It Is a Time to Talk About Climate Change

A note on the false dichotomy between prevention and treatment

A satellite image of Hurricane Irma approaching Puerto Rico

In an interview with CNN on Thursday, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said that now is not the time to talk about climate change.

“Here’s the issue,” he said. “To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm, versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced.”

Fortunately this is not a choice that need be made. There is vulgarity in politicizing tragedies for the sake of gaining power, and crassness in pointing fingers and placing blame instead of mourning a tragedy. But of course these aren’t the only options. In the interest of minimizing harm to people, it’s always an important time to talk about climate change. We don’t have to choose between helping current victims and working to prevent the next tragedy.

This is a false dichotomy of the sort that’s commonly used to silence talk of prevention and public health that implicates powerful industries. In the wake of mass shootings, for example, the supposed choice is between mourning loss of life and talking about the instruments of violence. In this case the choice is supposedly between rescuing people and talking about climate change.

Pruitt doesn’t seem to favor talking about climate change much at all. Even before arriving at the EPA, as attorney general of Oklahoma, he led the fight against the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. And already, his EPA appears to be limiting study of the subject. The agency now reportedly has a Trump campaign aide monitoring research-grant applications for “the double-C word.”

In exiting the Paris Climate Accord, the president, too, has removed the United States from a position of leading climate discourse to undermining it. While claiming to be focused firstly on American economic prosperity, Trump has denied the scientific premise that will shape the future of the global energy economy. His administration is undoing policies that would keep sustainable energy a priority for the economic future of the country, not to mention the well-being of its citizens.

At the same time, this week Congress authorized $7.9 billion in disaster-relief funds for Harvey. Billions more could soon be needed, as hurricanes Irma and Jose now represent the first time two Atlantic systems have simultaneously exceeded 150 miles per hour.

Even amid this unprecedented sequence of hurricanes and destruction, most Americans are not in the path of danger. Those who want to lend a hand—to save lives and minimize harm and do something—stand to do much good by using this moment of awareness to prepare for a severe-weather event that does eventually affect their community.

Doing so does not require litigating the exact degree to which carbon emissions contributed or didn’t contribute to these exact hurricanes. It only means acknowledging that climate change is occurring, and it increases the likelihood of severe weather that will harm people.

In addition to preparing homes and communities accordingly, we make daily and hourly decisions about how much we contribute to that risk, and how much we do to mitigate it. It’s more than possible to talk simultaneously about prevention and treatment; it’s irresponsible not to.