … article coming soon.

Similarly, many people in southern Florida have lived through hurricanes and tropical storms. This is the largest evacuation in history, however, and the destruction and flooding is more significant than any hurricane in recent memory. The Florida Keys are seeing 90% of houses with major structural damage or worse. More people suffered power outages than at any point in Florida’s history. That’s more people who are sweating in the dark than ever before, and being asked to boil tap water while they do so.

This will sink in for some people who are currently skeptical of the science and impacts of global warming. This is either decades of bad luck that keeps getting worse, or something else is going on.

But Texans apparently can get riled when people from outside of Texas try to tell them about reality. Some Texans are undoubtedly going to get annoyed that the New York Times and the Washington Post, as two of a very large number of respected media outlets and respected sources, are drawing a clear line between Harvey, climate change, and Texan oil and refineries. Some Texans are likely to get ornery and lock even more firmly around their delusion that humans aren’t making the world warmer or that it’s not serious. But Texans have a strong culture of engineering and math. Oil doesn’t get pumped and refined without a lot of people with strong empirical bents. They may have motivated thinking, but that doesn’t make them completely resistant to empirical reality on climate change.

Florida has a different culture and includes innumerable vacation properties. The comments which others are making regarding Florida are less likely to raise hackles and create adverse emotional reactions compared to comments aimed about Houston. There are more transients in Florida. At a guess, there will tend to be more people who shift to acceptance of the science in Florida, but it’s purely a guess.

Extreme weather events are only one of the many things which drive public sentiment. This complexity contributes to making changes in public opinion really hard to predict. People are strange, especially in groups. But more people will accept climate change after these horrific events than did before. It’s a silver lining, no matter how faint.

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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast (https://shorturl.at/tuEF5) , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team. Most recently he contributed to "Proven Climate Solutions: Leading Voices on How to Accelerate Change" (https://www.amazon.com/Proven-Climate-Solutions-Leading-Accelerate-ebook/dp/B0D2T8Z3MW) along with Mark Z. Jacobson, Mary D. Nichols, Dr. Robert W. Howarth and Dr. Audrey Lee among others.

Michael Barnard has 764 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard