THE LIGHTBULB

This week, one of the most popular radio hosts in the country issued a dire warning about Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm barreling its way through Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Though it could diverge from its predicted path, modeling from meteorologists says the storm will most likely crash into South Florida over the weekend.

The ominous warning from conservative fire starter Rush Limbaugh was this: Don't trust those meteorologists.

On his daily syndicated radio show Tuesday, Limbaugh claimed that forecasters and the media alike were overhyping the hurricane in a bid to juice retail sales at stores in South Florida.

“The reason that I am leery of forecasts this far out, folks,” Limbaugh said, “is because I see how the system works.”

Limbaugh went on to explain that this is a “symbiotic relationship.”

“The media benefits with the panic with increased eyeballs, and the retailers benefit from the panic with increased sales,” he said, “and the TV companies benefit because they’re getting advertising dollars from the businesses that are seeing all this attention from customers.”

The Washington Post's Callum Borchers put Limbaugh's comments in Trump-era terms: "Limbaugh didn't say the magic words, but on Tuesday he basically accused the media of creating fake news about Hurricane Irma.”

Weather communicators, including celebrity weatherman Al Roker, piled on to point out that Limbaugh's comments were dangerous if heeded by his listeners — if, that is, some of them ignored evacuation orders from authorities they see as corrupted by the meteorology-industrial complex.
 

But Limbaugh was undeterred. On Wednesday's show, he denied being a “hurricane denier,” and lambasted those who made the accusation, including The Post.

For Limbaugh, the criticism was proof that “people are using this storm to advance the climate change agenda.” He placed those who accept the scientific consensus that humans are warming the planet alongside FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver and other presidential election oddsmakers as examples of “the left ... gone insane.”

This is not a lone conspiratorial theory about this storm. On his own show, Alex Jones of Infowars began a segment this week by claiming, "I’m not saying Irma is geoengineered.”

But he went on to suggest it may have been.

After noting that a science-fiction film about weather control called “Geostorm” is premiering in October, Jones said he thought the timing of the film was suspect.

“Isn’t that just perfect timing?” Jones said. “Like all these race war films they’ve been putting out. This is starting to get suspicious.”

What's going on? Social science offers an explanation as to why those who reject the consensus view among climate scientists may also tend to mistrust the motives of hurricane forecasters. 

A 2013 survey found those who reject climate change science also have a tendency to endorse conspiracy theories, including ideas like that the moon landing was filmed in a Hollywood studio or that the U.S. government staged the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"People who don’t accept the consensus behind climate change tend to have a cluster of conspiracy views," said John Cook, a research assistant professor at the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University and co-author of a follow-up study.

Indeed, such people sometimes bring conspiratorial thinking to their assessment of climate change policy. Jones, for example, has claimed in previous shows that the goal of the 2015 Paris climate talks was to bring about “global taxes" and “global government," neither of which were the outcome of the international agreement that followed.

While outlandish in their details, Cook said, the arguments from Limbaugh and Jones about Hurricane Irma demonstrate classic traits of conspiratorial thinking, such as a belief in a nefarious cabal and "drawing lines between random facts."

Neither Limbaugh nor Jones present any evidence that their theories are true — that, respectively, meteorologists and retailers, or geoengineers and filmmakers, are conspiring to somehow make a buck. What they do present are worldviews that imagine this unprecedented storm as impossible without the help of some behind-the-scenes ne'er-do-wells.

If you reject a scientific consensus, Cook said, "you really have no recourse other than to believe that they’re all in a conspiracy."

POWER PLAYS

BREAKING: The Post's Lisa Rein has emails between the career officials at the U.S. Geological Survey and their bosses -- political staffers at the Interior Department -- over Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg's visit to Glacier National Park. The whole piece is worth a read, but here's a highlight: 

"The Trump administration was far less keen on Zuckerberg — who has been increasingly vocal in his criticism of the president — and apparently balked at giving him the red-carpet treatment that national parks often roll out for lawmakers, potential donors and dignitaries.

'This seems like a lot of government resources to dedicate to a celebrity’s personal PR tour,' Interior press secretary Heather Swift wrote in an email to a Park Service spokesman three days before the scheduled tour."

