If there was ever a teaching moment for a nation or a culture on an issue of historic importance, wouldn't it be the late summer of 2017 for climate change?
Four powerful Atlantic hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, Jose and Katia — threatened low-lying coasts with devastation of biblical proportions, and the three that made landfall brought death, suffering and destruction to a wide swath of coastal United States and Mexico as well as anarchy on the territorial islands of the West Indies. All of that in a single week following the planet's warmest year on record.
But the prevailing policy in the United States is that it is indecent — "insensitive" was President Trump's environmental chief's word for it — to talk about global warming or climate change while millions of people are suffering from an act of nature. Rush Limbaugh said all the publicity about the hurricanes was part of the hoax by liberals, scientists, maybe the pope and big advertisers to take away our liberties.
It is terribly wrong now to mention that the first report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1990 said that the increasing concentration of greenhouse gases in the skies was producing gradually warming oceans and atmosphere, which would produce steadily more catastrophic weather events like hurricanes, floods and droughts — like Harvey and Irma. Big hurricanes were only one of the dreaded effects of the atmospheric accumulation of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and chlorofluorocarbons across the decades and centuries, but they are the most sensational and thus might offer the best teaching moment.
When Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency and the man charged with dismantling all the nation's rules to reduce greenhouse poisoning, lectured us that it was insensitive for anyone to mention climate change amid so much suffering, the Republican mayor of Miami, offered a rejoinder:
"This is the time to talk about climate change. This is the time that the president and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change. If this isn't climate change, I don't know what is. This is a truly, truly poster child for what is to come."
About that time, Irma fortuitously changed its course and hit the western coast of Florida instead of the Miami and Palm Beach side so that its counterclockwise winds weakened and produced smaller and less damaging storm surges into the coastal cities. Limbaugh's resort home and Trump's resorts were saved. Could that have been a biblical message? If the hurricane's eye had gone up the Atlantic coast, the counterclockwise winds would have delivered towering ocean surges into Miami, Palm Beach, Jacksonville and the other eastern cities.
If it is a teaching moment, here's something to think about, unless you are one who distrusts anything that scientists or the EPA says: The detailed EPA report on climate indicators in 2016 said storm surges from hurricanes would become increasingly larger and more destructive. The average storm surge will be up to 47 percent higher by the end of the century, even if Trump reverses course and implements the carbon-lowering mandates of the climate-change treaty and the rest of the world, which believes in global warming, also does its duty.
Warmer oceans and gulfs mean more energy for hurricanes to extract from the top layers of water. More energetic storms mean fiercer winds, which mean higher and deadlier storm surges. Sea-level rise, which already is driving Miami's mayor bananas, but not Gov. Rick Scott, will be especially damaging to the Atlantic coast because of the gradually sloping continental shelf. Scott, by the way, forbids mention of the phrases "climate change" or "global warming" in any government document.
A teaching moment or not, Harvey and Irma and whatever else follows are not going to change the country's course, not in the short term anyway. Teaching moments, when a grim future might be glimpsed, usually pass disregarded — the South, for example, in the electoral tumult of 1860. Recent memories should be even sharper and clearer. The first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1991, and certainly the second one in 2001, warned us of the ceaseless bloodshed and horror that was in store if we continued to intervene in the religious and ethnic fratricides of the Middle East.
Why would a couple of devastating hurricanes provide any clearer lesson? The clue is that, disregarding big climate events, warming is gradual and, while it is nearly everywhere apparent around the globe, so are the catastrophic health and social consequences, even if they are gradual. If you act now, you still won't be able to measure or recognize the benefits.
The latest polls show that while 68 percent of Americans know that human activity is warming the planet only 45 percent worry "a great deal" about it. Members of the other 55 percent are running the country.