Gustav, climate, drilling, McCain, Palin — Some enviros self-censor, but should progressives?

A friend forwarded me an email titled “Gustav and Hannah” that was written to environmental activists by one of the top environmental leaders in this country. I am going to write on it length because it is illustrative of the catastrophic messaging failure of the environmental community on issues of climate, government action, and energy. I strongly believe other progressives must not make the same mistakes.

Here are key quotes from the email about “three potential areas where the message of the national environmental community” could supposedly be counterproductive:

  1. Our first concern relates to the fact that any particular hurricane hitting Louisiana is not an example of how global warming is making everything worse…. Blaming this particular hurricane on global warming runs the serious risk of coming off as opportunism in a community that knows full well that hurricanes are a normal fact of life, and could well set back attempts to engage this community on the issue.
  2. Second, a hurricane hitting Louisiana is not a good example of how federal flood policy has encouraged people to build in the way of danger….
  3. Third, hurricane damage in Louisiana is not an example of how additional OCS drilling is a bad idea. Such an argument puts the national NGO community in the position of attacking an existing and major job creating force in a conservative state.

While I think these three points range from wrong to dead wrong, this preemptively muzzling email is all the worse because it does not put forward what message environmentalists should be pushing. Let me (partly) address both of those problems, starting with the last point.

The email author writes: “Using any damage to the existing infrastructure as an example of why offshore drilling is bad may very well be perceived as an attack on the existing industry and people employed in it.” Duh! If the hurricane causes oil spills, then that is in fact an example of the dangers of drilling offshore. More importantly, it might at least make it harder for the GOP to keep lying about what happened three years ago (see TP’s “McCain Falsely Claims Katrina And Rita Did Not Cause Significant Oil Spillage“).

Obviously, McCain and the GOP think that creating the misimpression that offshore drill rigs or onshore infrastructure are impervious to strong hurricanes helps their case — since they keep telling the same lie over and over again long after the facts have been made available to all. I’m guessing that at least on the messaging side of things, they are a lot savvier than the environmental leader who wrote this e-mail.

Secondarily, does it matter whether the spill comes from an offshore drill rig or from onshore infrastructure? Of course not.

The ecosystem doesn’t care where spilled oil comes from. If we are going to do offshore drilling from, say, the Carolinas, then those states will need to build a new infrastructure to bring the oil to where the refineries are. If hurricanes were to hit and damage that infrastructure and release oil, it would still be an environmental disaster.

Third, by the author’s logic, any attack on offshore drilling “may be perceived as an attack on the existing industry and people employed in it.” So what? Most of the environmental community opposes coastal drilling. If it has to self-censor its most effective arguments, it really should go back to college debating and leave the real political debates to those who know how to do it.

Of course, the primary messages on drilling are that

The email author writes: “There’s a huge equity and class issue problem with using coastal Louisiana as an example of how we must reform federal flood policy or the insurance system that can only be handled sensitively, not as a ‘lesson’ right after a disaster.” This is the kind of absurd red herring argument that conservatives try to claim progressives make.

The real issue here is that the federal government has refused to take the necessary action to preserve the vital wetlands that protect against hurricanes and that the federal government has refused to build the levees strong enough to protect the citizens of New Orleans against a Category 5 hurricane making landfall, which is certainly inevitable (see “Why future Katrinas and Gustavs will be MUCH worse“). Heck, Gustav, a “mere” Category 2 at landfall, came close to breaching at least one levee.

The real issue here is that the government’s refusal to take the necessary action to protect a major U.S. city like New Orleans from a superhurricane shows the whole notion we can or will adapt to catastrophic global warming is absurd (see “Hurricane Katrina and the Myth of Global Warming Adaptation“). If we won’t adapt to the realities of having one city below sea level in hurricane alley, what are the chances we are going to adapt to the realities of having all our great Gulf and Atlantic Coast cities at risk for the same fate as New Orleans — since sea level from climate change will ultimately put many cities, like Miami, below sea level? And just how do you adapt to sea levels rising 6 to 12 inches a decade for centuries, which well may be our fate by 2100 if we don’t reverse greenhouse gas emissions trends soon. Climate change driven by humans GHGs is already happening much faster than past climate change from natural causes — and it is accelerating.

Of course, the primary messages on federal energy policy is that we can’t solve our energy problems without strong progressive policies, as even uber conservative T. Boone Pickens admits (see “Pickens in a pickle: He embraces progressive policies but not progressive politicians“) but that conservatives like John McCain (and Sarah Palin) have long bitterly opposed such policies, no matter how they lie about such support today (see The real, Luddite McCain: “The truly clean technologies don’t work” and “Why McCain hates renewables but pretends he loves them” and “The Big Energy Lie” and “McCain’s new energy ad — the media is (almost) on to his cynical doubletalk” and “Anti-wind McCain delivers climate remarks at foreign wind company.”


