How the Republicans Silenced the Democrats after Harvey

As a literary critic who studies the representation of climate change in public discourse, I’ve been struck by how effectively the Republicans were able to prevent Senate Democrats from discussing the possible connections between climate change and the recent hurricanes that devastated parts of Texas and Florida. Scott Pruitt, President Trump’s EPA administrator, notoriously argued on CNN after Harvey that “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.” “To use time and effort to address it at this point,” he continued, “is very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.” Pruitt was, as you might imagine, roundly mocked for his slippery sophistry. Seth Meyers, for one, joked that not discussing climate change after an unprecedented flood is like “crashing your car into a telephone pole and telling the cops ‘this is not the time to talk about my drinking problem’.” Further, in eloquent pieces that appeared in The Washington Post, The LA Times, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Slate, The Huffington Post, Vogue, among other major publications, and on environmental blogs and websites (not to mention Facebook and Twitter), climate scientists and advocates connected the warming of the planet to radically increased atmospheric moisture and precipitation, global sea-level rise to catastrophic flooding, and the destruction of today’s storms to the overwhelming ruination that is sure to come if we don’t cut CO2 emissions immediately. They made their voices loud and clear.

Yet most Democratic politicians apparently agreed that the suffering caused by Harvey and Irene required them not to speak of the storms’ relationship to climate change. According to an article reported by Emily Holden and Elana Schor on Politico, the top Democrat on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, Tom Carper of Delaware, essentially repeated Pruitt’s message, sounding cowed and passive as he hoped for future in which American politicians would finally study what climate scientists are already discussing today: “When we’ve done a good deal more work in terms of cleanup and getting folks’ lives back to normal,” Carper said, “I hope we do a deep dive into whether or not the warming in the Gulf of Mexico is really what’s causing this.” Even Sheldon Whitehouse, the climate hawk senator from Rhode Island, rearticulated a version of Pruitt’s predatory delay: “We have a lot of time to make that point [about climate],” Whitehouse said in a brief interview. To be fair, Whitehouse also said that “we should be talking about this issue on a regular basis,” and other Democratic Senators went even further. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand reiterated that “we cannot ignore that carbon emissions are causing our ocean temperatures to get warmer, which is fueling more powerful hurricanes.” And on Twitter Brian Schatz from Hawaii called out the Republican party for “refusing moral and political responsibility for the planet itself.” But even Bernie Sanders (or perhaps his Twitter staffer) seemed to concede Pruitt’s premise that right after a hurricane is not the time to discuss climate change. “Our job today,” Sanders tweeted, is to “make sure lives are saved in Houston. Our job tomorrow: understand the role that climate change has played in this tragedy.” Tomorrow is too late when the scientists tell us that we have delayed action on climate change for so long that we have now only a 5% chance of halting global warming at 2°C.

So Republican messaging led Democratic Senators to delay discussing climate change (forget about offering policy solutions to the problem) while everyone’s attention was focused on the horror of hurricanes and floods. How were they able to do this? Part of the answer lies in the way that Pruitt and the Republicans mastered the representation of time: their message effectively appropriated people suffering from the effects of climate change right now. Scrambling the temporality of climate cause and effect, they argued that the effect of climate change needs to be dealt with today but the cause of the suffering needs to be dealt with later. (This temporal scrambling seems like a coordinated strategy, evident also in Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert’s Orwellian assertion that “we continue to take climate change seriously, not the cause of it, but what we can see right now.”)

On the face of it this messaging strategy seems insane, but apparently it scared the Democrats, perhaps because it implicitly established a (false) opposition between discussing climate change and easing human misery. If discussing climate change is “time and effort” spent on politics, this message implies, “helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm” is immediate and compassionate action to improve people’s lives.

All of this is, of course, the worst, most cynical hypocrisy. If Pruitt were the least bit interested in improving people’s lives he would, oh I don’t know, stop rubberstamping toxic pesticides, even leaving aside his climate denial which will destroy millions of people’s lives due to whatever warming over 2°C his policies produce. Yet somehow the climate-denying Republicans came out of these hurricanes wearing the mantle of the party who cares about people’s misery. During a helicopter tour of the aftermath of Irene, Florida Governor Rick Scott, for example, told a reporter that his “heart goes out to the people in the Keys.” His heart! This is a man who has effectively dismantled the Energy and Climate Commission established under Florida’s previous governor and, according to the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, even discourages state employees from using the terms “climate change” and “global warming” in official documents. But did CNN report on the contradiction of Scott’s statements and his positions, or did they post this?

To repeat: Republican climate-denial messaging was effective in silencing Democratic politicians because it rhetorically allied the Republicans with the “people” (a word used explicitly by both Pruitt and Scott) affected by Harvey, which framed any discussion of science or any debate about climate policy as a form of elitist indifference to people’s suffering that took attention away from the needs of real human beings. It also set up the Republicans to accuse the Democrats of appearing to seize on a disaster and exploit people’s trauma for political leverage. But I think that accusation seemed “sticky,” as it were, only because the Democrats haven’t done a good enough job (any job at all, really) of articulating how fighting climate change will make people’s lives better today. And that is the most important thing for them to proclaim: fighting climate change is in people’s immediate self-interest, and it will make their lives better, today. As the climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe pointed out in The New York Times: “The most pernicious and dangerous myth we’ve bought into when it comes to climate change is not the myth that it isn’t real or humans aren’t responsible. It’s the myth that it doesn’t matter to me.”

Not that it’s easy to describe how climate change affects living people right now, even without Republicans attempting to prevent you from using current events as examples. As you may have noticed, I referred above to the “horror of hurricanes and floods,” rather than “the suffering of the people” when I talked about where the public’s attention was focused after Harvey. (Maybe because I think about climate change a lot, words like “hurricanes” and “floods” invoke in me a panicked sense of terrified people drowning, but sometimes even in my imagination those words conjure up only images of swirling clouds and rushing waters rather than human faces.) Yet even the most evocative writers and communicators are faced with the problem of time — with climate change’s temporal lag. Even though we already see the effects of climate change all around us, even though the lives of millions of people across the world have already been wrecked by those effects, they are still dispersed and sporadic enough for most Americans to ignore unless they already understand them as signs of future global devastation. Democratic senators (and, let’s be frank, most of us reading this post) are going to be old or dead in thirty or forty years, when climate change will bear down on every American everywhere on a daily basis. That fact presents a really stark challenge to Democratic messaging about climate. How to appeal to Democratic constituents’ self-interest and simultaneously acknowledge climate change’s futurity?

Well, we do have something that expands people’s self-interest, indeed people’s very narcissism, into the future. We have our children. Most of us would do anything for our children, and most of us are at least somewhat reconciled to our deaths by the hope that our children will be safe and thriving even after we’re gone. That hope is both consolation for death and one of the great political motivators in American democracy.

So, Democratic politicians, let the Republicans talk about “the people.” Let Democrats and climate-hawk politicians of all parties talk about the children. Find children affected by hurricanes and floods, and talk about them on TV. Better yet, find children affected by hurricanes and floods who are also worried about climate change, and interview them on TV. Put them in advertisements. Make them your focus. Make yourself their protectors. And don’t be afraid to be accused of cynicism: if you really do work to advance policies that will fight climate change, and if you campaign to generate support for those policies, your casting yourselves as working for the immediate self-interest of voters by protecting and improving the lives of their children will be unassailable. Indeed, it will be your impenetrable armor. Because, above all else, it will actually be true.