If the American people, collectively speaking, had enough sense to come in out of the rain, the climate “debate”—long settled almost everywhere else on earth—would be over. No, it’s not possible to assert with mathematical certainty that hurricanes Harvey and Irma were caused by global warming.
It’s also not possible to stipulate exactly which carton of Camels brought about my father’s lung cancer. Only that his 40 year two-packs-a-day tobacco habit shortened his life by a decade or more. Although the tobacco companies once resisted the evidence as vigorously (and dishonestly) as Koch Industries and the rest now fight climate science, nobody argues about it anymore.
Eventually, statistical evidence conflates with lived experience to the point where denialists feel less like iconoclasts and more like fools. It’s tempting to wonder if two of the most powerful hurricanes in US history striking Texas and Floridawithin two weeks of each other might cause Republican climate change deniers like EPA administrator Scott Pruitt to go the way of the Marlboro Man.
Pruitt’s the Trump appointee who declared it insulting to Floridians to associate the strongest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history with ever-increasing ocean temperatures. This despite the fact that it’s a basic matter of atmospheric physics: the warmer the ocean, the more powerful the storm. The connection between record high temperatures and catastrophic flooding events isn’t inferential, it’s direct.
Up goes the temperature, down comes the deluge.
Even more than Irma, Hurricane Harvey—50 inches of rain, 70 dead, countless lives and livelihoods ruined, billions in property damage all over south Texas—impressed scientists as entirely consistent with a warming, rising Gulf of Mexico. Contrary to Bob Dylan, sometimes you do need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.
But the real prize winner, of course, wasn’t EPA’s Pruitt or renowned climatologist Donald J. Trump, but talk radio clown Rush Limbaugh. Even as Hurricane Irma tore through the Caribbean, its 185 mph winds leaving chaos and destruction in its wake, Limbaugh assured listeners that the storm was basically Fake News, a figment of the liberal imagination.
Believe it or not, he blamed the malign influence of “Big Water.” Limbaugh claimed to know exactly where and when Irma would make landfall, a secret he had shared with his “buddies,” but not, of course, with his gullible listeners.
The Limbaugh position is that conspiratorial liberals in the news media deliberately stoke panic for the sake of profits. He argued that “there is symbiotic relationship between retailers and local media, and it’s related to money. It revolves around money. You have major, major industries and businesses which prosper during times of crisis and panic, such as a hurricane, which could destroy or greatly damage people’s homes, and it could interrupt the flow of water and electricity. So what happens?
“Well, the TV stations begin reporting this and the panic begins to increase. And then people end up going to various stores to stock up on water and whatever they might need for home repairs and batteries and all this that they’re advised to get, and a vicious circle is created,” Limbaugh said.
“So the media benefits with the panic with increased eyeballs, and the retailers benefit from the panic with increased sales, and the TV companies benefit because they’re getting advertising dollars from the businesses that are seeing all this attention from customers.”
In short, Limbaugh sounded pretty much like Bernie Sanders on crack—a straight Marxist analysis of the evils of corporate broadcasting. Except here’s the problem: Hurricane Irma kept coming, swallowing up St. Martin and the Virgin Islands, and looking less imaginary every day.
So Limbaugh shut down his Palm Beach studio and evacuated for parts unknown like millions of other Floridians. Needless to say, he’ll come up with a fancy alibi. I’m sure it’ll be a humdinger. But how anybody could ever take the portly blowhard seriously again beggars my poor imagination.
Somewhat further out on the lunatic fringe, Infowars founder Alex Jones took an even more imaginative position: speculating darkly that both storms had been “geo-engineered” by wicked agents of the “deep state” to stoke fear of climate change and enhance the liberal agenda.
Of course, not long ago Jones conjured thousands of Muslim terrorists fixing to overrun south Texas from bunkers hidden under vacant Walmart stores, even as Hillary Clinton’s Comet Ping Pong Pizza child sex abuse ring flourished in Washington. Evidently, there’s no conspiracy too absurd for Jones’s deluded followers.
That’s the great paradox among today’s right wing true-believers, where Chicken Little stories are always in fashion. The sky is always about to fall.
Except, that is, when it does, as in Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
We may expect such persons to go into increased frenzies of denial. Some human beings are rarely more passionate than when denying reality.
We can hope the majority will prove capable of learning from it.