The email author writes: “Blaming this particular hurricane on global warming runs the serious risk of coming off as opportunism in a community that knows full well that hurricanes are a normal fact of life, and could well set back attempts to engage this community on the issue.”

As I have written about at length (see here), this statement reflects one of the great messaging triumphs of the global warming deniers. The right wing have succeeded in browbeating much of the media (and the environmental community) to not talk about the connection between global warming and extreme weather. The journalist Ross Gelbspan has a long discussion of this in his great 2004 book, Boiling Point.

While it is almost certainly true that global warming makes any particular hurricane stronger, the issue has not ever been whether a particular hurricane can be blamed on global warming. Other issues are much more important and deserve elevation by progressives during times of extreme weather.

One key issue is that the devastation from a strong hurricane — particularly of a city that is mostly below sea level — is the shape of things to come in a globally warmed and flooded world. And I just finished a 2-parter on the impact of globally warmed waters on all future Gulf hurricanes (see “Why future Katrinas and Gustavs will be MUCH worse, Part 2“).

Another key issue is just basic climate messaging, which in this case should be “Global warming makes the weather more extreme.” If even the Bush administration accepts that basic fact of climate science, why shouldn’t the environmental community stop self censoring itself on this issue?

This is simple stuff. As the climate changes because of human-caused greenhouse gas emissions, the weather becomes more extreme. That’s what climate change is. I understand why deniers don’t want the rest of us talking about the connection between global warming and the surge in extreme weather events that has been documented statistically by scientists — including NOAA’s National Climactic Data Center (NCDC). That would shut down most discussion of climate impacts today and for many years to come. But I don’t understand why major environmental leaders play along.

It is now officially absurd to take the view of the deniers or would-be censors. Back in June, the U.S. Climate Change Science Program (aka the Bush Administration) issued Weather and Climate Extremes in a Changing Climate that acknowledged the basic climate science:

Changes in extreme weather and climate events have significant impacts and are among the most serious challenges to society in coping with a changing climate.

Many extremes and their associated impacts are now changing…. The power and frequency of Atlantic hurricanes have increased substantially in recent decades, though North American mainland land-falling hurricanes do not appear to have increased over the past century. Outside the tropics, storm tracks are shifting northward and the strongest storms are becoming even stronger.

It is well established through formal attribution studies that the global warming of the past 50 years is due primarily to human-induced increases in heat-trapping gases.… There is evidence suggesting a human contribution to recent changes in hurricane activity as well as in storms outside the tropics, though a confident assessment will require further study.

In the future, with continued global warming, heat waves and heavy downpours are very likely to further increase in frequency and intensity. Substantial areas of North America are likely to have more frequent droughts of greater severity. Hurricane wind speeds, rainfall intensity, and storm surge levels are likely to increase. The strongest cold season storms are likely to become more frequent, with stronger winds and more extreme wave heights.

Is it so hard for the environmental community to say what the Bush administration has already acknowledged? Especially with multiple hurricanes bearing down on the U.S. coast???

Environmentalist have, to a large extent, taken themselves out of the political messaging game as it is now played. They have been playing slow pitch softball, while conservatives have been planning major league baseball. That is one of many reasons 450 ppm is not even close to being politically possible (see “Is 450 ppm politically possible? Part 6: What the Boxer-Lieberman-Warner bill debate tells us“. That is one of many reasons I have never considered myself an environmentalist.

In any case, progressives must not follow environmentalist down the path of wishy-washy messaging.

14 Responses to Gustav, climate, drilling, McCain, Palin — Some enviros self-censor, but should progressives?

  1. David B. Benson says:

    Starting about 2060 CE, with increased global warming (so-called greenhouse) gases and the recovery of the so-called ozone hole, there is a most serious rick that the metastable WAIS will begin to collapse. When this occurs, the sea level will go up much faster than your estimate, methinks.

  2. I agree we need to stop trying to sell the line that extreme climate change and weather are two unrealted things. While true in the purest climate science world it will not help the cause of getting everyday people on board to solve the problems of 1. CO2 2. offshore drilling 3. converging crisis=deforestation,plastic pollution,destruction of wildlife habitat and the uncontrolled growth of an unsaistainable economy. In the real world all of these things are cause and affect and should be presented that way. In the last couple of months I have read over and over in one paper after another WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF TIME!! I found that it now takes 19 wedges and a WHOLE lot of BILLIONS of dollars along with worldwide co-op to even start to save us from living on Venus, yet the message (except here) the very strong message just isn’t getting out in the everyday world.
    the BAU is all around the world. I saw it today in a big way with the coverage of Gustav. Millions of dollars donated to help rebuild a city that if the truth were understood would be spent on relocation of the population and restoration of the coast back to a swamp and wetlands.

  3. Jon says:

    If we aren’t to tell about the extremes, what are we to tell? The extremes are the danger.

    Hell, if it weren’t for the extremes, who would really care?

