Hurricane Matthew is an ugly example of what happens when climate denial and extreme weather collide

John Hocevar, Oceans Campaign Director at Greenpeace USA

A house surrounded by water in St. Augustine, Florida in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. © Marc Serota / Greenpeace

Florida Governor and climate denier Rick Scott is failing the people of his state.

In 1992, Hurricane Andrew ripped through southeast Florida, doing more than US$26 billion in damage and killing at least 65 people. At the time, I was working on a masters degree in marine biology in southeast Florida; several of my close friends lost their homes during the storm.

Our marine lab was at the end of a barrier island, and there were so many overturned Australian pines along the road that it looked like someone had dumped a giant bag of Lincoln Logs. I remember helping friends move their belongings off houseboats and out of trailers to higher and safer ground, and the mint green colour of the sky just before our transformer blew up.

Strangest of all, I remember being asked to shoot holes in the deck of a yacht to try to put it on the bottom and prevent it from destroying everything else by being thrown around by wind and storm surge.

Two decades later, another devastating storm — Hurricane Matthew — has wrought havoc in the Southeastern United States and claimed more than 1,000 lives in Haiti.

The link between climate change and hurricane season

For a long time, the science has been clear that our reliance on fossil fuels has not only been heating our planet, but also fueling bigger and more devastating storms.

Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy helped make this real for millions of people in the US, especially those who lost homes or loved ones in New York, New Jersey, Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

It has also been clear for a long time that Florida, with its expansive coastline covered with high rise hotels and condominiums often just a few feet above sea level, is among one of the most vulnerable places in the world to extreme weather heightened by climate change.

I studied coral reef conservation in grad school. At the time, coral bleaching was a new phenomenon, and no one had yet imagined that coral reefs might be driven to extinction in the coming decades. Much of Florida’s reef tract has been given State Park or National Marine Sanctuary status, but in recent years it has been dying so quickly you can almost watch it happen.

Climate-driven bleaching is one of the main culprits, with implications for a tourism industry that brings 100 million people and US$50 billion to Florida each year.

Climate change and the politics of denial

By outright denying the science of climate change and the threat it poses to his state, Florida Governor Rick Scott has utterly failed the people of Florida.

Instead of working to reduce carbon emissions and build strategies to cope with climate impacts like sea level rise, erosion, flooding, saltwater intrusion, insect-borne disease outbreaks and extreme heat, he has stuck his head in Florida’s sand. Famously, Scott even banned state employees from using the phrase climate change. This would be irresponsible anywhere, but in a state like Florida on the frontlines of the climate battle, it borders on criminal negligence.

Today, Governor Scott is busy dealing with the impacts of Hurricane Matthew on Florida’s people, environment and businesses. As he should be. The focus now needs to be on providing access to food and shelter to the millions of people affected by the storm, which left more than 1,000 dead in Haiti and is the worst to hit Florida in decades.

Once the waters recede and the power comes back on, though, all of us will need to think carefully about whether climate deniers like Rick Scott — and his party’s presidential nominee Donald Trump — are really suitable candidates to take responsibility for our future.

For a growing number of people who suffer at the hands climate-denialist politics, the answer is clear.

Find more photos of Hurricane Matthew’s impact on the Florida coast here.


John Hocevar is a trained marine biologist and an accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine scientist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace USA’s oceans campaign in 2004.

Originally published by Greenpeace USA on October 10, 2016.

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