The Cult of Ignorance

Houston was devastated by a monstrous storm that dumped unprecedented amounts of rain. But, if Hurricane Harvey was exceptional, it was also unsurprising.

Harvey is the face of climate change meeting an unregulated city built on a swamp. Houston is an unplanned city with no zoning laws. Decades of paving over the bayous and wetlands deprived the city of its natural sponge. The more-than-50 inches of water dumped on the city has nowhere to go.

No one storm can be blamed definitively on climate change. The relationship between weather — what is happening now — to climate — long-term meteorological trends — is never specific. But, a connection is also undeniable. A prominent climate researcher, James Hansen, terms the popular unwillingness to recognize climate change “scientific reticence.” He is being polite. A more apt description is a cult of willful ignorance.

Causality is often difficult to prove. But, just because we cannot establish a definitive link between climate change and Hurricane Harvey does not mean there is none. As Carl Sagan argued, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. No one case of lung cancer can be blamed on smoking, but no one doubts the connection between smoking and lung cancer.

It is doubtful that even such an epic storm as Hurricane Harvey will force the current administration and many climate-change deniers in the Republican Party to change their minds. In 2012, Donald Trump tweeted, “The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive.” Everything Trump has said or done since suggests he still believes climate change is a Chinese “hoax.” His decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord indicates he remains on the side of the climate-change deniers.

Representative Lamar Smith, Texas Republican

Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, told The Washington Post that there is no proof of a connection between climate change and the severity of Hurricane Harvey. Smith, by the way, chairs the House Science Committee. Honest! And, the ever provocative, but seldom right, Ann Coulter tweeted, “I don’t believe Hurricane Harvey is God’s punishment for Houston electing a lesbian mayor. But that is more credible than ‘climate change.’”

The deniers like to cherry pick and find a lone scientist or two who deny either a link between climate change and human activity or climate change and the severity of recent storms. But, the truth is that an overwhelming majority of scientists who study climate believe in both connections. Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann spoke for most when he posted on his Facebook page, “Climate change worsened the impact of Hurricane Harvey.” Charles Greene, a professor of earth and atmospheric sciences at Cornell University, cites soaring temperatures in the Arctic for causing record ice melts, which in turn lead to warmer oceanic temperatures causing the jet stream to slow and remain in place resulting in Harvey stalling over the Texas coast. “What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” Greene said. “Just like Superstorm Sandy, Arctic warming likely played an important role in making Hurricane Harvey a killer storm.”

Michael Mann, authority on climate change

We know empirically that the planet is warming, and scientists have shown that greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels are the major culprit. This year, the waters in the Gulf of Mexico are unusually warm — two to three degrees above normal. As Michael Mann wrote, global warming leads to warm waters in the Gulf, which means more evaporation fueling more precipitation. Then, the storm stalled, dumping all that water on southeastern Texas.

Science speaks to us, and we ignore it at our peril. We might do well to heed the experience of the Dutch. In the Netherlands, water is an existential fact of life. Much of the country lies below sea level, and the Dutch have been pumping water to clear land for centuries. The Dutch have learned to live with water, but global warming has presented the tiny nation with a new challenge: Ever rising tides and fiercer storms. The Dutch are mastering new techniques and new means to manage water in an increasingly warmer environment.

Giant sea gates designed to control the flow of water into Rotterdam, the Netherlands, Europe’s busiest port.

The Dutch experience does not translate into lessons for rebuilding Houston or learning how to counter the next killer storm, wherever it might strike. What the Dutch can teach us is how we can learn from science and the experts — not to avoid storms, but to lessen their impact. The Dutch would, no doubt, shake their heads in wonder at Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency and a climate-change denier, who has said, “Science should not be something that’s just thrown about to try and dictate policy in Washington, D.C.”

Scott Pruitt, director of the Environmental Protection Agency

Pruitt’s statement would have dumbfounded government regulators over a century ago. During the Progressive Era, reformers relied on experts to identify and fix problems. Progressivism meant expertise and relying on science and technology for solutions to all kinds of societal ills. Robert Wiebe, a student of the Progressive Era, wrote, “Scientific government the reformers believed, would bring opportunity, progress, order, and community.”

There is a danger that over-reliance on experts creates a technocratic society — a kind of “democratic elitism” —  undermining democratic politics. Scientists and experts should not formulate public policy, but, rather, should be heeded by public officials as they implement policy. Unfortunately, that is not likely to happen as the United States confronts (or ignores) the problem of climate change and considers how and to what extent to rebuild in areas prone to killer storms such as Hurricane Harvey. Not likely to happen, that is, as long as the climate-change deniers engage in the cult of ignorance.

Posted September 1, 2017

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