But maybe, by talking just about things like sea surface temperature and tropical cyclone intensity and greenhouse gases and aerosols at these moments, scientists like me actually hinder the conversation we really should be having. That conversation is about climate, but first it’s about people.
In the end, Laura made landfall to the east of the Texas-Louisiana border, with the center passing nearly through Lake Charles as the storm moved northward. Port Arthur, to the west, was spared the worst, because the strongest winds and storm surge tend to be on the right side of a hurricane’s path.
For a long time, the debate on climate has been strongly influenced by atmospheric scientists like me. We use satellites and other global observing systems to look at the planet’s atmosphere and oceans, and computer models to simulate them. We’re trained to see it as a physics problem of planetary scale — or, if we become a bit more politicized, as a problem of saving “the planet.” We can be a little slow to grasp the climate problem’s human dimensions — and especially to see how, for those most harmed, it is just one piece of a larger set of interlocking injustices.
But things are changing. The young people who are now leading the climate movement certainly respect the science, but more importantly, they understand deeply that global warming is a social justice issue, connected to all the other social justice issues, very much including racism and economic inequality. And the Green New Deal, a policy framework that now has a level of support unimaginable a few years ago, explicitly recognizes it as such and frames its solutions in those terms. The question that matters is whether we can get leaders in charge who want to implement it, and even then, whether they can do so in the face of inevitable, powerful opposition from fossil fuel companies and their allies.
The real challenge, especially acutely in America in 2020, and regardless of whether we care most about climate or any other aspect of social justice, is one of politics and power. If we want to make the world better, that’s what we — even scientists like me — should be talking about.