The Politics of Nature

Should politicians and the media politicize natural disasters?

Illustrator: Morgan Wittmers-Graves

Scenes of hurricane-fueled destruction have become all too familiar—heaping piles of debris, downed palm trees and power lines, roofs torn from houses. Cable news has broadcasted an endless reel of such scenes from the southern U.S. and Caribbean.

But why the emphasis on the storms? Foremost, destruction draws viewers. Just like the “rubbernecks” who can’t help but gawk at highway accidents, Americans are glued to their TVs during disasters, eager for breaking updates. The hurricanes also affected millions of people. Therefore, although far from Minnesota, even Midwestern viewers probably have some connection to the devastated South—relatives, friends, former classmates. We have personal connections, and want to know what could have happened to them.

However, the storms also give news anchors and politicians alike something to discuss. Politicians have used Hurricanes Harvey and Irma to unite voters and calculate their votes for the 2018 elections.

Today, everything seems to be a political statement, from the first lady’s fashion choices to the president’s golf outings. Hurricanes are no exception. As the storms made landfall, commentators on cable news were already analyzing the effects the storms would have on politics. How would they impact Trump’s base? Would Trump’s reaction define his presidency? And just how would Trump react? The questions and their speculative answers swirled together, filling the breaks between incoming reports of destruction. We cannot just blame the media; politicians took the first step to politicize the storms.

Politicians probably ask themselves if it is ethical to use the misery of others for potential personal gain. And some must have decided yes, using this instance of destruction is fine. If it helps them get elected then it will contribute to a larger political movement that could help other Americans.

I understand their perspective, but I disagree. The destruction of a hurricane can help us become better. It teaches us how to build more hurricane-resistant buildings, to develop more efficient evacuation strategies, and refine our response efforts.

But politicians should not politicize the storm mere days after it happens. Let the people recover—return to their homes, resume daily life in hopes of creating some version of normalcy. These families do not need to be made an example of by drawing them into the politics that manage to creep into every cultural crevice.

Politicization can occur, but it needs to be done with taste and with time. We need to focus on the present recovery efforts, not projections of the margin of 2018’s elections.

Politicians probably ask themselves if it is ethical to use the misery of others for potential personal gain.

The exception to this rule is climate change. Harvey and Irma are prime examples of how climate change amplifies natural disasters. The warming water adds fuel to already strong storms, making them larger and even more potent. Irma, for instance, was the largest hurricane ever formed in the Atlantic.

The landfall of these storms coincided with wildfires that still continue to rage in the Northwest, and are fueled in part by climate change. This coincidental occurrence lends the perfect opportunity for a conversation about the climate.

Yet, because climate change is such a polarizing issue, some politicians want to delay discussion. One example is Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, who said in a phone interview with CNN that “to have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm; versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced.” Pruitt’s statement agrees with my own beliefs about making the storms political, but climate change is different.

For years, politicians and American citizens alike have kicked climate change down the road. Storms like Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina hinted at the effects of climate change, but these suggestions were largely ignored. But it continues to affect our weather, causing monstrous storms like Harvey and Irma. We cannot keep ignoring our changing climate. Instead, we need to use the storms as a conversation starter that will prompt Americans and their DC representatives to take action on climate change to prevent similar storms in the future. Politicians can talk about these hurricanes to enact climate legislation, but that should be it. Politicizing the storms merely to gain votes or for good publicity heartlessly shifts the focus from the families that need it the most.