  4. Paul K says:

    “the necessary action to preserve the vital wetlands that protect against hurricanes and… the levees strong enough to protect the citizens of New Orleans against a Category 5 hurricane making landfall” are almost mutually exclusive. The coastal wetlands are subsiding (sinking from compaction) because the flooding that created them over thousands of years has been increasingly prevented for the last 200 years from St. Louis to the Gulf.

  5. Alex J says:

    One thing “adaptationalists” don’t seem to get is that the cryosphere and the ocean-atmosphere system are somewhat dynamic. Projected average change doesn’t mean everything will occur in a steady, linear manner. So in one period of years, sea level may be relatively stable, while in another it may rise quickly as a consequence of rapid ice disintegration. Something similar with ocean-atmosphere heat exchange, and the currents that can feed tropical storms.

  6. Agreed. If “environmentalists” don’t play hardball then they deserve to be pasted by the reactionaries and laughed at by “ordinary Americans.” Deeper-warming waters in the Gulf that supercharge hurricanes are just one result of Global Warming. Everyone on that coast, at least, should be love non-carbon energy solutions. But most folks think they can cash their paycheck from their oil employer and move out of harm’s way if need be. A bird in hand. We need to give them time capsules to see what life will be like in a few decades, no matter where they compete to live. Good parents think about this. Good grandparents, even more.

  7. john says:

    Wow. A perfect example of preemptive capitulation.

    While it may be true that no single storm can be attributed to global warming, it is equally true each individual storm, is very likely to be stronger than it otherwise would be, and that each one is an example what we can expect to see much more of if we don’t cut GHG emissions now.

    It’s well past time to pander to deniers and self-interested delayers, or to accept their framing of issues.

    Thanks Joe.

  8. EricG says:

    I love ya Joe, but berating Washington for “…refus(ing) to build the levees strong enough to protect the citizens of New Orleans against a Category 5 hurricane making landfall…” doesn’t make any sense. As Kathy points out above, there are many better ways to spend that money. For better or worse, the battle to save New Orleans is over.

    I suggest John McPhee’s excellent book “Control of Nature” for a reality check on what’s going on at the south end of the Mississippi River.

  9. rpauli says:

    Silence is complicity.

    Time we stopped and countered the organized denialist, obstructionist campaigns.


  10. paulm says:

    Well said.

    I think Environmentalist in North America have effectively been drowned out by big time commerce, their backers and big oil.

    Al Gore covers this in his last book…
    The Assault on Reason

    NYT says about the book…

    I think it might become a classic in its category.

  11. JohnnyRook says:

    Absolutely great post, Joe. I think that rank-and-file environmentalists have been sold out by their leaders, who have become far too cozy with the existing power structure. Look how many environmental organizations were willing to settle for Lieberman-Warner despite all of its inadequacies.

    Most recently there has been the endorsement of T. Boone Pickens by a number of people who ought to know better, among them the Sierra Club’s Carl Pope and the Center for American Progress’s own John Podesta. (I will admit that, of the two, Pope is guilty of the more egregious praise.)

    My analogy for these folks is that of the spinster who drains her bank account to help the spurious fiance that she has met on the Internet. She’s been neglected for so long that she’s completely cowed and will do anything to please that special someone who finally pays attention to her.

    Quite frankly, it’s embarrassing to watch.

    Blogging for the future at Climaticide Chronicles.

  12. Sam says:

    Let me guess–Carl Pope or Fred Krupp?

    You’re right on the money here.

  13. Andy says:

    Joe: the emphasis on oil spills by environmental groups and perhaps yourself make it appear that they are the most important source of harm done by oil and gas production.

    By far the greatest cause of environmental harm is from other impacts such as subsidence and loss of marsh land and developed coastal lands from depressurization and consolidation of oil and gas deposits, loss of fish and wildlife habitat from pipeline construction (coastal Texas and Louisiana are a spagetti bowl of pipelines – some places are more pipeline ROW than open lands), infrastructure impacts such as navigation channels, refineries, etc.

    Unlike oil spills, these are unavoidable, permanent losses to the coastal and inland environments.

    The emphasis on oil spills would be analogous to saying the only environmental harm done by mountain top removal strip mining is from increased dust causing more air pollution. Oil spills are a red herring.

    The industry has done very well in keeping this off the radar.

    [JR: I don’t agree with you here. Oil spills have always been huge news, unlike, say, dust. Also, unlike coal, we are probably going to use most of our conventional oil and natural gas, as Hansen and others have said. And doing so would not be fatal to the climate if we curtailed coal as Hansen and I’d like to.]

  14. Andy says:

    Oil spills have always been big news. But they are a small part of the environmental damage done by oil and gas production outside of global warming.

    Oil spills have caused massive damage (the herring fishery in Prince William Sound may never recover and thus recovery may never occur for the populations of wildlife dependent on them such as sea otters and many birds). Yet, oil spills still represent a very small part of the damage done.

    I wish I had your energy and drive. At some point I’ll piece together the literature and send it to you. The damage is well documented, but mostly sits as inaccessible gray literature and government reports.