With Matthew, when is it time to talk climate change?

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Hurricane Matthew closes in on Florida 02:27

Story highlights

  • Issac Bailey: Those who would use Matthew to hammer home concerns about climate change should go carefully
  • He says people in storm corridor know you can't say what storm will do in 48 hours, so are skeptical about climate change over century

Issac Bailey has been a journalist in South Carolina for two decades and was most recently the primary columnist for The Sun News in Myrtle Beach. He was a 2014 Harvard University Nieman fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @ijbailey. The views expressed are his own.

Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (CNN)As Hurricane Matthew continued its long, slow creep towards the East Coast, I tried to take my kids to the library Wednesday. It was the first of what I hoped would be multiple trips this week so we wouldn't be stuck in the house for the three days they now unexpectedly had out of school.

Issac Bailey
Closed "due to inclement weather," the sign on the front door read. The same thing greeted us when we drove a few miles deeper into Myrtle Beach to try a Barnes & Noble. We passed a few homes and businesses, including a local pharmacy, that had boarded-up windows, forcing me to wonder if I was making a mistake by not doing the same.
    The horrible traffic we have grown used to experiencing that time of day on a typical Wednesday was nowhere to be found.
    It has been easier to get around everywhere since Gov. Nikki Haley called for the evacuation of more than one million people in our area in advance of Matthew. The bumper-to-bumper traffic you see on TV news is on the major highways heading away from the coast, not our local roads. But it's harder to find someplace to go. (So-called Zone A is under the evacuation order in my county. I live in Zone C.)
    Such is life when you live a storm-prone corridor and hurricane season arrives. To stay or go, to prepare or not? That's what's on the minds of most residents (even as Haley and emergency officials rightly tell us all to just go). And it's on the minds of the friends and family around the country who call and send us text messages and Facebook questions with well wishes, saying we are in their prayers.
    The concern is appreciated but, to be honest, a little misplaced and early. It would also be misplaced to immediately use Matthew to hammer home concerns about climate change. I'll get into this more in a minute.
    Around here, you see, we've seen what these storms can do and know we can -- and will -- survive, even if it takes us months or years to rebuild. We know the casualty numbers will be minimal because of the steps taken by emergency officials, residents and the upgraded regulations resulting from previous storms.
    We know that hurricanes in the US are more likely to take our homes and cars than our lives. While others are praying for us, we are praying for those in places like Haiti, whose resources don't match ours, even in a state with pockets of heavy poverty, and where more than 100 people have been killed by Matthew.
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    I'm speaking as a man who's seen many storms in my personal and professional life. Much of my childhood was spent year after year during hurricane season hearing local weather broadcasters warn us of impending doom at the mention of a named storm, only to watch it veer out into the Atlantic Ocean time and again, creating a kind of complacency and sophisticated understanding of the limits of science.
    That is until Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989 and changed the game. Its forward speed was so unique it maintained much of its power hundreds of miles inland. The destruction it left in its wake included my small hometown, St. Stephen. When we saw the damage the next morning, it looked like it literally had been wiped off the map. It took the house I grew up in, too.
    Ten years later, as a journalist in Myrtle Beach, I helped document the extensive damage done in 1999 by Hurricane Floyd, which caused an unprecedented level of flooding. It destroyed thousands of homes and businesses in our region, resetting once again how we viewed approaching storms.
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    Hugo made us aware of the potential destruction from Category 4 winds: it uprooted hundred-year-old oak trees, pulled up pavement in St. Stephen and collapsed a rival high school like a house of cards. Floyd forced us to think about potential rain: how quickly it would fall and and how saturated the ground was beforehand, which helps determine just how bad the flooding would get.
    We know storms, which is a kind of blessing and a curse. It's a blessing because most of us take them seriously and are mesmerized by every update of the forecast track to help us determine the best course of action. It's also a kind of curse because it has hardened some of our views about climate science itself.
    We know the difference between probabilities and prophesy, which is why every time a climate scientist or politician or activist speaks with certainty about what the world will be facing in 10, 50 or 100 years because of climate change, it makes it harder to take them seriously.
    Climate skepticism in this region isn't only a result of partisan politics and propaganda by "big oil"-- though, unfortunately, those are primary factors. It is also because people here know the difficulty of accurately forecasting the path of a single storm more than 24 to 48 hours out, let alone trying to determine what the climate itself will do over the next century.
    On Tuesday, Matthew was pointed towards Myrtle Beach, prompting a mass evacuation and the closing of most public buildings and quite a few private ones. By Wednesday morning, there was reason to believe we might only get a glancing blow. Now we are most concerned about a repeat of Hurricane Floyd, with too much rain being dumped on earth that's already saturated.
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    No matter what Matthew eventually does here, it will have an impact on how people in this region view not only Mother Nature but what to do about the changes that are sure to come.
    That's why, whether Matthew swamps us or drifts out to sea, I'll provide this bit of advice to anyone who will want to use this event to ring the alarm bell about climate change.
    Talk forthrightly and unflinchingly about the reality that is climate change, including effects that have already begun to show themselves. But do it with more humility. Be willing to say science can't guarantee what's going to happen -- because it can't -- while stating clearly that the probability of the sea level rising high enough and weather changing fast enough to affect the quality of life and the economy of places like Myrtle Beach has already reached a level that makes it unwise to ignore.
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    Haiti devastated by Hurricane Matthew

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    Haiti devastated by Hurricane Matthew 01:03
    Take a cue from the seasoned emergency officials here. They made the best call they could about how to prepare for an approaching storm. They were clear. They laid out the potential consequences of inaction.
    They explained why they felt compelled to act when they did. They did that while we were in the "cone of uncertainty" -- because they knew they neither could prophesize Matthew's path and impact nor take a chance and wait until it was too late to do anything that would be effective.
    And still, there are already those wondering if they acted too soon or too heavy-handedly or without the right amount of clarity about the economic impact of their decision, because Matthew might skip us altogether.
    The science about climate change might be clear. That doesn't mean how to properly deal with it is.