Will Harvey Dent Trump’s Climate Change Denial? (Probably Not)

AP Photo/David J. Phillip

Evacuees wade down a flooded section of Interstate 610 as floodwaters from Tropical Storm Harvey rise in Houston. 

Absent an 11th-hour conversion, President Donald Trump, who believes that climate change is a Chinese hoax, is unlikely to concede that the warmer waters of the Gulf have played a role in the country’s worst hurricane since Katrina in 2005 and Sandy in 2012. He’s not likely to urge the climate-change deniers he’s placed atop the Environmental Protection Agency to change their tune. And if his climate denial were not enough, his stream-of-deranged-consciousness tweets in the hours as Harvey approached and made landfall continue to demonstrate his total unfitness for the office of presidency.

Like New Orleans, Houston has always been a city at risk from hurricanes and tropical storms. Americans will debate for years to come who was responsible for what in the country’s fourth largest city. This much is known: Houston failed to prepare and was bound to suffer the devastating blow which Harvey delivered— as a recent Texas Tribune and ProPublica investigation foreshadowed with chilling accuracy. Despite years of significant flooding, more than any other urban area in the country, the Bayou City was nowhere near ready. In recent years, dubious local officials continued to joust with concerned scientists, who advocated resilience planning, over the question of putting ongoing development in flood plains.  

Meanwhile, with Louisiana also on tap for serious flooding as the rains continue and tornadoes threaten, the president quickly displayed a childlike—and uncharacteristic—awe of “experts”: “Wow - Now experts are calling #Harvey a once in 500 year flood!” he tweeted. Who are those experts? They are climate scientists like Michael E. Mann, a Pennsylvania State University professor of atmospheric science, who directs the university’s Earth Systems Science Center. 

On Facebook, Mann had this to say about Harvey and climate change:

There are certain climate change-related factors that we can, with great confidence, say worsened the flooding. Not only are the surface waters of the Gulf unusually warm right now, but there is a deep layer of warm water that Harvey was able to feed upon when it intensified at near record pace as it neared the coast. Human-caused warming is penetrating down into the ocean, warming not just the surface but creating deeper layers of warm water in the Gulf and elsewhere. So Harvey was almost certainly more intense than it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming, which means stronger winds, more wind damage, and a larger storm surge.

Now that Trump is dazzled by experts, presumably like Mann, it will be interesting to see how the person who has filled such longtime bastions of science as the EPA with climate deniers responds to those who have linked this event to the warming of waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

Leadership traits also continue to elude Trump. Mere hours before Harvey made landfall at Rockport, Texas, last Friday night, Trump flew off to Camp David wishing “good luck to everybody” in the Lone Star State. His subsequent weekend tweets reveal a president otherwise occupied, however. Fourteen minutes after tweeting that he had signed a federal disaster declaration, he pardoned former sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona. That was followed over the next two days by the usual Trump free-associational tweetstorm: a blurb for a new book by “a great guy,” another infamous county sheriff, David Clarke of Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and yet another vow that Mexico will pay for the wall even as the Mexican government diplomatically offered disaster assistance.

He gave a shout-out to “a wonderful state, Missouri,” that he “won by a lot” where he plans to talk about overhauling taxes after he drops in on Texas for his looking-presidential photo-op. A tax overhaul conversation focused on generating the funding needed to implement climate change resiliency strategies in major population areas would be welcome by most state and local officials. But there is no evidence that Trump is ready to abandon his tickle-down bromides about cutting taxes to relieve burdens on the so-called job creators.

The president’s tweet hailing the “wonderful coordination between federal, state, and local governments” was perhaps the unkindest cut of all. It took “epic and catastrophic flooding,” as the National Weather Service called it, for Trump to find some value in government, an institution that he believes he was elected to disassemble.

Trump and his small “g” government-hating, climate-denying troupe have already damaged the governmental framework created to wrestle with the Katrinas and Harveys now and in the future. In his first months in office, Trump rescinded an executive order issued by Barack Obama that required infrastructure to be designed to accommodate sea-level rise. In the budget he sent to Congress, Trump proposed cutting by $600 million the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s state and local grant program designed for disasters like Harvey. Despite Trump’s choice of Brock Long, a veteran Alabama emergency management official, to lead FEMA, other key FEMA positions remain empty. In the wake of Harvey, the mere suggestion that significant amounts of the costs of relief and recovery efforts be shifted to the states and localities is ludicrous.

Only a massive outcry compelled Trump to spare the Coast Guard, which has coordinated more than 1,200 rescue missions during Harvey so far, from a billion-dollar budget reduction. In Harvey’s wake, Congress will likely think twice about the proposed budget cuts to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s meteorological warning agencies such as the National Weather Service. Yet once Harvey fades from the headlines, Trump likely will renew his war on “experts” like the federal government meteorologists and emergency managers, and other scientists and public servants whose services Southeast Texas and Louisiana plainly need.

On Tuesday, Trump travels to Texas where he won 52 percent of the vote 2016, a factoid that he will undoubtedly be happy to share with the Bayou City and the rest of Harris County, which voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton. That the Lone Star State went big for Trump means that Texans won’t suffer the indignities of having federal lawmakers play politics with relief efforts—as congressional Republicans did in holding up funds to New Jersey in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

Of the many images of Americans helping Americans, from the “Cajun Navy” of Louisiana hauling their boats in a Texas-bound convoy to broadcast journalists putting down their microphones to help flood victims, the one that stands out is of a Harris County deputy sheriff carrying two young children from their inundated home, no doubt saying the kinds of things that adults whisper to small ones to their allay their fears.



The children do not cry, but cling to him with all the trust of children knowing that a courageous adult has braved the hurricane’s terrors to save their lives. America needs an emergency responder of comparable seriousness in the Oval Office. 

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