Duck of Minerva: Forum on Extreme Weather, Climate & Politics

Duck of Minerva is a prominent academic blog on world politics. Leah Stokes and Matto Mildenberger recently coauthored comments for a forum post on the blog on the likely effects of Harvey and Irma on US politics. The full post can be read here, and a summary of their comments is below.

Q: What are the most important political consequences of Harvey and Irma?  Are they a “game changer” for US climate discourse?

No, Harvey and Irma are not game-changers. US climate discourse will only change systematically when Republican elites decide it is in their political interest to engage sincerely with the climate crisis. This is not to say they need agree with Democrats on policy solutions; they simply need to share belief in climate change as a policymaking starting point.

That said, Harvey and Irma do matter. They can create a moment where media attention returns to the dangers of climate change, and brings the issue to the top of the policymaking agenda. Unfortunately, most mainstream news outlets failed to mention climate change during their extensive media coverage, an act activists have dubbed “climate silence.” Thus, a key science communication moment was largely squandered.

The hurricanes also raise the salience of the climate crisis for many Americans–at least in the short term. However, political science research generally shows that experience-induced shifts in climate beliefs and risk perceptions are not durable. Real shifts in discourse and partisan beliefs requires systematic messaging by political elites. So far, it doesn’t seem that Republican elites have revised their messages in response to Harvey and Irma.

Q: What is the role of scientific agencies and organizations is in this “post fact” era?

Facts and science still matter a lot in the post-fact era. For one, scientists and scientific agencies continue to describe and profile human-caused climate change’s real and accelerating dangers. Denying climate change does not change the material facts at hand: increased wildfires, droughts, and severe weather are already disrupting the lives and economic well-being of Americans today. Secondly, once we move below the noise and bluster of federal political debates, scientific assessments and perspectives still shape bureaucratic implementation, regulatory decisions, state and local policy goals and more.

Q: What are the most promising levers for promoting better adaptation policies?

Many adaptation policies can be implemented without specific mention or discussion of climate change—they often fall under infrastructure policy, which tends to be bipartisan. That may be the best option available for planners in some parts of the US today. However, robust mitigation policies are still the most promising way to fund adaptation policies and prevent the need for more costly adaptation.

A focus on adaptation is important – but cannot shortcut the need for the US political system to grapple with an essential fact: human activity is causing climate change and it will damage human health and the economy. Only efforts to reshape this human activity can cost-effectively protect Americans from the social and economic risks associated with global warming.