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Biden, stop ignoring climate-fuelled extreme weather

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Picture: Reuters/April 29, 2023 – It is a massive blindspot of this (Joe Biden) administration that the country can be pummelled by weather of biblical plague proportions, and our political leaders aren’t out there calling this what it is: climate-fuelled extreme weather that will only get worse in the coming decades without action, the writer says.

By Hannah Story Brown

It is a massive blindspot of this administration that the country can be pummelled by weather of biblical plague proportions, and our political leaders aren’t out there calling this what it is.

Extreme weather is the story of this summer so far, the hottest in 120,000 years. But you wouldn’t know it from following Beltway politics. (Yes, the president’s currently in Lithuania, but there happens to be a climate-fuelled drought there too.)

As science journalist Hannah Waters observed, these new extremes we’re experiencing are “a taste of the future. An extreme El Niño summer today is a normal summer later on if we continue to burn fossil energy at unsustainable rates.” And it’s not just a forecast of what’s to come; it’s also evidence of how much the planet has already warmed. “Right now we are experiencing El Niño in a new way: under warmer conditions created by the build-up of fossil fuel gases in the atmosphere,” Waters wrote.

That’s why it’s not just hot; it’s the hottest. That’s why El Paso just set the record for its longest ever heat wave, 24 days over 100°F. That’s why Phoenix is about to break its record for consecutive days over 110°F. That’s why two months worth of rain fell on Vermont on Monday. That’s why the temperature of the ocean in Florida is “downright shocking” at 92 to 96°F.

Weather is already political, because weather today is increasingly shaped by political choices.

Every catastrophic meteorological event that’s happened over the past few weeks in the United States is not only an important story with real life impacts — people’s lives changing, people’s livelihoods vanishing — it is also intimately connected to climate change in ways that most people aren’t informed about. Weather is already political, because weather today is increasingly shaped by political choices. Even this terrible tick season is a climate change story. Even the looming UPS strike is a climate change story. (Kudos to Time for publishing both those pieces.)

While Time is doing its part, the mainstream media in toto is largely squandering the opportunity and responsibility to educate the public about the connections between extreme weather and climate change, even when the attribution science is definitive. Media Matters found that “only 5 percent of national TV news segments on the record-shattering heatwave that scorched Texas mentioned climate change”. But scientists say it’s safe to assume that all heatwaves now are made more severe or more likely by climate change.

There’s no reason why the Biden administration should also fail to reliably connect these dots. They have hundreds of capable climate scientists on their payroll! And if the administration decided to wage a public information campaign on climate change, media attention would likely follow.

“A presidential administration committed to both fighting climate change and fascism would have a strategy to respond to meteorological calamities in a political fashion,” our Executive Director Jeff Hauser wrote on Twitter. “Send surrogates, pick fights, draw attention.”

It is a massive blindspot of this administration that the country can be pummelled by weather of biblical plague proportions, and our political leaders aren’t out there calling this what it is: climate-fuelled extreme weather that will only get worse in the coming decades without action.

We desperately need leaders who are willing to connect the dots and speak openly about our changing climate in flexible, specific ways. It also happens to be good politics to amplify the political issues that benefit your side when they get more airtime. To the extent that people think about and care about climate change, it will benefit Democrats as a political party. Sending a high-profile surrogate like Kamala Harris into a battleground state like Texas or Arizona could get a figure like Kari Lake or Ted Cruz to argue with them and generate ongoing attention for issues the administration wants raised — while demonstrating the administration’s energy.

The passivity from the Biden administration when it comes to talking about climate change smells a lot like fear. That’s a pretty damning look for an administration that claims to be the best ever on climate.

Executive branch leadership could play a much more vocal role in spreading awareness of climate change and how it’s already shaping our lives. President Joe Biden has plenty of high-profile appointees in his administration who could gin up support for the administration’s priorities and accomplishments through connecting them to people’s immediate circumstances. If the FEMA administrator showed up in rainboots in Vermont and talked about extreme rainfall and climate change, it would get attention. And the administration’s infrastructure accomplishments would probably benefit from the added urgency.

Where is Secretary Pete Buttigieg talking about investing in climate-resilient public infrastructure in the aftermath of extreme floods shutting down Amtrak routes and cancelling flights in the Northeast? Where is Secretary Jennifer Granholm celebrating how renewable energy saved Texas from would-be devastating blackouts during the heatwave? Where are the CDC folks putting out PSAs about wearing masks when the air quality is unhealthy from wildfire smoke? Why isn’t anyone at NOAA going on TV to talk about the horrific coral bleaching that NOAA predicts for this summer? Why don’t we even have any attention-grabbing tweets from the National Weather Service about climate-fuelled extreme weather?

This is a way that the administration can demonstrate that it’s attuned to people’s daily lives. You can think of weather as a “kitchen window” issue — it affects people day to day at least a little, and when it’s extreme, it has major ramifications for people’s safety and health and happiness. The passivity from the Biden administration when it comes to talking about climate change smells a lot like fear. That’s a pretty damning look for an administration that claims to be the best ever on climate. If you’re really leading on climate, then lead on climate. Change the script.

The White House should give its surrogates the opportunity to be charismatic, passionate, and relatively unscripted in the field, engaging with the challenges we face and what we need to do to overcome them. People respond to three-dimensional, engaged leaders who talk earnestly about tangible things. People want to feel like their leaders know what’s going on and know what to do about it. There’s no leading through hope if you don’t acknowledge the reasons for people’s fears.

Hannah Story Brown is the senior researcher for climate and governance at the Revolving Door Project. A version of this piece was published in the Revolving Door Project Newsletter.

This article was published in Common Dreams