Hurricane Harvey ravaged Houston, Texas and the surrounding area over the weekend. News footage of the flooding and devastation caused by the first major hurricane (category 3 or higher) to make landfall in the United States since 2005 has been disturbing. Communities and interstates are completely submerged. Commercial buildings and private residences have been reduced to rubble. And the death toll continues to rise as thousands of people require rescue.
After the brutal onslaught on Texas, the hurricane has changed trajectory and is currently moving towards Louisiana. Though 18 Texas counties have been officially declared federal disasters, Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards is bracing for the worst per public statements made earlier today. With the specter of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated Louisiana and the New Orleans in 2005, not too far in the past, people are justifiably worried.
In addition to covering the storm itself and the aftermath of its destruction, the dialogue has naturally included President Donald Trump. Everyone is wondering how Trump till react to the first natural disaster to occur since taking office. George W. Bush, his Republican predecessor, famously screwed up the response to Hurricane Katrina. Supplies and trailer were delayed and public policy regarding emergency management were criminally mishandled.
Hurricane Katrina and the mismanagement of its effects have provided precedence for how the Trump administration’s response to Hurricane Harvey will be judged. With Trump’s FEMA director Brock Long calling Hurricane Harvey “the worst disaster” in Texan history with recovery to make many years, not a lot of confidence has been instilled in Trump to issue a swift and inclusive humanitarian cost.
The immediate devastation deserves all the attention and resources required to minimize loss of life. However, there is another larger issue here. While it is important Trump handles the disaster effectively, there is the long-term problem of climate change. Specifically, how Trump will view and handle climate change as a result of Hurricane Harvey.
Trump has not been a friend to the environmental community. He pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, promoted increased reliance on coal, and reduced regulations within the Environmental Protection Agency to favor businesses and their bottom line. Though over 99% of all scientists agree that climate change is negatively impacting our planet and that even our own military is treating climate change as a threat to national security, Trump and his administration have continued to push policies and rhetoric that are detrimental to our safety.
Hurricane Harvey is a prime example of how climate change will shape our world to come. Not only can we expect to see more storms of this nature, but increasingly powerful ones over the years. We will also see hurricanes hit landfall in places where such events were extremely rare (remember when Hurricane Sandy hit New York five years ago). Hurricanes are not the only things that will increase in intensity and strength. We will see continue sea level rising, increased forest fires, longer droughts, and stronger tornadoes.
Climate change has a severe impact on social welfare beyond immediate signs. Consider the Syrian refugee crisis for a moment. Since 2011, over 6 million refugees have fled Syria to seek refuge in other parts of the world. While political factors such as the Syrian Civil War between President Bashar al-Assad and his opponents have played a key role in the refugee crisis, much of what has become the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time can also be attributed to droughts that have lasted years because of climate change.
While natural disasters have occurred throughout the ages without human influence, the increased frequency and intensity of these latest disasters should alarm even the most harshest critics. How Trump will be judged will be based on how he handles climate change. We have come to a point where temporary fixes are not a solution. For example, Florida has seen higher tides that have pushed seawater and sea life into the city streets. Even with pumps running at maximum capacity, the effort is almost futile. Sorry, President Trump, but building a wall to keep the ocean out isn’t going to help.
The ongoing crisis caused by Hurricane Harvey is a perfect platform to build a sound and progressive climate change plan on. This should the moment climate change deniers wake up and realize that carbon taxes, cap and trade, increased investment in solar energy, and reduced reliance on fossil fuels are the answers to slow down, or even reverse, climate change.
However, I am being optimistic. Frankly, no one really knows how Trump will react to the crisis. A few tweets are meaningless when simple policy can be enacted that could save millions of lives and billions of dollars over the next decade. But, unless Trump can find some way to make money personally from progressive climate change initiatives, I doubt he will do anything.
I recently saw Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Released 11 years after his groundbreaking and Academy Award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth, this new documentary shows the damage caused by climate change since then and the work Gore has done to promote his initiative. In the film, Gore gives presentations on the effects of climate change over the last decade. Sobering new information about recent climate influenced crises is presented, but there is room for hope as Gore also reports on how domestic businesses and foreign nations have adopted policies friendly to climate change and invest in alternatives to fossil fuels.
Since seeing that documentary a few weeks ago, climate change has been on my mind a lot. Being a millennial, I had always known that environmental issues were worthy of attention. Earth Day, our holiday to promote environmental awareness, only started in 1970 which means that my parent’s and my generation are only the first two to really embrace the cause. Fifty years can be a long time, but not so when it comes to government bureaucracy. While a lot has been done to raise awareness of the effects of climate change over the last five decades, the last 11 years since Gore’s first film have proven to be the most significant due to urgency.
In the climax of the documentary, Gore is at the Paris Climate Accord. After successfully negotiating with a solar panel company to donate panels to India thus getting their government to join, Gore feels vindicated after dedicating several decades to fighting climate change. However, that joy is short lived. Gore meets with Trump to get his cooperation on sticking to progressive climate change policy, but Trump ultimately pulls out of the Paris agreement.
“Truth to Power” is a single recorded by OneRepublic for the film. Produced by the legendary T-Bone Burnett, the single is an emotionally piano-driven ballad that captures the raw yearning for change seen in Gore’s film. Quite benign and uninteresting as a song on its own, the song carries power given the context. It is certainly a track that is meant to be more about the message rather than the aural aesthetic. After the intense experience of the film, the song packs a punch as the viewer reflects on their world and what they can do to change it.
If we haven’t passed it already, we are very near the tipping point. And Trump is a threat that could exacerbate the situation beyond repair. One of the key aspects of Gore’s film is the wave of support an activism that followed the 2006 documentary. In the sequel, we see Gore training climate change activists who then venture into their community to help them adopt for climate friendly practices. That is the truth to power. People have the power to enact the change they want to see. And it starts on an individual level. Teach friends and neighbors to be more environmentally friendly, vote for people with a pro-environment agenda, and hold our current leaders accountable. If anything good comes out of Hurricane Harvey, I hope that it inspires people to act together to prevent it from happening again.