President Trump’s embrace of drama and hyperbole has meant that the first natural disasters of his administration were consistently framed in the strongest possible terms.
When Hurricane Harvey threatened Texas, Trump tweeted that “many people” were saying that it was “the worst storm/hurricane they have ever seen.”
Giant storm! Strong government response! Everything is at 11.
When Irma neared Florida, that became the strongest storm people had seen.
As it turns out, it was. Irma was a hurricane for about 12 days, measuring as a major hurricane for more than eight days, longer than any previous Atlantic storm. It had wind speeds of over 185 miles-per-hour for 37 hours — the longest of any tropical cyclone on record.
Why was Irma so powerful? One key factor was that the temperature of the ocean was high, helping to power its strength. Our Chris Mooney noted several factors related to climate change that could bolster the strength of future hurricanes, making them bigger and quicker to gain strength. Some scientists say that’s precisely what happened to Irma.
Harvey, of course, set a record in the United States for the amount of precipitation to fall in one place. That comports with another aspect of climate change: Warmer air is expected to mean more atmospheric moisture that will then mean bigger precipitation events.
While there have been many hurricane seasons with more storms, there have been none on record that have seen two Category 4 storms make landfall in the United States in one year. (Irma had weakened by the time it reached Florida, happily.) In fact, government data suggests that, over the past century-and-a-half, a decade with two Category 4 storms making landfall in the United States would be unusual.
Trump visited Florida on Thursday to view the damage wrought by Irma. On the way back to Washington, he was asked about a relationship between hurricanes and climate change.
His response? “We’ve had bigger storms than this,” according to The Post’s David Nakamura. Trump pointed out storms a century ago that also did enormous damage as a way of playing down the relationship between climate and this year’s storms.
It’s true that there have been big storms in the past. It’s true that some did enormous amounts of damage, like the one that obliterated Galveston, Tex., in the year 1900. But part of the reason that storm did so much damage is that it was unexpected. Residents of the island were warned only the day before. Irma and Harvey were expected, thanks to the research and tools developed by climate scientists. We can now predict weather over a longer period of time, allowing us to prepare for it more easily. We now can build buildings that are better prepared to absorb high winds and storm surge.
Trump’s argument against the role of climate change isn’t much of an argument. It’s a common one, in fact, among those who want to play down the negative effects of global warming: Since there was bad weather in the past, there’s nothing noteworthy about the unusually bad weather of the present. This is a sort of all-weather-matters line of thinking, which becomes fairly ridiculous when extrapolated into other contexts. The body count from a mysterious new toxin is important even if it hasn’t matched that from the plague.
Especially if you’ve spent the past two weeks on Twitter pointing out all the people killed by the toxin. We’re past expecting rhetorical consistency from Trump at this point, but he can’t have it both ways. Either he gets to enjoy the ratings bonanza of the most powerful hurricane and the most precipitation in history — or he gets to play down those events as unimportant to defend his politics on climate.
In this case, we’d support his doing the former.