After literally 35 trillion gallons of water fell on Texas this month, washing away homes and killing at least 28 people, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz still would not talk about climate change. “At a time of tragedy, I think it’s wrong to try to politicize a natural disaster,” the 2016 Republican presidential candidate said last week when asked about the role of climate change in the floods.
In a way, the “let’s not politicize this” response is similar to the familiar “I’m not a scientist” dodge — a way to avoid talking about the science that says human-made carbon emissions are warming the earth and screwing with natural weather patterns. Cruz, for his part, says he does not accept that science.
In the meantime, climate scientists across the country have been speaking out about the climate implications of the Texas floods. And on Friday, ThinkProgress asked several of those scientists to weigh in on Cruz’s comments.
The overwhelming response: Talking about climate change after a weather tragedy is not political. In fact, it’s necessary.
“As a scientist, I think it is essential to connect the dots between climate change and the increasing risk it poses to our families and communities,” said Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University. “Keeping our mouths shut on what the data is telling us, even if it’s in fear of vicious reprisals, is like a physician not telling a patient they have a dangerous condition just because they’re afraid of the patient’s reaction.”
What the data is telling us, Hayhoe said, is that climate change is altering the risk of many weather extremes, flooding chief among them. These extremes “have always occurred naturally,” she said, but today’s warming caused by carbon emissions is making those extremes more likely and more severe than they were in the past. (Hayhoe just recently did a TEDx Talk about how this works. It’s worth watching).
Talking about how the risks of extreme weather are increasing due to climate change isn’t political, Hayhoe said — that’s just science.
“The science isn’t political,” she said. “It’s the solutions that are political.”
As a scientist, Andrew Dessler — a professor of atmospheric sciences at Texas A&M University — agreed with Hayhoe’s analysis of climate change’s role in the Texas flooding. While he noted that it will take about a year to conclusively determine if climate change worsened this event in particular, he said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if it did. “These are the kinds of changes we expect to see in a warming climate,” he said.
As a citizen, Dessler thinks climate change is “absolutely a reasonable thing to talk about” following an extreme weather event. The only reason Ted Cruz doesn’t want to talk about it, he said, is because of his inability to talk about solutions. In other words, if Cruz really does think climate scientists are “the equivalent of flat-earthers,” then it’s unlikely he has any tricks up his sleeve to solve the problem.
“Clearly Ted Cruz doesn’t want to talk about this because it’s not something that he can talk about to his advantage,” Dessler said. “This is something he’s weak on and he knows he’s weak on.”
With that in mind, it’s reasonable to think that Cruz’s attempt to dodge the climate question was the real political maneuver. That’s at least according to Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University.
“The ones politicizing the matter are those like Cruz who coddle their fossil fuel funders by denying the science of climate change and smearing those who attempt to point out the very real and damaging impacts climate change is already having,” he said. “It is shameful and history will judge it as such.”
According to the Center for Responsible Politics, the oil and gas industry is the number two donor to Cruz’s presidential campaign so far, trailing only general Republican and conservative interest groups.
For their part, the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists wishes reporters would go beyond asking Cruz about his personal opinion on climate change, and start asking him about solutions, like whether Cruz would use climate science to inform disaster preparedness policies.
“Climate science is a tool for making decisions, not a political football,” said Aaron Huertas, a spokesperson for the group. “I wish journalists and citizens would ask politicians how they are using climate science to do their jobs — including protecting us from changes in some types of extreme weather — not for their personal opinions about scientific evidence.”
Cruz’s press office did not immediately respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.