Hurricane Watch And An Ocean Arrival

12:20 minutes

close up shot of blue-ish, green-ish, black-ish ocean waves with some white foam emerging from the choppy water
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a stylized version of the earth with cloudsThis story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.

All eyes are on the Atlantic this week as Hurricane Dorian makes its way towards Florida. While Puerto Rico was spared the brunt of the storm, the hurricane still comes at a time when both Florida and Puerto Rico are especially vulnerable to storms. Rebecca Leber, climate and environment reporter at Mother Jones, joins Ira to discuss why—and the contributions a changing climate has to storms such as Dorian.

They’ll also talk about other climate stories from recent days, including statements from presidential candidates regarding their climate policy plans, the sailboat arrival of climate activist Greta Thunberg in New York, and a federal rule change that would loosen restrictions on methane gas emissions.

Further Reading:

Segment Guests

Rebecca Leber

Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate for Vox, in Washington, DC. Previously, she was Climate and Environment Reporter for Mother Jones.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, broadcasting today from the studios of WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut.


The climate is changing. And because we need to deal with it now, we open the next chapter of our series “Degrees of Change.” The series explores the challenges of a changing climate and how we as a planet and a people are adapting. And we want to hear from you too. Tell us how your community is adapting. Go to sciencefriday.com/degreesofchange to get involved.

This week, we’re talking about how the tourism and recreation businesses are having to adapt, from ski resorts to casinos. That’s coming up shortly. But first up this week, we check in on the gatekeepers, the decision makers, the controllers of the purse strings. The election season continues on with many of the Democratic candidates slated for a town hall on climate policy next week, but still no climate debate.

My next guest is here to help me navigate that story and other climate policy news. Rebecca Leber is a climate and environment reporter for Mother Jones based out of Washington. Welcome to Science Friday.

REBECCA LEBER: Thanks for having me on.

IRA FLATOW: Rebecca, it has been a busy week on the campaign trail with several candidates battling out of the race, including Jay Inslee, who made the climate his signature issue, didn’t he?

REBECCA LEBER: He did. He earned the nickname the Climate Candidate.

IRA FLATOW: And so do you think that his campaign shifted, perhaps, the conversation on climate?

REBECCA LEBER: I think it did have an impact, though it’s a bit hard to quantify. A lot of people pointed to his low poll numbers as a reason why he didn’t have an impact. But I think he did force the conversation and focus it on climate change in ways that we haven’t seen in past cycles just by having a very thorough climate policy. And in fact, he had six thorough climate policies. He raised the bar for activists to then go back to the other campaigns and ask, where are your climate plans?

IRA FLATOW: And in other news, Senator Sanders gave us more details about his climate plans didn’t he?

REBECCA LEBER: He did. I think it was interesting the timing, that he– the morning after Inslee dropped out, he announced his own climate plan that has been long awaited. It’s been rumored for about a year now that he was working on his own Green New Deal. And it was really interesting for a few reasons. One, it’s an incredibly ambitious plan in that he wants to spend $16 trillion dollars to fight climate change as well as tie in his social agenda and inequality in those programs.

But it was also interesting for how he announced it, that he chose to unveil the plan in Paradise, California, the site of these massive wildfires last year. I was there with Sanders, and you could just see the devastation. We were literally surrounded by rubble and rusted cars. And I think that’s a different environment that we’re in for the 2020 race, that the candidates are now connecting the real time impacts to the policy.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Because in 2016, hardly anybody talked climate change. It wasn’t even a question on the debates.

REBECCA LEBER: Yeah. That’s changed a lot. I think the shift in frame from thinking climate was a– is another issue to tack on to a laundry list to really taking the center stage and consistently showing up at the top of polling as one of the top issues for Democratic voters– the candidates have to talk about it. And I think we’re seeing a lot more animation around this.

IRA FLATOW: Next week, CNN has another climate town hall schedule, but there is still no climate debate of its own, as some of the candidates have wanted to, right?

REBECCA LEBER: Right. Most of the candidates have now called for a climate change debate. In fact, this was Jay Inslee’s major push that he won’t benefit from. But the DNC leadership itself has resisted that call for a debate. Just last week, they declined to endorse a debate in a series of resolutions that came up that activists have really pushed for. And instead, we’re getting a few forums.

And what activists didn’t really want here was– what we ended up getting is a seven-hour CNN forum that’s coming up next week where 10 candidates will go in depth around these issues. But at the same time, the goal for having a debate was to widen the audience for climate change issues. And I don’t think you’re going to get that with a seven-hour forum.

IRA FLATOW: That’s politics, right? Trying to put square pegs in round holes.

REBECCA LEBER: Right. You can’t please everyone.