-- A rare show of bipartisanship (not that Republicans in Congress were asking for it): President Trump announced his support Wednesday for a plan by Democratic leaders to pair relief funding for victims of Harvey with a three-month bill to fund the government and increase the debt ceiling.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also said he would support the deal, given the president’s endorsement. Late Wednesday, McConnell introduced legislation nearly doubling the initial relief aid package for Harvey victims. The legislation “would pair a $15.25 billion disaster aid package with an agreement struck by President Trump and congressional Democrats to raise the federal borrowing limit and keep the government open until mid-December,” reported The Post's Kelsey Snell.

But McConnell and other GOP leaders were "livid," according to Politico, after Trump struck the deal with Democrats and worried the move would only "embolden Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi in future talks."

-- Well, here's something else that certainly won't make McConnell happy. On Wednesday, Trump went to North Dakota to talk tax reform, where he praised the state's Democratic senator, Heidi Heitkamp, who the Senate majority leader is seeking to unseat in 2018.

"Come on up, senator," Trump told a crowd at an oil refinery, The Post's Amber Phillips reported. "These are great people. They work hard. They’re for you 100 percent."

He went on: "And we just want their support, because we need support. You see that with what’s happening in Congress. Nobody can get anything through Congress. We need support, so thank you, senator. Senator Heitkamp. Everyone’s saying: What’s she doing up here? But I’ll tell you what: Good woman, and I think we’ll have your support — I hope we’ll have your support. And thank you very much, senator. Thank you for coming up.”

So what could be Heitkamp ask in a tax code overhaul? Strengthening a tax credit for carbon capture and storage projects, like those that attempt to capture carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants (often branded as "clean coal") 

In July, Heitkamp introduced a stand-alone bill with three colleagues — Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) — to rewrite Section 45Q, the relevant part of the tax code. Carbon-capture advocates say the existing tax credit is too small to motivate private companies to thoroughly invest in and develop the technology.

In an interview then, Heitkamp said that she would seek to insert her carbon-capture credit into the tax-overhaul effort.

“We’ll build support, and we’ll see what happens at year end, see what happens as the whole notion of tax reform develops,” Heitkamp said.

-- How well did Trump handle Harvey? A new poll from Politico and Morning Consult found that voters are split on whether they believe President Trump is doing enough in Harvey’s aftermath to help the affected areas.

The poll found 43 percent of voters believe Trump is doing enough on disaster relief for Harvey, while 40 percent said his response was insufficient. The survey was conducted from Aug. 31 to Sept. 3, starting just after the president made his first visit to Texas and concluding the day after Trump returned to visit some of the harder-hit areas.

Interestingly, some respondents saw the president as separate from the agencies in his purview. The same poll found 56 percent of voters believed the Federal Emergency Management Agency is doing enough on disaster relief.

Trump certainly wants to seem like he's doing a lot, visiting the Texas Gulf Coast twice so far and tweeting furiously about tracking the progress of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath.

Trump began his morning on Thursday tweeting about Irma:

-- Reagan would approve: Right now, the Environmental Protection Agency employs 14,880 people. But Administrator Scott Pruitt has made it clear he wants to clear out those ranks. The agency has been under a hiring freeze and in June, the EPA said it planned to offer buyouts and early retirement packages to more than 1,200 people by early September.

So what's happened so far? The Post's Brady Dennis reports: "Last week, 362 employees accepted a voluntary buyout, according to one agency official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the figures have not been publicly announced. On Aug. 31, a dozen employees retired. Another 33 employees are retiring at the end of September, and 45 additional employees are considering retirement offers."

So if all goes according to plan, the EPA's employee head count will drop to 14,428. The last time it was so low was in the final year of the Reagan administration.

What's next? With that low-hanging fruit plucked, further employee reductions only get harder as the agency turns to less voluntary measures. Among those who decide not to take a buyout or retire early, the EPA can go through a “reduction in force” procedure that takes factors such as length of employment and performance ratings into account.

-- Environmental groups pile on: Trump's decision to wind down the Obama administration's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, policy drew condemnation from advocates for stronger environmental protections... despite the less-than-obvious connection between the two issues.

  • “We cannot make progress toward a healthier world in a climate of fear and resentment," Environmental Defense Fund president Fred Krupp said this week in a statement. "The President's decision today to end the DACA program by next spring, subject to Congressional action, will only serve to further divide our nation."
  • “The Trump administration's inhumane decision to subject people, particularly young people, to live in fear sabotages the community’s capacity and future and devalues a generation of young people who are deeply rooted and invested in this country’s future," said Jennifer Allen, the League of Conservation Voters’ Arizona-based senior vice president of community and civic engagement.

