As scientists’ warnings about climate change become increasingly dire, our conversations about extreme weather events have become increasingly political. There will always be those who chastise the climate-concerned public for “politicizing the storm” but there’s also an argument for doing just that when it is the refusal of specific politicians to act on climate that increases our vulnerability to powerful storms, wildfires, and more.
But drawing linkages between our weather, our climate, and our politics is quite a different thing than blaming victims of a tragedy for their own suffering. That latter, far uglier form of politicization reared its head last week when the Guardian ran an article under a headline seemingly tailor-made to drive the partisan wedge between us even deeper: “Victims of Hurricane Michael voted for climate deniers.”
The headline’s implication—that by voting for the wrong politicians, folks in the Florida Panhandle were somehow getting what’s coming—sparked swift condemnation on social media. And to the credit of author John Abraham, a professor at the University of St. Thomas, he asked the Guardian to change it after publication, and the Guardian did.
But the victim-shaming sentiment the Guardian telegraphed is sadly nothing new. In the aftermath of a storm, those who stay behind are often condemned for not evacuating, even though evacuation is a privilege not everyone can afford. In the wake of the deadly Oso landslide that struck Washington State in 2014, people whose homes were destroyed were blamed for building on unstable ground in the first place. When Hawaii’s Kilauea erupted last spring, residents of Leilani Estates took heat for buying property atop an active volcano. The list goes on and on.
“After a disaster happens, it is a very common human trait to immediately find a way to assign blame,” disaster researcher and former Gizmodo writer Mika McKinnon told Earther. “A large chunk of why we do this is to say well, it wouldn’t happen to me.”
Perhaps, then, it isn’t surprising that how victims voted is starting to creep into conversations about who is to blame when it comes to climate change-fueled disasters, however reprehensible that kind of talk may be.
Faith Kearns, a scientist at the California Institute for Water Resources, says she’s seen victim shaming based on ideology become “increasingly common” as we wrestle with how to talk about climate change after a disaster. As an example she pointed to the massive wildfire that tore through Fort McMurray in 2016, which brought out the worst on social media, with some, including former New Democratic Party candidate Tom Moffatt, calling it “karmic” that a town in the Canadian oil-sands was devoured by a blaze likely exacerbated by climate change. A brief scan of responses to the recent Guardian article reveals there are indeed jerks who saw citizens of the red-leaning Florida Panhandle getting what they deserve when Hurricane Michael struck last week.
Matthew Motta, a postdoc studying science communication at the University of Pennsylvania, wasn’t aware of any research showing that a significant number liberals blame conservative voters for extreme weather, or, more perniciously, revel in disasters striking their communities. But he said the deep partisan divide over climate change makes it the sort of issue “where we might expect to see affective polarization,” that is, polarization that causes us to dislike the other side even more.
And it’s not just random internet commenters who are liable to resent and blame those they disagree with on climate change. Sarah Myhre, a climate scientist at the University of Washington, told Earther that derision or dismissal of the uninformed or misinformed public is a sentiment she’s been exposed to “quite a few times,” particularly among male colleagues who’ve “never had their authority questioned ever.”
“The righteousness of male power brokers when they are not believed gets re-routed into anger and cynicism,” Myhre told Earther. She said we need more leadership from women, particularly women of color, to reframe our conversations about climate change “centering the values of human rights.”
NASA climate scientist Kate Marvel emphasized that blaming disaster victims, which she described as “at best unproductive and at worst just morally abhorrent,” sets up a false narrative when it comes to climate change. After all, it’s hardly the citizens of the Florida Panhandle—among the poorest in the state—who are responsible for our planetary fever.
That distinction goes to the fossil fuel industry, which has reaped unimaginable profits off our outdated energy system. It goes to the shareholders and executives who’ve hid their own companies’ research on the link between carbon emissions and warming, who’ve built misinformation campaigns to sow confusion among the public, and even now, when the science is too clear for bald-faced denials, who have convinced us we are all equally to blame. And it goes to politicians who continue to bury their heads in the sand at industry’s behest.
Politicizing the storm can be the right thing to do. But if we’re using politics to punch down, we’re giving these real power brokers a pass.