If Now’s Not the Time to Talk About Climate Change, When Is?

A nation serious about mitigating natural disasters like the ones we’ve just seen can’t afford to let this moment slip away.

A satellite view of Hurricane Irma on September 8, 2017

NOAA/CIRA

A friend stopped me on the street not too long ago, as he was walking his dog and I was passing by. After we exchanged the usual pleasantries, he revealed a shocking piece of news: He had recently suffered a massive heart attack. He had been heading into work on the subway, he told me, and suddenly he began feeling the telltale symptoms: the shortness of breath, the tight pressure in the chest, the intense pain radiating from his sternum out to his shoulders and his arms. He immediately got off the train and managed to walk himself to a nearby emergency room. Luckily, doctors were able to attend to him right away.

Once he was stabilized and safe, my friend had naturally wanted to know just how and why he had almost died that morning on his way to the office. He had never suffered any heart problems before, or experienced any other major health issues. The doctors, having already interviewed him extensively and performed a battery of tests, were able to provide an answer. They confirmed that a combination of stress and “lifestyle choices”—my friend didn’t specify which ones—were significant contributing factors leading to his cardiac event. In response, he told me, he felt humbled and shaken. And he assured his doctors that he took their words very seriously. He was making some big changes, starting right now.

I’ve been thinking about my friend lately as I’ve witnessed the debate over when is—and when isn’t—the appropriate time to discuss the role that climate change may have played in calamitous natural disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma and the raging wildfires that have now destroyed more than eight million acres in the American West. On one side of the debate, we have those who believe it’s wrongheaded and offensive to be bringing up climate change while so many people are still mourning loved ones, sorting through debris, and picking up the pieces of their shattered lives. On the other side, we have those who believe we simply can’t afford to postpone the conversation—that any delay is tantamount to abdication.

For the people in this second group, humanity finds itself “confronted with the fierce urgency of the now,” in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. Confronted, that is to say, with evidence of an actual crisis in progress, as opposed to a predicted crisis taking place somewhere down the line. And that partially explains the frustration felt by many at the position taken by EPA administrator Scott Pruitt and his allies, who decry any discussion of climate change in the immediate aftermaths of Harvey and Irma. It’s hard to swallow an accusation that the “double-C phrase” is “insensitive to mention,” coming from the figurehead who takes every available opportunity to side with the oil and gas industry over the public and to weaken rather than strengthen environmental protections. Rather than a plea for compassion, it sounds much more like yet another muted threat from a climate denier.

Either way, it was unrealistic for Pruitt to expect silence on the matter, even from members of the same Trump administration in which he serves. Speaking to reporters the day after Irma made landfall in Florida, Tom Bossert, an adviser to the president on homeland security, vouchsafed that the administration did, in fact, take the effects of climate change seriously . . . just “not the cause of it.” Yet the damage it has wrought—“the things we observe,” in Bossert’s phrasing—were very much on his and the president’s minds, he assured a questioner.

This was progress, of a very limited sort. And when would the White House begin to act on that stated concern about the observed effects of climate change—maybe by, say, accepting the science that pinpoints its cause?

“At a later date,” Bossert said. Next question.

A later date. The procrastinator’s favorite date. The one that never arrives.

My friend, thankfully, wasn’t subjected to a lecture by the emergency room doctors on stress reduction or lifestyle choices while his life was being saved. That would indeed have been the wrong time to impress upon him the importance of healthy living. But you know what wasn’t the wrong time to do so? Right afterward. When the memory of cardiac arrest was still scarily fresh. When attention and focus were assured. When complacency was impossible.

Like Tom Bossert, Scott Pruitt, and Donald Trump, Americans everywhere are seeing the effects of climate change right before their eyes. But unlike them, we aren’t disinclined to study, analyze, dissect, or discuss the causes. Because if there’s anything at all that we can be doing to reduce the chances of another crisis, we’re on board.

We understand the risks of denial—and also of waiting too long to act. They’re the same risks. 


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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