We have suffered brutal direct hits. Over half of the state of Florida is without power, in the dark. It is too soon to know what the losses are. Houston, America’s fourth largest city, suffered the most extreme rain event in U.S. history. Casualties are mounting; damages are estimated at a staggering $125 billion.
Ash from wildfires in the West is blanketing Seattle; every county in Washington is under state of an emergency. The smoke is felt in the air all the way to the East Coast. Last year was the hottest on record, exceeding the record set the year before that which exceeded the record set the year before that.
Extreme weather is becoming more frequent and more extreme. For climate scientists, this is predictable and predicted. As the Earth warms, the ice caps melt, the oceans grow warmer; more moisture is absorbed in the clouds, the rains become worse and the severe storms more severe.
The Trump administration denies climate science, even seeks to suppress it. Trump’s political appointees are doing their best to ban the very term “climate change” from government reports. They are dismantling agencies that study and report on the changing climate. Ironically, among their biggest allies were Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who banned the phrase “climate change” from state reports, and the Texas Republican Party devoted to pumping every drop of oil that can be found.
Bad storms, record heat and record wildfires won’t alter their denials. But the catastrophes are real. When they occur, even rock-headed reactionaries turn to government for help. The same Texan legislators who voted against aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Mid-Atlantic coast in 2012, lined up to demand aid for their constituents after Harvey. Those who say the government is broke appropriate billions. They look for government to organize the evacuations and warnings, to shelter the vulnerable, to mobilize the cleanup, to invest in the reconstruction.
Whether we agree that humans are a prime cause of climate change or not, surely we can agree to take the actions needed to protect ourselves as much as possible from the coming disasters and to ensure that we are prepared to react to them. We don’t have to agree about the cause of this new extreme weather. We simply have to agree to prepare for it and respond to it.
This isn’t rocket science. We need preventive action to gird against the destructive forces. On our coasts, buildings and infrastructure have to be constructed to be able to withstand extreme storms. In areas that are the most vulnerable and that have suffered repeated calamities, homes and factories should not be rebuilt. We need to strengthen dams and levees, and to protect wetlands that can help diffuse the power of storms. Chemical and nuclear power plants should be built to protect against the risks of natural disasters. The poorest and most vulnerable should not be shunted off to the lowlands most vulnerable to destruction. Response plans at the local, state and national level should be comprehensive and practiced.
Here’s the rub. That can only happen if we empower public officials to take responsible action. It requires good government and adequate resources. The conservative drive to discredit government, to starve it of funds and to dismantle its functions has to make way for a real investment in vital, necessary public action.
This shouldn’t be an afterthought; it should be a priority. Harvey and Irma have demonstrated what the Pentagon already has concluded: Extreme and catastrophic climate events are right now a clear and present danger to our nation’s security. Parts of Florida look like they were carpet-bombed. Surely, we should devote more attention to defending our own shores than we do to policing the world.
Prevention, mitigation, a stronger infrastructure and more sensible zoning are first steps. Eventually — and clearly the time is growing short — we will need a true mobilization on the scale of the effort at the beginning of World War II to accelerate the transition to renewable energy and to stop global warming. Oil company executives warn that this will cripple our economy. In fact, a real green mobilization will, like World War II, create jobs, innovation and new markets. It will revitalize our economy. And if it is done well, it can help rebuild a broad and vibrant middle class.
To get there will take a profound political movement and a sea change in our politics. Yet even as we build for that, surely we can agree to take the steps needed to provide greater protection to our people. That should not be a partisan or an ideological issue. It should be a common cause.