-- "An unprecedented level of access”: A Russian government-linked hacker group gained an “unprecedented level” of access to electric companies in the United States, BuzzFeed's Kevin Collier reported.

More than a dozen companies across the country may have been hacked in recent months, according to the publication, citing a report from California-based cybersecurity firm Symantec.

BuzzFeed added: “Dragonfly has gained access to multiple operational networks in the US, Symantec says, an unprecedented level of compromise. Previously, such penetrations are known to have happened only in places like Ukraine, where hackers once remotely turned off circuit breakers, leaving nearly a quarter million people without power; Russians are also suspected in that incident, though there’s no evidence the same attackers are behind Dragonfly.”

A Department of Homeland Security spokesman told BuzzFeed that it was aware of the report about the hacking group, nicknamed Dragonfly 2.0, or Crouching Yeti, or Energetic Bear, but that there was “no indication of a threat to public safety.” 

OIL CHECK

-- Pump price pumped up: Even with Irma hundreds of miles from Florida, the hurricane season has already hit the Sunshine State — at the gas pump.

Texas motorists, of course, saw a dent in their wallet after Hurricane Harvey. But so did those in Florida. According to new data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, both states saw a 40 cent jump in the price at the pump. Zeroing in one the biggest metro areas in each state, gasoline prices in Houston and Miami were up at least 35 cents per gallon.

Nationwide, the retail price for gasoline averaged $2.68 per gallon on Monday, 28 cents higher than prices a week ago due to a disruption in supply after refineries shut down.

Unlike much of the rest of the lower Atlantic region, which is fed gasoline from the Colonial Pipeline system that starts at the Texas Gulf Coast and saw a 40 cent increase in gasoline prices, Florida gets much of its gas by boat. Instead, in Florida, it's "the uncertain path of Hurricane Irma" that "has put more stress on the state's gasoline stations than during previous storms" as Floridians line up to fill their tanks, reports CNBC's Tom DiChristopher.

Texas refineries are still far from fully healed. As The Post's Steven Mufson reported on Tuesday:

The oil refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast account for half of U.S. refining capacity and produce a quarter of the nation’s gasoline. Nearly 10 percent of the nation’s refineries remained shut on Tuesday including Saudi Aramco’s 603,000 barrel-a-day Motiva plant and ExxonMobil’s 362,300 barrel-a-day Beaumont plant. Other refineries remain at 50 percent capacity, including ExxonMobil’s Baytown refinery, with 560,500 barrels a day, the nation’s second biggest after Motiva.

-- The bad chemical romance continues: Federal and city officials are investigating the source of a potentially dangerous benzene plume after Harvey-related damage to an oil refinery, the Wall Street Journal reports.

The EPA, the city of Houston and the Environmental Defense Fund have deployed additional resources to Houston’s Manchester region to test for benzene, a component of crude oil and gasoline and a carcinogenic substance, after Valero Energy Partners reported a leak last week. Officials want to determine the exact source of the pollutant and the extent of its spread.

The benzene emissions are part of the more than 1 million pounds of hazardous pollutants that oil refineries and chemical plants disclosed to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, as The Post’s Steven Mufson reported earlier this week.

-- What's on tap for Spicer: Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer will deliver the closing keynote address at a conference on shale development and gas-drilling technical insights, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported. Conference organizers said Spicer’s speech at the Shale Insight Conference will be “one of Mr. Spicer’s first public appearances since leaving his White House post.” Politico reported Tuesday that Spicer signed a deal with Worldwide Speakers Group.

-- Evacuation notice: BP began evacuating “nonessential personnel” from its Thunder Horse platform in the Gulf of Mexico, Reuters reported, ahead of Irma’s arrival in the area.

THERMOMETER

-- The latest on Irma: Authorities say at least 10 people have died in the Caribbean as Irma continues to pummel the region. One person died in Anguilla, at least eight people have died in the French Caribbean island territories of St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, and a 2 year-old was killed in Barbuda, according to the Associated Press.

Overnight, the National Hurricane Center reported the hurricane’s eye was moving “west-northwestward off the northern coast of the Dominican Republican.” It added that the center would pass north of the coast Hispaniola today and toward the Turks and Caicos and southeastern and central Bahamas tonight and into Friday.

