Do underlying climates affect the occurrence of extreme weather events? Yes, according to the environmentalist movement. But climate isn’t just a weather word. In an increasingly polarised and chaotic political climate, what lessons from the ‘climate change world’ can we apply to America’s uptick in political violence?
We all know the story. A powerful hurricane makes landfall and causes devastation. Flooding, destroyed buildings, power-cuts, loss of life and property, and major disruption to the economy. This year, among others, we’ve had Hurricanes Michael and Florence in the US, and Typhoons Mangkhut and Jebi in the Pacific.
Hurricanes pose an often frustrating challenge to ‘climate communication,’ a term used in the climate change world — a world that consists of activists, political lobbyists, philanthropists, academics, scientists, and other concerned citizens.
The problem is that hurricanes are newsworthy events. They are dramatic. They provide a ratings-friendly air of imminent risk. U.S. cable news networks send their crews into the path of the storm so that their anchors can get wet and battered by the wind. Spectacular footage shows flooding, waves crashing into piers, trees bending and snapping in the wind. And cut to commercial.
In other words, hurricanes fit quite neatly into the modern American news style and cycle. There’s a fairly short build-up of gradually intensifying warnings, then dramatic eye-catching drama for a day, followed by a few days of human interest stories. When that’s over, the news cycle can move on —after all, there’s another Presidential tweet to cover.
By contrast, climate change takes place over decades. The timescales don’t fit our TV news cycle, let alone our social media attention cycles. They don’t even seem to fit our life cycles. So when a big hurricane comes, there’s a natural temptation for people in the climate world to try and piggyback onto the drama of the hurricane to message about climate change.
But the trouble is that hurricanes are weather, and weather changes radically in most places on earth over the course of a year. Weather from one year to the next can also shift on multiple different measures and shift back again. Just as financial industry prices vary dramatically day-to-day despite long-term trends being clear-as-day on longer-term charts, weather can also be out of trend for the short- or medium term.
Simply stated: Climate is not weather.
While more frequent and more powerful hurricanes are definitely a predicted consequence of climate change, any given hurricane cannot be entirely blamed on climate change.
This is almost the same ‘mistake’ that climate deniers like the U.S. President make when they notice that it is cold and leap to the conclusion that ‘global warming’ must be fake.
Or the ‘mistake’ a very proud-of-himself US Senator Inhofe (whose major campaign contributors are not suprisingly in the fossil fuel energy sector) makes when he throws a snowball in the Senate as proof that global warming isn’t real.
Moving up a few levels of sophistication from senior leaders in the US government, models examining climate change do show that hurricanes and indeed snowstorms (sorry, Sen. Inhofe!) will become more intense and more frequent in some areas. For hurricanes, that means more rainfall, larger storm systems, higher wind speeds, and thus more destruction and damage. Rarer, larger, more severe storms are shown to be more likely over the longer-term. Thus, the most dramatic (though not necessarily significant), effects of climate change are on the extremes, or ‘tails’, of weather event distribution, making those once rarer severe events — high category hurricanes or super-Typhoons, severe floods, severe droughts and wildfires — more common.
Climate and weather exist on different scales, although confusingly, they involve many of the same measures and data points (e.g. temperature or precipitation). According to the best science we have, climate change (average global warming) should make the extreme bad weather events such as hurricanes more likely, more damaging, and more expensive over the longer timescales.
Climate of Hate
In a similar way, and with similar caveats, the information climate around any particular issue seems to influence behaviour. Russia has sought to increase polarisation, distrust, fear, conspiracy thinking, and anger in the United States, and they have found ready partners in certain political leaders and media figures, including the U.S. President and his ‘populist’ messaging strategies.
This climate of polarisation, fear, distrust and extreme anger has increased in recent years in the U.S. Its spread has been driven not only by hostile foreign interference and domestic leaders, but also by the effects of social media siloization, information ‘bubbling’, and algorithm-driven polarization.
As rhetoric, hostile messaging, ‘us versus them’ narratives, and foreign interference clearly ramped up ahead of key mid-term elections, three individuals took to violence. Each of them seem to have been driven by anger and fury of a right-wing persuasion. Cesar Sayoc mailed a series of pipe bombs to perceived political enemies in the media and political spheres; Gregory Bush apparently attempted to murder people at a black church but ended up murdering two African-Americans in a Kroger’s instead; and Robert Bowers committed an anti-semitic massacre of eleven elderly Jewish people in a Pennsylvania synagogue.
Is it possible to blame these radicalized mens’ murderous violence on the increasing right-wing climate of severe hostility towards the media, globalists (a masked term that for many on the far right implies “Jews”), the political elites, Putin’s old enemy George Soros, and ‘liberals’ in general?
Well, probably not entirely. After all, human behaviour is complicated.
Just as any given hurricane may have formed without the altered background conditions resulting from climate change driving increased ocean temperatures in the Atlantic ocean, clearly unhinged individuals such as Bowers and Sayoc may well have picked up their guns or explosives anyway, without the toxic civil, media, and political discourse in the U.S. that seems to have played a part in their thinking.
However, that doesn’t diminish the role played by the toxic climate in the U.S. Common sense suggests that outburts of violence by people who would have been just under the threshold will increase with the rise and prominence of ‘us versus them’ rhetoric, the scapegoating and blaming of minorities and immigrants, the deliberate encouragement of distrust and anger by political leaders, and the polarized nature of politics.
As Josh Cambell recently stated, although President Trump is not “responible” for the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s actions or Cesar Sayoc’s bomb campaign (as some have claimed), he does bear responsibility for the narrative and tone that underlay these actions, given the power of his words and his influence on the climate.
“…you have to appreciate that with leadership comes a certain following, and if a certain number of those followers are predisposed to act with violence based on the tone that you are setting, then you have to assume that responsibility. And the reason why we assume the responsibility is not so we can figure out who’s liable, but it’s so we can nip these things in the bud.”
Further investigation may shed some light on the information sources, social media activity, and general openness to particular messaging of these attackers. Although these investigations are still in their early stages, the rhetorical environment’s influence in the direct motivation of some of these attacks appears to be significant. Just as changing climate contributes to extreme weather damage, an increasingly hostile political and social climate contributes to extremist violence.
Even so, it is important that the media remain cautious about how much blame to apportion to the underlying climates in each area. Underlying climates can only show effect over longer periods, and although the effects of global warming or increased political hostility are clear, overstated blame messaging leaves the side of reason open to accusations of exaggeration and makes us easier to ignore.
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