By Issy McConville
In a moment that could have been plucked directly from a TV satire, US President Donald Trump complimented the large ‘turnout’ of a crowd of Texans recently devastated by Hurricane Harvey. Insensitive as he may be, Trump was pointing to a certain truth about the scale of Hurricane Harvey’s impact. With over 40,000 people displaced and a rising death toll, the cost of damages is predicted to be higher even than Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which had a cost of over $100 billion.
Only 12 years ago, after the Gulf Coast was rocked by Hurricane Katrina, George Bush promised hope anew for Louisiana, and vowed, ‘This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina. We’re going to review every action and make necessary changes so that we are better prepared for any challenge of nature or act of evil men that could threaten our people.’ But what lessons have we really learned?
Hurricane Harvey, like Katrina, was an unpredictable natural disaster, but it would be foolish to ignore the human impact that exacerbated their impacts. Rising global temperatures, in large part due to greenhouse gas emissions, have contributed to rising sea levels and creates more intense storms. In the Gulf Coast region, the government and the oil industry have put a strain on the unique environment, helping to strip the land of its natural ability to withstand such storms. The course of the Mississippi river has for years been directed by man-made levees, and a series of canals have been dug in for the purpose of extracting gas and oil, both actions which mean the river no longer deposits sediment like it used to, which forms the basis of much of the land cities like New Orleans and Houston are built on.
Back in 2005, politicians denied climate change, and they continue to do so today. In Texas, which must now completely rebuild many communities, and repair billions of dollars worth of infrastructure, four of its leading politicians, including Republican Senator Ted Cruz, have expressed doubt that climate change is happening at all. From muted skepticism to almost incredulous denial – see right-wing pundit Ann Coulter who suggested on Twitter God’s revenge for the election of a lesbian politician was a more rational explanation for Hurricane Harvey than climate change – the balance of power belongs to those who deny climate change. In his first 100 days in office, Donald Trump has signalled a complete disregard for environmental policy, such as signing an Executive Order to undo Obama’s Clean Air Act which would limit greenhouse gas emissions, and withdrawing the US from the Paris climate agreement. Ironically, only 2 weeks before Hurricane Harvey, Trump did away with another Obama-era policy, which required federally-funded projects to utilise climate science and assess the flood risk of potential construction.
Alongside the tragedy, we have seen outpourings of support and humanity, from fellow Texans rescuing their neighbours to thousands of charitable donations. But this is not enough. We cannot afford to simply react to crises, we must try to prevent them from happening again – and this means accepting the reality of climate change. Hurricane Harvey may have been an act of nature, but it was our hands that tipped the balance. This time, let’s really learn, and push our governments towards climate policies that will protect our future.