Here's what's insensitive, Mr. Pruitt: Not telling hurricane victims what's really going on

Keith Gaby

Editor’s note: This post was updated Sept. 10, 2017

After the second catastrophic storm hit mainland United States in a single season, the first time ever we had two Category 4 hurricanes in a row, there are three priorities.

First, help the victims. Second, deal with the aftermath of damage and pollution. Third, do whatever we can to prepare for the future.

Scott Pruitt, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is failing at two-and-a-half of those priorities.

Pruitt seeks budget cuts during record flood

The EPA plays a major role during disasters and agency staff has been on the scene in Houston. There have been complaints about the agency’s response – EPA headquarters has at times appeared more interested in attacking reporters than dealing with the problems – but at least they’re there.

But even as the EPA’s career professionals work in Texas, the political leadership is pushing Congress for devastating cuts that will severely reduce the agency’s ability to help next time. As my colleague Elgie Holstein points out, cuts to air quality monitoring, toxic waste cleanup and water programs will undercut the agency’s capabilities.

Which brings us to next time.

Catastrophic storms hit, but Pruitt won’t say why

We’ve always had hurricanes, but climate change is making them stronger. Warmer oceans add energy to storms, increasing wind speed and destructive power. A hotter atmosphere in these conditions means more rain and flooding.

And as yet another catastrophic storm is about to hit continental U.S., Pruitt and allies such as Rush Limbaugh are doing everything they can to deny this link and confuse the public.

In the midst of a moment when these storms could help inform the public debate about climate change, Pruitt says it’s “insensitive” to discuss the issue. As if raising one of the contributing causes to this catastrophe will somehow prevent first responders from doing their jobs.

The fact is, it’s insensitive to deny climate reality right when people are being so badly hurt by the impacts of it. It’s like telling people to shut up about germs during a flu epidemic.

Pruitt is building a platform for fringe voices

Being sensitive is not really what this is about. Pruitt wants to avoid this conversation because the facts are against him. He has a long history trying to deny established climate reality – from his claim that carbon dioxide was not a “primary driver” of warming despite what the scientists at NASA and his own agency say, to his idea for a “red team-blue team” exercise to debate the science.

That reality show-style effort is designed to give a platform to fringe voices who deny what all major American scientific organizations know: Pollution is driving dangerous changes to our climate. As Christine Todd Whitman, EPA chief under President George W. Bush, wrote this week, the exercise is a “a shameful attempt to confuse the public.” 

Limbaugh alleged conspiracy – then evacuated

Rush Limbaugh, for his part, sees a political plot in the talk of stronger hurricanes. He told his listeners “there is a desire to advance this climate change agenda, and hurricanes are one of the fastest and best ways to do it. You can accomplish a lot just by creating fear and panic.”

He was essentially accusing scientists of reporting disturbing facts so that we as a nation might do something to reduce the threat. Exactly our point, Rush.

As the hurricane turned north, he warned his listeners not to succumbed to the temptation to think “man, there might be something to this climate change.” He then announced his South Florida-based radio show would be off the air for a few days so he could evacuate.

Hurricane victims deserve the truth

Behind all of this is an effort to intimidate us from talking about the reality of climate change by using the victims of these storms as cover. Of course no one should be distracted from helping those affected. They are going through an incredibly difficult time and need our help.

When I was a child in New Jersey, our house was flooded after a hurricane. When we returned from sleeping on the floor of a church, we found that everything we owned had been ruined – so I have some small idea of the difficulty and disruption.

Nothing should get in the way of helping families and communities recover in Texas, Louisiana, Florida, the Caribbean and beyond.

But we also owe these victims – and all Americans – a serious conversation about solutions. No one would say it is “insensitive” to discuss the causes of war or famine or disease, so that we can reduce future harm.

It’s time to do the same with the threat of climate change.

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