The takeaway for U.S. mainland residents: The hurricane will likely make direct impact in Florida over the weekend and into next week, the National Hurricane Center said. The center added a hurricane watch would likely go into effect later today for the Florida Keys and parts of Florida peninsula later today.

The latest modeling from European weather authorities has the storm headed for South Florida, too:

The Post's Joel Achenbach, Francisco Alvarado, Sandhya Somashekhar and Mark Berman say the hype is real: "This could be The Big One, again, and everyone knows it, and if people here are getting a bit frantic, that might not be an irrational response."

Or consider this headline from ABC News as evidence of this storm's destructive power:  "Hurricane Irma destroys 90 percent of structures, vehicles on Barbuda."

--Worth a re-read today: In July, The Post’s Darryl Fears imagined how the Tampa Bay area would handle a major hurricane (hint: not well), and reported on how unprepared it was for that possibility. As Hurricane Irma, tied for the second-strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, moves through the Caribbean islands, Fears’s reporting is worth revisiting.

“A Boston firm that analyzes potential catastrophic damage reported that the region would lose $175 billion in a storm the size of Hurricane Katrina. A World Bank study called Tampa Bay one of the 10 most at-risk areas on the globe,” Fears wrote on July 28. “Yet the bay area — greater Tampa, St. Petersburg and Clearwater — has barely begun to assess the rate of sea-level rise and address its effects. Its slow response to a major threat is a case study in how American cities reluctantly prepare for the worst, even though signs of impacts from climate change abound all around.”

-- Watch out below: The city of Miami tweeted warning residents to stay out of buildings near construction cranes if Irma hits the area.

The city noted there were 20-25 tower cranes in Miami and that they are “designed to withstand winds up to 145 miles per hour, not a Category 5 Hurricane.”

Eric Blake, a scientist from the National Hurricane Center, tweeted Wednesday that Irma had maintained 185 mph winds for a full 24 hours:

“The crane’s arm has to remain loose; it is not tied down,” the notice reads. “The arm’s counterbalance is very heavy and poses a potential danger if the crane collapses.” 

-- Travel advisory: Some travelers have complained about airline price gouging as they try to get out of Florida ahead of Irma, CNBC reported, with some flights costing into the quadruple digits. But airfare experts interviewed say it’s more likely a result of airline policies that raise prices for last-minute bookings, the report noted. Some carriers, like JetBlue, have announced caps on fares for one-way direct flights out of every city where it has flights, starting at $99 and up to $159 until seats run out, Reuters reported.

-- A Delta flight from New York’s JFK airport raced Irma on Wednesday and won, landing in San Juan, Puerto Rico and departing to return to New York safely, less than an hour later.

From The Post’s Luz Lazo: “Delta flight status data show Flight 431 left JFK at 8:12 a.m. and arrived in San Juan at 12:01 p.m.; Delta 302 left San Juan at 12:41 p.m. and arrived in New York at 4:22 p.m.”

Lazo continued: 

Delta officials said the airline operated its last scheduled flight to and from San Juan “armed with the latest forecast from the airline’s meteorology team.” Flight 431 arrived a minute after noon to nine miles of visibility and light rain, the airline said. Winds were well below operating limits for the 737-900ER to safely operate at around 28 mph, and gusts up to 36 mph.  Flight 302 departed San Juan with 173 passengers on board, the airline said.

Aviation fanatics followed the flight’s path and shared the updates on Twitter. From aviation blogger Jason Rabinowitz:

DAYBOOK

Today

  • The Senate Energy and Natural Resources holds a hearing on the nominations of Joseph Balash to be Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Land and Minerals Management,  Richard Glick and Kevin McIntyre to be members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Ryan Nelson to be Solicitor of the Department of the Interior.
  • The New York Times hosts the first event in its TimesTalks D.C. series featuring House Speaker Paul D. Ryan.

Coming Up

  • Atlantic Council holds a panel discussion on “Science Exchanges with Iran” on Friday.
EXTRA MILEAGE

Hurricane Irma batters St. Martin:

Watch an anchor brave 'crazy' wind to cover Irma's landfall: 

 

Island of Barbuda 'barely habitable' after Irma:

Florida counties begin evacuating as Hurricane Irma batters Caribbean islands:

Here's what Irma looks like from space: 

Watch Stephen Colbert's take on President Trump's speech in North Dakota: