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The climate is changing, but not just because of humans. Here's why that matters.

Our culture of disaster has increased ideological semantics but not informed decision-making.
Image: Jenna Fountain carries a bucket down Regency Drive to try to recover items from their flooded home
Storm-weary residents of Houston and other Texas cities return home after Hurricane Harvey.Emily Kask / AFP - Getty Images

The climate is changing — the thing is, it isn’t just due to humans.

Natural forces beyond human control are also gradually affecting our climate. These geophysical forces are vital to understanding global warming. Man is indeed responsible for a large portion — possibly even a majority — of global warming. But also in play are complex gravitational interactions, including changes in the Earth’s orbit, axial tilt and torque.

This fact needs to be included in the public debate. Because these gravitational shifts, occurring over millennia, can influence climate patterns and ultimately lead to noticeable variations in seasons. Interestingly, research suggests climate change can alter the tilt of the Earth, but an unrelated change in tilt can also further change the climate. It is a balance-counterbalance relationship.

Changes in the Earth’s path around the Sun, or eccentricity, involve shifts in the orbit around the Sun from a roughly circular journey to more of an elliptical one. When the Earth gradually adopts a more elliptical orbit, there are more pronounced temperatures during the summer and winter months. This alteration is exacerbated when the Earth’s axial tilt is inclined to a sharper degree than usual. As this happens, it causes the North and South Poles to be positioned more directly toward the Sun.

Haven’t you noticed the recent rise in irregular weather patterns? This is not just a man-made problem. Gradual slight variations in the Earth’s orbit around the Sun can strongly influence temperature extremes. This is important because the conversation around climate change has become so politicized, we've totally lost sight of the science — and with it, any room for bipartisanship.

Damaged houses line a hillside in Old Tutu following Hurricane Irma in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, on Sept. 11.
Damaged houses line a hillside in Old Tutu following Hurricane Irma in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, on Sept. 11.Erika P. Rodriguez / The New York Times via Redux Pictures

Tropical storms, for example, have been forming later in what we know as hurricane season. Based on my own analysis, over the past three decades, the majority of Category 3 or stronger storms to hit the United States appear from late August to early October. Earlier in the 20th century, storms usually occurred in June, July and early August.

It doesn’t stop there. Changes in seasons can also affect other types of storms, including severe winter snowstorms and tornadoes. Recall the Storm of the Century in 1993 on the heels of Hurricane Andrew the year prior. Or what about the recent string of snowstorms (with names like Snowpocalypse, Snowmageddon and Snowzilla) dovetailing with warm-weather superstorms. Climate extremes are evident, and not just with hurricanes.

The variations in the Earth’s orbit are known as the Milankovitch cycles — after the Serbian geophysicist Milutin Milanković, who hypothesized this phenomenon in the 1920s. He discovered that variations in the Earth’s path around the Sun, axial tilt and torque could together affect our climate.

Even a slight change or orientation in the precession of the Earth’s rotating body can cause a wobbling effect shifting torque in different areas since the planet is not a perfect sphere to some people’s surprise.

Now would seem a particularly apt time to act. The 2017 Atlantic hurricane season was an intense, record-setting period. With several landfall hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, Jose and Maria — barreling their way through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, devastating parts of the Leeward Islands and United States.

Still, even President Donald J. Trump has implied the whole of idea climate change may just be a hoax. Most Republicans seem to agree that it is not a serious problem.

Meanwhile, while some Democrats have tried to use the frequency and intensity of storms in the hopes of highlighting the climate change conversation, even this effort has seemed muted.

To make effective policy, it is important for politicians and activists alike to set aside their ideological differences.

There is now a real opportunity for new legislation, sound environmental legislation. But will we squander this unprecedented opportunity, punting the ball yet again? You can bet on it. Given the realities of everyday life, the extent of social beliefs, political attitudes and economic perspectives vary on a wide range of policy issues.

To make sound and effective policy, it is important for politicians and activists alike to set aside their ideological differences and return to the basics of science, in this case, the mechanics of science. After all, shouldn’t we be relying more heavily upon geoscientists and weather forecasters to provide evidence-based data and predictive modeling?

Risks to disasters are increasing. Population growth along coastlines worldwide, in addition to technological and infrastructural development, will inherently result in a concomitant increase in places prone to disasters. Modern society relies upon government for effective response to and recovery from such events.

Change is occurring and will continue to do so. As the population continues to explode and resources are consumed on a massive scale, trying to stop both is unrealistic. It is more than just being unrealistic, it is simply wasting critical time. I know, science isn’t sexy. The obsession on why storms are occurring in lieu of discussing the how is leading us down a dangerous path. A deadly path.

The heightened culture of disaster only feeds our attention on political banter and ideological semantics with no room for informed decision-making.

We get it, Mother Nature always wins. So, are we now faced with the sobering lesson that little can be done, and we should just throw in the towel? No, of course not. Though climate change is inevitable, we also need to have a healthy appreciation of the fact that climate shifts aren’t just limited to rapidly changing weather patterns.

Turning the corner into unexplored territory is always difficult. By having a broader sense of communal resiliency — social, political and economic standing — we can manage this unavoidable pendulum of climate extremes. With the recent sweeping of storms draining response efforts and budgetary resources, now is the time to set aside the theatrical shenanigans and engage in realpolitik.

Tonya T. Neaves is the director for the Centers on the Public Service at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government, where she also is a faculty member in its master of public administration program and coordinator for the Emergency Management and Homeland Security certificate.