Now that the floodwaters in Texas have receded and the hard work of rebuilding has begun, it is time to take a hard look at the lessons to be learned.
Hurricane Harvey tested three basic tenets of right-wing, Republican ideology: Regulations are bad, we don’t have to worry about climate change, and the government is the problem. Right-wing beliefs failed massively on all three counts.
Republicans have long railed against regulations. President Trump has vowed to kill a majority of federal rules. Texas, especially Houston, embodies that antipathy to rules. Tragically, that anti-regulatory approach made the situation in the Houston dramatically worse.
Houston is the largest American city without zoning. It has allowed virtually unchecked growth at the expense of the environment. Letting developers do basically whatever they wanted, free of pesky rules, led to the loss of more than half of the wetlands in the Houston region and paving over of much of the surrounding prairies as well. The lack of protection for open space and wetlands meant that pavement covered the prairies and wetlands that could have absorbed much of the rainfall. As we now know, the result of this anti-regulatory approach was catastrophic.
At the national level, Trump’s anti-regulatory push will lead to more Harvey-type disasters. Shortly before Harvey hit Houston, Trump killed federal flood protection standards for infrastructure. Trump also eliminated safeguards for millions of acres of wetlands.
An impact of Harvey were explosions at a large chemical plant near Houston. Trump stopped new safety rules for chemical plants that would have regulated Arkema, the plant that blew up. That very same company along with Texas Republican politicians had successfully lobbied the Trump administration against implementation of those rules, which would have required chemical plants like Arkema to disclose the chemicals stored on site. That information could have helped the 15 emergency personnel who required medical treatment after responding to the explosions.
The right wing continues to deny science and claim that we need not worry about how humans are changing the climate. But the torrential rains that Harvey brought, which have been called “epic,” “biblical” and “unprecedented,” are a direct result of global warming. While the hurricane itself is not caused by a warming planet, the intensity of the storm certainly was due to global warming. Scientists estimate that climate disruption made the storm damage greater and increased the rainfall by 30 percent. Higher sea levels attributable to climate change made the storm surge from the hurricane more destructive. Much warmer temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico increased the hurricane’s strength. Because a warmer atmosphere can hold more moisture (every degree of warming can add 3 percent more moisture to the atmosphere), rainfall from the storm was much greater.
Even as the floodwaters caused by climate disruption were inflicting untold misery, right-wingers continued to deny climate science. In fact, as the waters were yet inundating Houston, Trump put a political appointee in charge of all EPA grants with the job of censoring any reference to climate change from that agency’s grant requests.
A key doctrine of the right wing is that government is the problem. Republican politicians regularly denounce government spending. Infamously, after Hurricane Sandy inundated the East Coast five years ago, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz led the charge against spending for aid for the victims of that storm, denouncing it as “pork.” Now, that ultimate hypocrite Cruz is requesting tens of billions in new government spending to help Texas recover.
Tough times like Hurricane Harvey are a real-world test of political philosophies. Right-wing, Republican ideology failed that test dramatically.
Spencer Black represented the 77th Assembly District for 26 years and was chair of the Natural Resources Committee. He currently serves as a director of the national Sierra Club and is an adjunct professor of urban and regional planning at UW-Madison.
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