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Recent Natural Disasters Revive Political Discussions On Climate Change


Let's state the obvious here. It has been a rough few weeks for many Americans. Hurricane Harvey dumped so much rain on Houston and Southeast Texas that the ground actually sank. Hurricane Irma followed, destroying parts of the Caribbean and leaving millions of people in Florida without power.

Meanwhile, wildfires in the West have smoked out entire towns and rained ash on the Pacific Coast. All of these natural disasters bring up the question of climate change, a topic that has become increasingly political and divisive in recent years. NPR's Nathan Rott takes a look at whether disasters like the kind we're seeing now might change that conversation.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: The sun is out in Tampa, Fla., just a day after one of the biggest hurricanes in state history has passed through. And unsurprisingly, you won't find a single person at this gas station who's unhappy about it. The sun is not a very divisive thing. But when you ask people about the storm, Hurricane Irma, and climate change, you'll get a range of answers, like this from Gary Fleming...

GARY FLEMING: About climate change? I'm not really concerned about it. No. We've had hurricanes before, so.

ROTT: ...To...

TAILA GARVEY: People are going to be like, oh, it's Florida. We get hurricanes. But we don't get that, you know, all of the West is on fire. The South is underwater.

ALFRED GRAHAM: Oh, we figured climate change was there. I know. I believe in climate change, badder storms every year.

ROTT: Most Americans, like Taila Garvey and Alfred Graham, believe that climate change is real and will harm people in the U.S. But the partisan divide on climate change is widening. A growing number of Democrats are worried about it. Republicans? Not so much. That's all according to recent research by the Yale Program on Climate Communication and Gallup. The question now, though, is, will that change after weeks of seeing millions evacuated, football games canceled and towns inundated by the back to back storms?

ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: I think this is an open question.

ROTT: Anthony Leiserowitz is with Yale's Program on Climate Communication. And he calls what's happening now a teachable moment, one of the rare times where we're all focused on news that's related to the climate instead of, say, Washington or the Kardashians.

LEISEROWITZ: That, however, still has to get through the political dynamics. And so far, the politics has been, you know, pretty resistant to that shift.

ROTT: Take Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. He was asked about climate change after Hurricane Harvey last week and told reporters it was insensitive to talk about it during the emergency, that now is not the time to discuss climate change. Here's how Penny Taylor, a Florida county commission chair and Republican, responded to that when she was interviewed by MSNBC on a windy Florida beach.


PENNY TAYLOR: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: You think that's not true?


TAYLOR: You know, we - where is this man? Get him here (laughter).

ROTT: Another Republican, Miami's mayor, told The Miami Herald, quote, "this is the time to talk about climate change." But Florida's governor, Rick Scott, has not spoken out. In the past, he's been criticized for hedging on the subject of climate change. And it's the same in Texas, where Governor Greg Abbott has said that the climate is always changing and that the human impact on it is a matter of dispute.

BILL MILLER: We're a red state, so it's not top of mind among the, you know, the governing elite - if you want to call them that - in Texas.

ROTT: Bill Miller is a longtime political consultant and lobbyist in Texas.

MILLER: But, you know, profound events have profound effects. And I think that, you know, any time you've got the largest city in the state that's basically been underwater, that it will start the debate in a more earnest way than has happened previously.

ROTT: Vickie Arroyo is seeing that this week in Texas. She's head of the Georgetown Climate Center at Georgetown Law. And she's working in Austin this week listening to state agencies talk about transportation with the impacts of climate change in mind.

VICKI ARROYO: One person actually said, perhaps a disaster like this is a way to open a conversation that they haven't been able to have about climate change. And she likened it to the way that a health scare - you know, a heart attack or something - might make you have a conversation with your doctor about how to change your lifestyle and what you eat.

ROTT: So an opening. But I ask her if she thinks that there will be a moment that will change this conversation forever.

ARROYO: You know, I've been at this a while. I've worked on climate change exclusively for the last two decades. And I will say that we thought that we had these moments before.

ROTT: During Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina in her home state of Louisiana. Neither of those did it, she says, so it's possible that this might not either. Nathan Rott, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAZERBEAK'S "MIGHTY JUNGLE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nathan Rott is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, where he focuses on environment issues and the American West.
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