Duck Forum on extreme weather events and climate change

14 September 2017, 1637 EDT

This forum was edited by Jessica Green, an assistant professor in Environmental Studies Department at New York University.

The one-two punch of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma has revived the conversation about the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events.   Views from the media and politicians range from calls for better climate and adaptation policies to skilled deflection. To provide some insights from political science, I asked experts Josh Busby, David Konisky, Neil Malholtra, Matto Mildenberger, Leah Stokes and Stacy VanDeveer to provide their thoughts on three questions:

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

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

3) What are the most promising levers for promoting better adaptation policies?

All are skeptical that the recent hurricanes and the associated damage will change the tenor of politics around climate change. The issue is too polarized, and memories of disaster fade quickly. While crises such as these natural disasters can create the opportunity for policy change, it is clear that Republican elites must change their tune if any changes are to be implemented.

The role for scientists is a difficult one to navigate. Stacy VanDeveer suggests that scientists need to be more proactive and strategic about communicating their findings. But Neal Malhotra worries that the politicization of science will further erode trust in these institutions. Long term, the best approach is to “re-establish norms that people who work professionally on topics related to science ought to have seats at the table for decision-making” says Josh Busby. Post-fact era or not, Matto Mildenberger and Leah Stokes remind us that “denying climate change does not change the material facts at hand.”

As for how to effect change, the experts have a variety of helpful suggestions. They all share a common thread: don’t focus on climate change. Switch the emphasis to other issues and benefits, and the likelihood of success grows dramatically.

  • Focus on tailoring adaptation strategies to specific place; this need not require reinventing the wheel, states Konisky. There are already ample resources about best practices available to communities seeking to enhance their resilience to climate change.
  • Emphasize the non-climate benefits of adaptation. To the extent that policies are able to improve resilience and create jobs, expand green spaces, redirect investments into communities or create other tangible local benefits, they will be better received by the electorate.
  • Find ways to help politicians capture the benefits of preparation. If adaptation can, say, help lower insurance rates, then politicians will reap more of the rewards of being proactive about future disasters.
  • Change land use policies to expand natural buffers and make building codes more stringent as a way to reduce the most devastating impacts of storms.

Of course, while adaptation policies become increasingly necessary, and will surely prevent some future damage and hardship, without mitigation, they become a prohibitively expensive proposition. At this point, we have already locked in some degree of climate change, so adaptation must be part of the game plan. But we cannot adapt our way out of climate change. Mitigation may be the more controversial approach, but in the long term, it will lessen the amount of adaptation needed, and reduce its overall costs.

Their more detailed thoughts follow after the jump.

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

Josh Busby, University of Texas, Austin

I think the most importance consequence of Harvey and Irma was probably the bundling of the debt ceiling and disaster relief in a single bill, averting a possible government shutdown. It also offered President Trump a new model of cooperation with the Democrats that might be something he is wont to repeat on DACA.

In terms of climate change, I fear that absent elite messaging by Trump himself that Republican public attitudes are hardened. People are increasingly tribal to partisan identity such that if their leaders say it is not real, then they largely parrot that line. Fragmentation among Republicans about climate change, like the Republican Mayor of Miami’s acknowledgment of climate change, creates an opening for more thoughtful engagement, but he’s not a prominent enough figure for that to really matter nationally.

What would matter is if the Republican leadership in Congress wanted to do something on this issue in terms of mitigation or adaptation, and it’s hard to see that, though there might be some movement on discouraging rebuilding in flood zones.

Crises can both create ideational change by those affected by major events but they can increase the political space for transformational change in favor of goals leaders already have. So, FDR was able to seize upon the events of Pearl Harbor to involve the United States in war against Japan and Germany. George W. Bush was able to channel the anger in the wake of 9/11 to commit the United States to a war of choice in Iraq. It’s unclear that Harvey or Irma will concentrate the minds in a similar way, since the leadership in Washington does not want to focus on the problem. It is easier to imagine a president who believes in climate change to push a more aggressive climate agenda than it is to imagine a president, even an unpopular one, reversing course.

David Konisky, Indiana University

At first glance, there is some reason for optimism that Harvey and Irma could be a turning point for U.S. discourse on climate change. After all, political scientists often point to the importance of focusing events for mobilizing public attention, which is one way to create impetus for policy change. Historically, one can certainly point to events such as Three Mile Island, Love Canal, and Deepwater Horizon, as important factors in changing the course of energy and environmental policy.

In this particular case, I think there is reason to be skeptical, at least with respect to U.S. public opinion. In my own research, we find only weak evidence that experiencing extreme weather is associated with either more concern about climate change or support for policies to adapt to its impacts. Although it is true that people that experience severe weather indicate slightly more worry about global warming and are somewhat more supportive for various adaptation policies, we find that these effects are small in comparison to one’s political leanings, and that only recent events seem to matter.

It seems then for the time being that Americans are pretty set in their opinions on climate change, and that extreme weather events, even those as devastating as Harvey and Irma, are unlikely to change many minds. It is also difficult to foresee the political polarization on climate change at the elite level changing in response to the storms. With only a few exceptions, opposition to taking serious action on climate change has become Republican orthodoxy.

Neil Malhotra, Stanford University

In general, research on retrospective voting has found that voters reward politicians for managing the effects of a natural disaster. However, politicians are punished if the response is considered lacking in any way. I would not predict that this would be a “game changer” for climate discourse. My research with Andrew Healy in the American Political Science Review showed that voters do not reward politicians for preventing future disasters. Indeed, after Hurricane Katrina, there were several ballot initiatives on increasing disaster preparedness, but those soon fell off ballots within a couple of years. People have short memories.

Matto Mildenberger and Leah Stokes, University of California, Santa Barbara

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. [Editor’s note: “Climate silence” was precisely the motivation for this forum]

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.

Stacy VanDeveer, University of Massachusetts-Boston

I think we know from plenty of research that most disasters and high profile events alone usually have very little longer-term impacts on national public discourse and debate. However, impacts at other scales might well be longer-lasting, but only if changes are institutionalized in public policy through the work of activists, experts and/or market institutions.

So, after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, Florida changed many state-wide and municipal building codes, zoning decisions, disaster preparedness and public spending rules that seem to result in Florida being much more resilient to Irma (and other recent storms) than it was in 1992 when Andrew roared through.

But as we know, officials and citizens in Texas and Louisiana (and Houston and New Orleans) generally chose not to learn from Hurricane Andrew or the dozens of well- researched, credible studies about climate change adaptation, sea level rise, freshwater flood risks, and the impacts of massive economic and social inequality. Given the current ideological make-up of the Texas state government, one might expect that shockingly few lessons will be taken up from Harvey in Austin.

I think the main hope for Houston and other coastal communities is focusing on the local scale. Scale of scientific and technical advisory panels, studies, and expertise should be aimed at the local level.

In short, if the government in Austin (and much of the rest of Texas) is determined to remain deeply in denial about both climate change and the decades of accumulated knowledge about the need to coordinate and restrict development planning in accordance with flood plains, then citizens and experts should “venue” shop for sensible, practical people working in reason-governed institutions.  Time will tell if Texas Gulf coast communities qualify.

Similarly, I would look for functional governing bodies around the Gulf Coast and up the entire East Coast to try to draw lessons from Harvey and Irma.  In fact, given the looming climate change adaptation challenge and the very high profile hurricanes of the last three weeks, one might use a lesson drawing from Harvey and Irma as an indicator of the quality and capacity of our national, state and municipal government bodies and economic institutions.  If you live in a coastal state that learns almost nothing – and does almost nothing – in the aftermath of the recent storms, you would be wise to conclude that you live in a state that is rather badly governed. Or, put another way, you live in a state that does not care very much for the well-being of large portions of its citizens.

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

Josh Busby, University of Texas, Austin

I think science agencies should just demonstrate competence in what they do. In time, people will recognize the importance of weather forecasts and climate modeling because we need expertise. I think the most important objective is to re-establish norms that people who work professionally on topics related to science ought to have seats at the table for decision-making and that leadership positions in science-related organizations like NASA, USDA, and the EPA ought to go to people who know something about those areas.

David Konisky, Indiana University

Science remains critical, regardless of whether we are in a “post fact” era. I am optimistic that over the long-run, evidence and facts will win out, even if some (even sizeable) segment of the population are slow to accept them.

With respect to extreme weather and climate change, the science on event attribution is still in the relative early stages of development. Although research has advanced considerably in recent years, scientists are still developing standards and techniques to confidently attribute (or not) specific events to human-induced climate change. To advance further, this effort will require significant investment in basic research, which is well worthwhile. As a recent National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine report concluded, advances in event attribution can inform choices about assessing and managing risk and guide adaptation strategies. As the science matures, it will also be critical that the scientific community effectively communicates its findings, using messengers that are credible and trusted by the public.

