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We should politicize Harvey and Irma
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With historic floodwaters still receding in southeast Texas and Florida recovering from a huge storm propelled through Florida by unprecedented windspeeds, certain topics are particularly popular to talk and write about in America right now.
Some of the popular things are fantastically positive: grandparents and pets being rescued by the National Guard, citizens and celebrities alike lining up donation efforts, and countless tales of neighbors helping neighbors in a time where instances of compassion and apolitical unity seem few and far between.
Others are, necessarily, much more negative - the catastrophic devastation, the risk of inequitable recovery efforts, and of course the ongoing national debate over the president’s job performance. (Was he unifying and healing on his trips to Texas and Florida, or obsessing over crowd sizes? Depends on your cable channel of choice, most likely.)
One thing that isn’t particularly popular to talk about in this moment, however, is climate change.
It’s an unpopular topic in the same way that gun reform is unpopular after the most recent mass shooting. To many commentators - some well-intentioned, and others not - talking about policy and politics after natural or manmade disasters is to “politicize” the tragedy, as if drawing lines between our actions in the past and the consequences yet to come cheapens human suffering in the here and now.
By contrast, I think this is exactly the time to talk about climate change. In fact, we can’t afford not to.
My own interest in the subject doesn’t come from much personal experience; I had a few brushes with tornadoes as a kid in Texas, and weathered Hurricane Ike during college (a quaint experience compared to Harvey’s record-setting rains). Instead, like so much in this world, I take it from people who know better than me - scientists of course, but also the men and women of the United States military.
To many veterans and national security officials, climate change is a bona fide threat to the United States, and not just due to the death and damage wrought by increasingly frequent and intense superstorms like Harvey and Irma. Rising sea levels threaten our coastal bases, necessitating costly repairs. Wildfires prohibit training exercises and sap resources. And extreme heat, which often results in power outages thanks to our fragile grid system, can render bases at home temporarily incapable of supporting troops in the field.
And that’s just on the home front. All around the world, the first- and second-order consequences of climate change - droughts, floods, resource shortages, mass migration and urbanization - strain the weakest societies and embolden the nastiest extremist groups. Is terrorism caused by carbon dioxide in the atmosphere? Of course not. But the bad guys have a way easier time when they can recruit desperate young men, ingratiate themselves with destitute communities, and challenge overtaxed governments.
All this and more is why now is exactly the time to talk about climate change. More and worse is coming if we don’t step up and act now. That’s not doomsday prophesizing; it’s simply cause and effect.
A smart take on Twitter (they do exist!) pointed out that clamoring against “politicizing” something actually just means insisting that it couldn’t have been prevented - or can’t be prevented in the future - by political action. And while there’s no law Congress can pass to make hurricanes illegal, we know what we need to do to reduce the greenhouse gases that are driving climate change and making these storms worse: step back from dirty fossil fuels and bolster our clean energy sector, with the added benefits of job creation and economic growth.
So as the Harvey relief effort continues and the same gets underway for Irma, let’s do politicize these events - not in the sense of indulging hacky partisan theater, but by taking action to mitigate the threat we face. It’s increasingly clear that we can’t afford not to.

Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project, though views expressed here are his own. You can reach West at