IRA FLATOW: It is amazing. This week, all eyes are on Hurricane Dorian. Puerto Rico was spared the brunt of it, but Florida may be facing a real crisis, right? They’re talking at this point about a hurricane three or four hitting the coastline.

REBECCA LEBER: Right. And what’s important to remember is that the category of hurricanes doesn’t always tell you how deadly it is. And the things to remember about how impactful this storm could be– if you look for the storm surge, which is very poorly timed– Florida is facing especially high tides now, and that also, a signal for how vulnerable an area is is the last time they saw a hurricane. There’s a thing called Storm amnesia where people might downplay the effects of a hurricane because they didn’t live through a recent experience.

And Florida, as we know, has overbuilt in very vulnerable coastal [INAUDIBLE] is the number one example in the country for this gap in real estate development and the climate science. And it’s really this combination of factors that make parts of Florida especially vulnerable to this hurricane.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think people may look at the– how strong this hurricane is and maybe connect it a little bit about the warnings we got about upcoming storms for climate change– that we might see fewer of them, but they will be stronger ones? And this might be one of those instances.

REBECCA LEBER: Yeah. I think really, just the last few years, these massive storms making landfall have raised awareness for climate change. I think it’s not a coincidence that climate change has surged to the top of the political debates at the same time we’ve seen more areas suffer from these disasters. At the same time, attribution science has played a really big role here in changing how we talk about these storms.

The science around this is telling us in near real time [INAUDIBLE] climate change and rising seas has made these storms is– has evolved a lot the last few years. And in the past, we had to talk about trends here and how climate shifts the baseline. And I think the science has now given us the language to say, well, this is how much worse climate change has made this storm.

IRA FLATOW: And let’s talk about some of the areas that were being threatened besides Florida. It looks like Puerto Rico has escaped this hit. But they are extra vulnerable to storms right now, aren’t they?

REBECCA LEBER: Right. If you’ve just recovered or have not yet recovered from a storm, it makes you far more vulnerable. You just don’t have the infrastructure put in place, the recovery efforts and emergency responders in place to make that recovery that much quicker. So Puerto Rico– it was very fortunate that it did not experience a direct hit from this storm, because that’d be even more deadly than it would be had they not just suffered from a deadly storm. We’ll have to see how this shakes out the next few days and hope that this storm doesn’t have too deadly a path.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to other environmental news this week. There’s something– another major news story. The White House talked about changing the way the EPA deals with greenhouse gas methane, taking away some of the restrictions on emissions.

REBECCA LEBER: Yeah. The EPA has obviously taken aim at a lot of climate regulations from the Obama era. And this one was its methane regulations on oil and gas. And methane is a huge deal because it’s a potent greenhouse gas that is more potent in the short term than carbon dioxide. And [? this ?] has long gone unregulated, even as fracking infrastructure has exploded in the US.

The Trump administration, it’s been clear, has not wanted to see these climate regulations in place, and yesterday announced that it is rolling back methane emissions that we already knew were a major target. What’s interesting here is the Trump administration went beyond what even the oil and gas industry– or parts of it– wanted. This is a regulation that had a lot of mixed reaction. But the Trump administration, of course, they portrayed this as a win for economic development when the facts out there are far more mixed.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because I had heard some of the gas industry spokespeople saying, you know, we could at least say that there are restrictions on what we can do. Now if there are not those stringent restrictions, people will start blaming us for possible methane gas pollution.

REBECCA LEBER: Yeah. Let’s remember where these regulations came from. It was on the heels of major methane leaks from oil and gas infrastructure that really raised public awareness around this problem. The industry has had a few different lines. One is that they can fix this problem itself.

Methane is a fuel. It is natural gas. So they said they have an incentive to reduce these leaks. The problem is that gas is also cheap, and they have not gone far enough to produce those leaks themselves. And that’s why regulations like this one were needed to force an even playing field for the industry to address these leaks throughout its operations.

IRA FLATOW: And finally, a really interesting activist story– Greta Thunberg’s arrival in New York. She sailed across the ocean in a sailboat, and just in time for that big climate meeting in the city.

REBECCA LEBER: Yeah. Greta has been this instant star of the climate change movement who has, I think, prompted a lot of debate in that two-week journey on a solar-powered yacht where she was trying to raise attention that we each have a greenhouse gas footprint. Flying planes is one of the most intensive activities you could do. So she sailed across the ocean. She made landfall in New York yesterday, this week to a big fanfare. And I think she’s attracted a lot of attention and will continue to make a difference and make an impact with her speech at the UN summit.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you, Rebecca Leber, Mother Jones, based out of Washington. We’re going to take a break. And when we come back, how communities are adapting to climate change.

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As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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