Pruitt bristles at attempts to link Harvey to climate change

Source: Arianna Skibell and Niina Heikkinen, E&E News reporters • Posted: Thursday, August 31, 2017

Top U.S. EPA officials are calling efforts to link Hurricane Harvey and climate change “misplaced” and politically motivated.

“EPA is focused on the safety of those affected by Hurricane Harvey and providing emergency response support, not engaging in attempts to politicize an ongoing tragedy,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman told E&E News when asked about some scientists’ contention that climate change has exacerbated the storm.

Her comments came after EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt earlier this week also brushed off questions about whether the storm was a product of rising global temperatures.

Asked by the conservative outlet Breitbart News Daily what he thought about “liberal media” linking the storm to climate change, Pruitt said he had not had a chance to watch the news in the midst of emergency response coordination.

“I think at this point to look at things like this and talk about a cause and effect isn’t really helping the people of Texas right now,” he said. “I think for opportunistic media to use this without basis or support to simply engage in a cause-and-effect type of discussion and not focus on the needs of people, I think is misplaced.”

The major hurricane besieged the Texas coast Friday, triggering monumental flooding in Houston and surrounding areas. At least 12 people have died and tens of thousands have evacuated as a result of the now-tropical storm.

While researchers have urged caution in drawing a causal relationship between one extreme weather event and climate change, hurricane activity has increased in recent years, according to the most recent National Climate Assessment. And now, scientists are saying there is evidence of humanity’s impact on the storm.

In the waters off Houston, sea surface temperatures have risen about 1 to 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit in recent decades, according to Penn State University climatologist Michael Mann. That likely added to the total rainfall, Mann wrote in a Facebook message (Greenwire, Aug. 29).

“While we cannot say climate change ’caused’ hurricane Harvey (that is an ill-posed question), we can say that it exacerbated several characteristics of the storm in a way that greatly increased the risk of damage and loss of life,” he wrote.

As deep ocean temperatures rise, there is less cold water to absorb and mitigate the strength of a storm, meaning the warming oceans likely contributed to Harvey’s rapid development.

Some analysts are predicting that both the cost of recovery and climate change’s impact on the storm may spur national debates on global warming, especially as Congress votes on an aid package for Harvey’s recovery — a situation that could mirror controversy over Superstorm Sandy recovery funds in 2012.

Noah Diffenbaugh, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, acknowledged the delicate nature of drawing climate-related conclusions but said refusing to address the connection between extreme weather and a warming Earth impairs the country’s ability to prepare for future storms and “endangers American lives and property.”

Diffenbaugh wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “Although seas have risen and warmed, and the atmosphere now holds more moisture, we can’t yet draw definitive conclusions about the influence of climate change on Hurricane Harvey.”

But, he added, “it is well established that global warming is already influencing many kinds of extremes, both in the United States and around the world, and it is critical to acknowledge this reality as we prepare for the future.”

The Trump White House has said its top priority in the wake of the storm is supporting state and local authorities in Texas and Louisiana. In recent interviews, Pruitt touted EPA’s rapid response to state requests for fuel waivers.

Last week, EPA issued fuel waivers to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, temporarily exempting certain fuels from specific standards in order to prevent fuel shortages due to storm damage. The waivers covered a 98-county area that is required to use low volatility fuel and a 110-county area that must use Texas low-emission diesel.

The agency also provided other fuel exemptions to a number of counties and parishes in Georgia and Louisiana earlier this week. The waivers will be in effect until Sept. 15.

While Pruitt emphasized the agency’s efforts to prevent fuel shortages, the agency also plays an important role in limiting pollution and maintaining water supplies following natural disasters.

EPA’s Region 6 office based in Dallas is responsible for monitoring and potentially starting the initial recovery efforts for public water systems affected by the storm. In a press release last week, EPA estimated about 300 public water systems could be in the storm’s path.

The agency is responsible for monitoring and beginning cleanup of toxic pollution caused by damage to hazardous waste sites on the Superfund National Priorities List. EPA also will conduct damage assessment for major industrial sites within its jurisdiction.