Hurricane Harvey is a disaster. It is also political — here’s why

Matthew Hoffmann writes in defence of politicizing climate change, even as the US deals with the aftermath of this week’s tropical storm.

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August 28, 2017
Residents wade through flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey while evacuating their neighbourhood in east Houston, Texas, U.S. August 28, 2017. REUTERS/Adrees Latif

Texas is facing an unprecedented flooding crisis from Hurricane Harvey and as much aid and goodwill as possible should be directed to those suffering the brunt of disaster (consider donating to the Red Cross here). This crisis will be continuing even after the rain stops and the flood waters recede, revealing the depth of devastation from this unprecedented storm.

Even as the storm rages and in its aftermath, there are and will continue to be commentators, tweeters and politicians urging and chastising that in this time of tragedy, the focus should be on victims of the disaster and the immediate needs of disaster response; that now is not the time to talk about climate change or politicize this disaster by invoking discussions of climate policy.

The first part of this is obviously true — we should focus on those suffering from the storm and flooding and direct our immediate efforts to saving and rebuilding lives. This is an enormous emergency and many peoples’ lives are in danger. The second part, however, does not follow. Now is exactly the time to politicize climate change, not as a strategy for political gain, but as a moral imperative in the wake of this disaster.

It is possible to aid and express concern and love for those facing this disaster most directly and still think about what we as a society can do to avoid this becoming all too common or so disastrous. The instinct to avoid politicization often, but not always, comes from a good place (not wishing to distract from disaster relief efforts), but it is ultimately a misapprehension about what politicization is or can mean.

Climate change is political whether we like it or not, whether we discuss it now in the midst of a disaster or not. Even failing to act on or refusing to discuss climate change is a political act. Further, the scope of this disaster is intertwined with politics. Pick an aspect of this tragedy and it is inextricably tied to politics. It doesn’t matter if we talk about how the storm itself was probably made worse by human-induced warming, or how development choices in Houston made the city less resilient to flooding, or how historical patterns of inequality make it so that people of colour, the poor and the vulnerable tend to face the worst consequences of disasters like this (for instance not having the means to evacuate or fearing to leave home because of a lack of documents). These are all linked to political choices.

"Politicization is important because politics is how we get things done — and we desperately need to get things done on climate change."

Politicization is (or should be) about consciously making an issue political and bringing it into surface conversation so that it can be dealt with. Politicization should be about agenda setting and a societal conversation about taking action. It does not have to equal partisan recrimination, which is how it is often portrayed. This is especially how it feels in North America around climate change because there is still a partisan divide, at least amongst elected officials (public opinion polls show that there is broader agreement on the need for climate action amongst the populace). Politicization, in this kind of environment, is seen as a game of “gotcha” or “I told you so” when it needs to be a process of coming to grips with the challenges that society faces and doing so with a sense of urgency.

Politicization is important because politics is how we get things done — and we desperately need to get things done on climate change. We need a massive ramp up around mitigation and decarbonization to at least try to ensure that this kind of disaster is not the new normal.

As always, we cannot blame this storm on climate change (that’s a nonsensical idea anyway) but a warming world certainly contributed to the nature and severity of this storm. The Gulf waters are warmer because of climate change. The sea level is higher because of climate change. There is more moisture in the atmosphere because of climate change. We have a moral imperative to accelerate decarbonization to lessen the future impacts of climate change.

We also need a whole new mindset on living with climate change. Adaptation (broadly conceived — municipal planning, infrastructure, zoning, flood protections, insurance regulations, etc.) has to be a priority so that society can justly deal with the effects of climate change that we are likely to feel no matter what we do on mitigation. We need climate change to be politicized — to be front of mind and the subject of serious deliberation and action from all corners of government and society. Hurricane Harvey puts this need into crystal clear relief.

The phrase “never let a good crisis go to waste” has been, perhaps apocryphally, attributed to Winston Churchill, and we often rightly recoil at the instrumentality of such a sentiment — that political gain is to be made at the expense of and from the suffering of those facing disaster. But I prefer Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel’s 2012 modification of the famous quote: “What I mean by that — it's an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” That is what politicization should really be about.

A range of social science research tells us that a focusing event like Hurricane Harvey can be a key ingredient in generating the political will to act. So let us bring aid and comfort to those suffering this ongoing tragedy and expend every effort on disaster response. But Hurricane Harvey also must be a clarion call, a focusing event that contributes to changing how we think about society’s relationship to carbon energy and climate change. So let us also politicize climate change, bring it to the forefront of societal concern, so that we can take political action to ameliorate and hopefully even prevent its worst impacts like the tragedy we are watching unfold this week in Houston.

An earlier version of this article appeared on the writer’s website.