When Irma hit Florida I logged back onto Twitter, not to tweet, but to get timely information. Irma was heading towards the places where I spent the first 21 years of my life and I found myself wanting to be tethered to the news, beyond watching a reporter in a North Face get their makeup blown sideways.
It was the first time I had used Twitter in a few weeks and I soon regretted my decision. The usual mix of unreliable crap, side-fight, viral memes, overwhelmed what valuable info was there.
On twitter Irma, like Harvey before it, was proof of whatever view you held dear. Some people were outraged that nobody else saw Irma as proof of global warming, or proof of inequality, or proof of God, or proof of Trump’s idiocy, or his incompetence, or whatever.
The dominant outrage, at least on my timeline, was that Irma (and Harvey) was proof of global warming. This was mostly coming from what I call the front row — the highly educated elites, the blue check-mark media folks, and their platforms.
Which is a damn odd thing to jam onto Irma and Harvey. There is lots and lots of great proof of global warming, but hurricane frequency and intensity is not one of them, and certainly not high on the list.
First the data sucks, it is too infrequent, too spotty, and not at all conclusive. Second, well, the science just isn’t there. I mean it seems true, but Hurricanes are weather and global warming is climate, and while one day we might be able to work through the complex math, directly connecting the two, right now it isn’t clear.
It was especially odd because if there is an immediate lesson from Irma and Harvey it is that hurricanes pose more of a threat because MORE PEOPLE LIVE IN PLACES WHERE HURRICANES CAN HIT.
That data is damn clear. While the number of hurricanes hitting Florida per year has stayed mostly the same, growing slightly (from like 8 to 9), the number of people living in Florida has grown a HUGE amount. From 3 million in the 1950s, to 20 million now.
It is worse than that. Much of that growth has happened along the shore and in land that easily floods. Collier County, close to where Irma came ashore, has grown from 30,000 in 1970, to 360,000 now. It has gone up tenfold.
That the outrage was mostly about global warming isn’t all that surprising, and is pretty telling. Science is the religion of the front row, and global warming is one of the sacred tenets of science, and many buy into it without fully understanding it.
They are the front rows version of religious zealots who believe what they believe without fully understanding the bible. That is ok if that works for them and gives them fulfillment, but it becomes annoying when they try to use it to convert others. Tweets of “see, global warming” when a hurricane strikes is a bit too much like the scolds of “see God is mad” when a natural disaster strikes.
That the primary scold from the front row was not about the dangers of unregulated growth (to be fair, there was some on this) is also telling. The front row likes growth. It is now even trendy among a smart segment of front row progressives to say growth is all we need to even out our inequality, and regulation stopping it is unjust.
It isn’t just the front row, everyone likes growth, it is just that they want growth without the guilt of one of the outcomes of growth — global warming. Which is a bit like saying I want to eat and eat and eat, but not get fat or get gas. So they have to signal they care about global warming, a performative cleansing of sins.
Saying Irma was about global warming was pretty much all signalling, and that is the danger of it. The reason so many people are turned off when the front row talks about global warming is because it really does ring of hypocrisy.
Irma came ashore near where I went to college (in 84) and then rode up the eastern spine of Florida almost exactly along the road I drove to my hometown. It passed directly over my old house and my old town (built on a hill, because the old settlers knew not to build near the water).
One of the roads I used to drive on to college was called “the road to nowhere” because it really went to nowhere. It was 25 miles of nothing, each side swamp land, cow pastures, and pockets of ponds and lakes.
The road now has lots of somewhere. Strip malls, housing developments, High Schools. The old swamps and lakes have, in an act of legislative compromise to balance growth and environmentalism, been drained and replaced by retaining ponds with fountains in each new development. Because they are wetlands, and you have to maintain wetlands.
Or to complete my analogy of wanting to eat and eat with out getting fat, retaining ponds are the fad diet. You can have your growth and wetlands too.
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If there is a silver lining to all of this it is that we dealt with Irma pretty well. The damage in life from Irma was lower than many feared, myself included. Partly that was because of luck, but also because of contingency planning, warnings, evacuations, flood maps, shelters.
It was science and good planning that kept the human cost to the tens of lives, not the thousands.
Which offers a glimpse in how we will deal with growth and global warming. By policy that won’t stop it, but rather grapple with the consequences.
A reminder that science is very useful, but not as a religion.
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PS: Once again, missing in all of this, including this piece, is a simpler reaction to news or a tragedy: Reflection, thanks, prayers, concerns, thoughts, and empathy.