Texas is currently experiencing devastating flooding as a result of Hurricane Harvey, a tropical cyclone that has left at least 30 people dead and displaced more than 30,000 people from their homes. Natural disasters have a way of testing the mettle of political leaders, particularly in the US, where the weather tends to be more dramatic. (Both George W. Bush and Barack Obama had to contend with catastrophic hurricanes – Katrina and Sandy – during their time in office.) As a result, the world has been watching President Donald Trump closely to see how he will respond to Hurricane Harvey.
As ever with Trump, reviews of his performance have so far been decidedly mixed. Republican politicians have praised the president for quickly flying to Texas, declaring the state a disaster area and releasing federal funds to help the relief effort.
However, other commentators, public officials and ethics groups have criticised Trump for wearing branded campaign merchandise (available to buy via his online shop) during his trip to Texas; for failing to meet or mention any storm victims when he first arrived in the southern state; and for using characteristically hyperbolic – and insensitive – language to describe the storm.
“Nobody’s ever seen this much water,” he told reporters on Tuesday, adding that the fatal hurricane was “historic” and “epic”.
By repeatedly marvelling at the unprecedented scale of Hurricane Harvey, Trump is sticking to a familiar rhetorical pattern. The president is known for his fondness for superlatives: this a man who regularly peppers his sentences with “the best”, “the worst”, “the most”, “the greatest”. It’s not surprising that he also feels compelled to tweet that Harvey is “unprecedented”, “the worst storm/hurricane [people] have ever seen”, and “a once in 500 year flood”, while refraining from sharing information about how people can help.
But when Trump posted yet another awe-struck tweet about the “expert” verdict on Hurricane Harvey, one woman – US comedy writer Jess Dweck – couldn’t resist offering her own sardonic take.
“Going to a Cabinet Meeting (tele-conference) at 11:00 A.M. on #Harvey. Even experts have said they’ve never seen one like this!” tweeted Trump.
In her response, which has been liked more than 220,000 times, Dweck wrote: “It’s almost as if the climate… changed.”
While Dweck’s tweet is funny, it also raises an important point about how we think about Hurricane Harvey and other natural disasters. Trump is more than happy to emphasise the unprecedented and tragic scale of Harvey, but he seems unable or unwilling to recognise a link between exceptional weather events and global warming.
Indeed, the president has repeatedly shown that he doesn’t care – or even believe – in climate change. References to environmental issues, including mentions of climate change and greenhouse gases, have largely been stripped from the White House’s website since Trump’s inauguration in January. In June, meanwhile, he withdrew the US from the landmark Paris climate accords, a decision widely regarded as one that will have harmful consequences for the entire planet.
And climate change has a real effect on the intensity of extreme weather events. While it’s difficult for scientists to definitively attribute individual events to climate change, many believe that global warming is exacerbating the scale of tropical cyclones. The storm surge in Texas is thought to have been worsened by local rises in sea levels.
Katherine Hayhoe, the director of Texas Tech University’s Climate Science Center, tweeted another simple explanation:
“As the world warms, evaporation speeds up,” she wrote. “So on average there’s more water vapour for a storm to sweep up and dump now, compared to 70 years ago.”
In addition, as the air warms across the globe, some of that heat is absorbed by the ocean – and these warm waters are also thought to have sped up Harvey’s transformation from small tropical squall to deadly hurricane.
“This is the main fuel for the storm,” Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the US National Center for Atmospheric Research, tells The Atlantic. “Although these storms occur naturally, the storm is apt to be more intense, maybe a bit bigger, longer-lasting, and with much heavier rainfalls [because of that ocean heat].”
In summary: while Trump isn’t wrong to state that Hurricane Harvey is a record-breaking storm, his refusal to try and prevent any further climate change is very wrong indeed.
Images: Rex Features