Hurricanes Escalate US Climate Change Debate on Social Media
Is it wrong to discuss climate change during climate disasters?
Scott Pruitt, the Administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), says that it is.
He told CNN in a phone interview that it’s “misplaced” to “focus on the cause and effect of the storm” during the storm.
So, did anyone listen to him? Apparently not. People are talking up a storm about climate change on social in wake of hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall on August 25, 2017.
On that day, there were just over 5,000 social media mentions of “climate change.” Between the 28th and the 29th mentions of climate change more than doubled.
By the 30th, mentions peaked at nearly 50,000.
By September, Hurricane Irma became a record breaker in more ways than one. Not only is Irma the strongest hurricane to ever form over the Atlantic, it also created a surge in climate change mentions.
Mentions hit another low at just over 16,000 on September 3, but skyrocketed to a new high of 67,884 mentions by the 9th. Irma made landfall on September 10, 2017.
So, how many people are talking about the hurricanes in general? Millions.
Climate Change – Dirty Words or Dinner Conversation?
It’s natural to talk about the weather. But there are those who don’t want climate change to be a part of the discussion.
And Pruitt isn’t alone.
Rick Scott, Florida’s Governor, banned the words “climate change” from all official communications in 2015.
Meanwhile, Tomás Regalado (Rep.), Mayor of Miami, told the Miami Herald, that this is the perfect time and place to discuss climate change.
“This is the time to talk about climate change. This is the time that the president and the EPA and whoever makes decisions needs to talk about climate change,” he said.
So, are people really talking more about climate change or the hurricanes? What happens when we filter out mentions containing the phrase “climate change?”
Mentions exclusively about Hurricane Harvey peaked on August 30th at 884,931 mentions.
Irma’s mentions peaked on September 10th at just over 1 million.
In comparison, climate change peaked at just over 67,000.
So, Who’s Doing All the Talking? You Might Be Surprised
According to our metrics, men are doing almost all the talking about climate change.
Women only felt a bit more inclined to mention Harvey in a post.
Yet, it was Irma that inspired most women to speak up on social, with 2.9 million women leaving comments or posting.
What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Climate Change?
So, what are people discussing?
After an initial scan, the words “man made” and “god” kept appearing in connection with the main phrase “climate change.”
Out of the 637,000 mentions we tracked, almost 28,000 included the phrase “man made.” A further 59,000+ mentions included the word “god.”
The number of mentions including the word “god” rose to more than 61,000 after Pope Francis condemned climate change skepticism.
Further analysis showed that many of the mentions containing these phrases were made in response to posts about Jennifer Lawrence and Cara Mund, Miss America 2018.
Both ladies made comments asserting that climate change is caused by human activity, sparking backlash on social media.
And who are the men making waves?
Top influencers include Andy Borowitz from the Borowitz Report over at The New Yorker, Dan Rather, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Robert Reich.
Senator Bernie Sanders has recently called out Scott Pruitt on Twitter for being a climate change denier.
Trump's nominee to lead EPA, Scott Pruitt, is a climate denier who's worked closely with the fossil fuel industry. That's sad and dangerous.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) December 7, 2016
If you’re not familiar with Andy Borowitz, he writes satirical political pieces. His post below received 12K likes, over 200 comments, and more than 2,500 shares.
On Twitter, the top influencers include:
- The Washington Post
- Alternative NOAA
- Trump Texas
The list also includes comedians, meteorologists, and journalists.
Most mentions point to the fact that climate change may have had an affect on the severity of the hurricanes now hitting the US.
But it’s not just the liberals who are talking.
Well-known conservative and libertarian influencers, including Rush Limbaugh and John Stossel, are almost exclusively writing posts denying climate change.
Sean Hannity made a post smearing Jennifer Lawrence for her comments.
Battle Lines Drawn? User Sentiment is Surprisingly Neutral
Notice that the social sentiment for NPR’s post is categorized as “neutral,” reflecting the dominant sentiment of the discussion.
Below, you can see there’s a fairly even split between negative and positive mentions regarding climate change.
NPR’s mention does not use any inflammatory language. All they’re saying is that oceans are warmer and warmer oceans result in superstorms. Thus, the neutral ranking.
Our tool marked both Borowitz and Limbaugh’s comments as negative, even though Borowitz is using satirical language.
Not everything is as heavy as all that. There’s also those attempting to add some levity to the situation. Here’s a positive mention from comedian Tim Hanlon.
At the End of the Day, Bad Weather Inspires Climate Conversation
For North America, 2017 has been a particularly bad weather year, providing endless unusual weather topics.
- 8.2 Magnitude Earthquake in Mexico (Strongest in a Century)
- 2 Category 4 Hurricanes Hit US Mainland (First Time in History)
- Wildfires in the Western US
- Hail and Tornadoes in the Midwestern US
- 2 Other Hurricanes (Mexico and US)
- You Name It
The variety and strength of these climate disasters are starting to take on Biblical proportions and are creating a perfect storm for climate change talk.
Information from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Information (NOAA) shows that the US alone suffered nine weather and climate disasters by the beginning of July 2017.
These climate disasters have loss price tags exceeding $1 billion and have resulted in 57 deaths. The 1980-2016 average is 5.5 events.
The Governor of Texas said Harvey could cost anywhere between $150 and $180 billion. AccuWeather predicts Harvey will cost $190 billion alone, and that Harvey and Irma combined will have a $290 billion price tag.
To put that in perspective, Katrina cost US taxpayers in excess of $110 billion.
But besides the price tags, are these storms out of the ordinary?
According to the National Hurricane Center, a typical Atlantic hurricane season (June – November) produces 11 named systems, of which 6 reach hurricane strength. By September, an average year would produce 4 named systems and 2 hurricanes.
It’s September and the Atlantic season has produced 11 named systems and 6 hurricanes, causing NOAA to predict that the season will be “above average” with 19 named storms and 9 hurricanes by end of season.
While blaming the unusual season on climate change may not sit well, the storm patterns are certainly to blame for creating climate change chatter on social media.
Whether it’s right or wrong to discuss climate change during climate disasters is beside the point. People are talking.
Perhaps it has to do with the White Bear Conundrum. Once you tell people not to talk about white bears, all they can talk about is white bears.