Neil Malhotra, Stanford University

I haven’t done research on this, but most people don’t know anything about science. This includes most educated liberals. Instead, they trust scientific experts and authorities. As we know, once agencies become politicized, some people will be less likely to trust them.

Matto Mildenberger and Leah Stokes, University of California, Santa Barbara
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.

Stacy VanDeveer, University of Massachusetts-Boston

Local scale government bodies and the officials working in them are often more pragmatic about governance than those at higher scales. This is among the reasons we are often told stories about the glories of federalism by its biggest fans.  As I indicated above, the post Harvey and Irma era might be seen as a test of this.  But scientific and technical experts must also be better at responding to governance scale – and at venue shopping.  While the Florida example suggests that state-wide, regulatory mandates are among the best ways to respond to some of these climate-related threats, if you are an expert who lives in a state (like Texas or North Carolina) where that is not going to happen soon than, focus your energy on informing county, city or town governments that are struggling to learn lessons after the storms. And glossy reports do not explain themselves, nor ‘sell’ themselves. Years of studying the role of scientific and technical advice makes this clear.

Almost no one with the authority to change institutions – governors, legislators, mayors, city managers and city councilors — is going to read the glossy report from cover to cover – whether its published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) or a group of experts at the local university, think tank or environmental organization. Experts can’t just write reports and drop them on other people’s desks like some not-very-cool mic drop. Scientific, technical, policy and legal experts must work in collaboration with – and listen to – public officials and other stakeholders and involve them in knowledge generating process.  The research on this is clear. Knowledge must be built/constructed and applied – and framed and translated into usable forms – together.

3) What are the most promising levers for promoting better adaptation policies?

Josh Busby, University of Texas, Austin

I think land management practices that encourage reestablishment of natural buffers to storm surge like wetlands and mangroves ought to be central along with building codes that require developers to anticipate and build up for seemingly rare flood events. I also think revising the nomenclature for how we talk about 100 year and 500 year flood events is required because it is confusing and gives people a false sense of security that they and their property are not likely to be affected by flooding or storms when they very well may be.

David Konisky, Indiana University

Thinking about the United States, communities will need to adopt placed-based adaptation strategies tailored to their specific vulnerabilities. While this may seem daunting, especially for places with sparse resources, it does not mean that communities need to reinvent the wheel completely. Information sharing can serve an important role in helping communities respond to the threats of climate change.

Fortunately, there are efforts already underway to help government officials and others identify appropriate and effective strategies. One example is the Georgetown Climate Center’s Adaptation Clearinghouse, which for years has been compiling resources on adaptation efforts around the country and connecting practitioners with each other to share information and experiences.

Communities will also require financial assistance. Hardening existing infrastructure (e.g., sea walls, water and sewage systems, roads and bridges, power plants and transmission systems, etc.) to the impacts of climate change will be expensive. This is especially true for communities with older infrastructure, which in many cases has already been severely degraded by decades of wear and tear. The scale of investment necessary to build resilience to climate change is immense, and given the general reluctance of government to raise taxes to generate revenue, it is unclear where the money will come from. Identifying strategies through careful evaluation and planning is only the first step. Putting these strategies in place will require a financial commitment from us all.

Neil Malhotra, Stanford University

Based on my own research, we need policies that allow politicians in office today to capture the benefits of disaster prevention. One way this can be done is via insurance, an issue on which the World Bank has been working with developing countries. If politicians can lower their insurance premiums by investing in preparedness, this allows them to capture some of the future value that would have accrued to politicians in the future.

Matto Mildenberger and Leah Stokes, University of California, Santa Barbara
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.

Stacy Vandeveer, University of Massachusetts-Boston

Most adaptation policies – like climate change mitigation policies – need to convincingly make communities and societies better while they build climate resilience.  In other words, they need to solve problems in people’s daily lives (not just make the future more resilient).  Can some of these policies protect open space and improve recreation options for communities?  Can they reduce regular, local neighborhood flooding events that repeatedly happen?  Can they improve the living conditions of lower income citizens or direct private investments into “community benefits” projects?  Can they spread out and share risks, and thereby make various forms of insurance more affordable for a larger share of people?  Can they create jobs, as many energy efficiency and climate mitigation policies do?  Can they help fund schools?  When a larger share of community and societal (or economic) benefits can be seen and experienced, there are more leverage points and larger coalitions to build.