The Politics of Poverty

Ideas and analysis from Oxfam America's policy experts

Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert thinks we can address climate change, just “not the causes.” He’s wrong.

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Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Adviser Thomas Bossert briefs President Trump in the Oval Office on the approach of Hurricane Irma toward the coast of Florida, Thursday, September 7, 2017, joined by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, left; Vice President Mike Pence and Deputy National Security Adviser Dina Powell (Photo: Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks)

To prevent human suffering – both here and around the globe – we need both mitigation and adaptation.

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, this administration doesn’t want to talk about climate change – at least not the causes of it.

Earlier this week, President Trump’s Homeland Security Advisor Tom Bossert was finally forced to respond to a question on the linkages between climate change and the unprecedented impact of back-to-back category-4 hurricanes hitting the US – breaking a two-week silence from most major news agencies. Bossert’s response?  “We continue to take climate change seriously, not the cause of it, but what we can see right now.”

This statement reflects a dangerous ignorance of the issue and how we must approach climate solutions. The nation is currently reeling from devastating punches leveled by Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida and the Caribbean, forcing millions of Americans from their homes and causing widespread damages. Harvey dumped a record-breaking 19 trillion gallons of rain water. Irma, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, forced one of the largest evacuations in Florida’s history (5.6 million) and has left 15 million still without electricity. In the Florida Keys, twenty-five percent of homes were destroyed with as many as sixty-five percent suffering major damages; the Caribbean island of Barbuda saw ninety-five of its building destroyed.

As we pointed out last week, the connection between these unprecedented storms and climate change is undeniable; Hurricanes Irma and Harvey are our new climate reality. While climate change is not the cause of these storms, climate change is fueling more severe storms, driven by increasing sea level rise, warmer ocean temperatures, and elevated atmospheric moisture levels. These changes lead to increasingly bigger and stronger storms with more devastating impacts, particularly for socially vulnerable communities.

And while these events are making headlines in the US, we cannot ignore the disasters happening globally. Extreme monsoon rains triggered unprecedented flooding in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh, claiming over 1,200 lives and impacted 40 million people. Severe droughts and flash floods have decimated crops and livestock in Ethiopia, creating a humanitarian crisis and threatening the lives of millions. Extreme flooding caused massive mudslides in Sierra Leone, killing hundreds; many residents lost their entire family.

The rise of more frequent extreme weather events is a predicted impact of climate change.  We can’t simply bury our heads in the sand and ignore the causes while seeing and mobilizing a response to its effects all around us.

Climate change is caused by humans, which means that how much the climate changes and the scale of its impact is within our ability to control. Still, there are important questions to be answered. As President Obama’s top science advisor John Holdren often stated, addressing climate change will include a combination of mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. It is up to us to decide how much mitigation and adaptation we will do – while reducing suffering – to ensure our own well-being and that of people around the world.

However, if we only address the impacts of climate change, or as Tom Bossert suggests, “what we can see right now”, without addressing the causes (essentially only focusing on adaptation without also focusing on mitigation), we are locking the world into a great deal of human suffering.

Additionally, not addressing the root causes of climate change will make adaptation efforts a lot more expensive. Currently, for every $1 invested in preparedness the return or savings is about $4, sometimes more. Moreover, if we set ourselves on a path to limit warming to 2°C this century, we can reduce adaptation costs in developing countries by almost $300 billion per year by 2050 and save them an additional $600 billion annually in economic losses from climate change.

However, if we fail to mitigate, and we choose only focused on adaptation efforts to the “here and now”, we will inevitably leave the most vulnerable behind as the devastating impacts continue to build. And as our research shows, those that are most exposed to the impacts of climate change are also least able to adapt; this is also true globally. This is why both mitigation and adaptation are so important, especially for the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities.

Bottom line: Tom Bossert is wrong. We can’t separate addressing the impacts from the causes of climate change. We must do both.

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