Whenever there is another mass shooting in the United States, the National Rifle Association (NRA) always says that now is not the time to talk about Americans’ easy access to guns. Of course with them, it’s never time. And just like the NRA, climate deniers like Kellyanne Conway, Scott Pruitt, everyone else in the White House and the Republican Party in general, don’t think that during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, likely the most costly weather event in US history, is the time to talk about the human-caused climate crisis. They condescendingly sneer that to do so “politicizes” the tragedy. Never mind that it is the Republican Party that politicized science in the first place by denying it, delegitimizing it and demonizing its messengers. But the charge of “politicizing” is as perverse as proclaiming that, as water is rising up to their necks, now is not the time to rescue Harvey’s victims.
Politics should be the means by which we address the cause of our collective problems, seek solutions and apply prevention. Prevention of future tragedy is just as important, and just as immediate a need, as helping its current victims. How can you possibly prevent repeated disaster if you ignore the cause? With the drama and suffering vivid in our minds, now is exactly the right time to talk about the human fingerprints all over this “crime of nature” and the many human failures that made it worse.
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Flooding of biblical proportions is no longer just an “act of God” or “bad luck.” This is the third “100-year” flood in Houston in just the last three years. Just about the only people on the planet unconvinced that greenhouse gases are injecting steroids into our climate patterns are the minions that sit in front of Fox News. But right now they control the government in both Texas and Washington, DC.
Houston’s first problem is that it is stuck in Texas, where political ideology is allowed to smother science, common sense, basic risk management and simple human decency. The state is home to an entire army of politicians who are not just scientifically inept (or dishonest) but are crusading enemies of science — Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Rep. Lamar Smith, Rep. Louie Gohmert, Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. John Cornyn, Gov. Greg Abbott and Rep. Michael McCaul, just for starters. As a side note, more than 20 Texas members of Congress voted against any federal aid to the victims of Hurricane Sandy. But their “principled” opposition to federal aid is being tested now that the same catastrophe has hit their own state.
The Texas-sized aversion to science floods down through most of the Texas Legislature. Every year, anti-evolution, anti-science and anti-climate bills spring forth in Texas with mixed success in the legislative process. This chronic dismissal of the verifiable, empirical world played a significant role in the destruction from Harvey.
Rice University environmental engineering Professor Phil Bedient says, “Houston is the most flood-prone city in the United States. No one is even a close second — not even New Orleans, because at least they have pumps there.” Despite that, Charles Pierce, writing for Esquire, says, “Over the past 15 years, the Texas [L]egislature refused to pass any plan to adapt the affected infrastructure as long as that legislation contained any reference to climate change. They repeatedly refused to pass a bill that would have required most major agencies in Texas to create a plan that included a climate change vulnerability assessment and review their programs and plan for how to complete their missions in light of changing climate conditions.”
Even without the climate crisis, Houston infrastructure and urban design was a denial of reality and invited, if not virtually guaranteed, calamity. As CNN notes, “Decades of virtually unplanned growth has resulted in thousands of square miles of paved streets, parking lots and other hard surfaces covering the ground. Houston sprawl covers 9,000 square miles — an area larger than New Jersey.”
Once upon a time, Houston had native prairie grass and wetlands. Prairie grass sends roots 12 feet deep and can act like a giant sponge, absorbing 20-times as much water as subdivision lawns can. But it has virtually all disappeared under concrete and asphalt. Hundreds of square miles of prairie that the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) had intended for a system of reservoirs, levees, canals and other flood-control projects to help against storms and hurricanes were all sacrificed for subdivisions and freeways. Concrete and asphalt don’t absorb water, but they do line the pockets of real estate developers. The Texas attitude was, “Who needs wetlands, natural surfaces or anything other than swimming pools to absorb water?”
Houston was built in a dry lake bed, primarily on clay, which doesn’t absorb water, in a coastal floodplain perfectly positioned to take the brunt of predictable, recurrent Gulf hurricanes. None of that reality, however, penetrated the minds of Texas regulators and politicians, who threw caution to the wind while allowing Houston to become the fastest-growing city in the country.
The USACE was forced to release water from the Addicks and Barker dams west of Houston to achieve a more manageable control over the flood waters. The dams were built in the 1930s, but in the ensuing decades, houses were allowed to be built right up to the base of the dams, and thousands of homes were inundated when the water had be to released.
The antipathy toward government and regulations that characterizes political conservatism meant that Houston had virtually no zoning regulations, including very meager requirements for buildings to be constructed above flood plain height. Robert Bea of the National Academy of Engineering and a UC Berkeley emeritus civil engineering professor and expert in Gulf Coast hurricane risks, says, “The city has been deceiving itself for decades about its vulnerability to flooding.” Adding to its woes and risks for flooding, Houston is actually sinking, due in no small part to unrestricted pumping oil and water out from under the city. Some areas have sunk as much as 10 feet.
Of course, with Scott Pruitt, the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not going to take a back seat to anyone when it comes to anti-regulatory fervor. Three weeks ago, just in time for Hurricane season, the White House stepped up and reversed a rule requiring federal, state and local agencies to establish new standards to protect infrastructure, buildings and roadways from flooding.
Thanks to the petrochemical industry, Houston is home to some of the most highly contaminated sites in the country, filled with just about every deadly compound ever concocted by the industrialized world. Aerial imaging revealed that 13 of 41 Superfund sites in Texas have been breached by Harvey, spreading the public’s exposure to their toxic brew in ways that will likely be impossible to track or mitigate. So far, an understaffed and underfunded EPA is nowhere to be found in Houston according to the Associated Press.
As the US’s petrochemical hub, Texas has bent over backward to cater to the industry in ways that are simply shocking. In 2013, a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, killed 15 people and destroyed 500 homes in what federal officials later determined was a criminal act. Incredibly, the response from Governor Abbott was to rule that state agencies can withhold information on the chemicals stored on site at such plants.
This kind of coddling of polluters is adding an exclamation point to the health risks of Harvey’s victims. An exploding chemical factory is spewing toxic smoke all over Houston. Owned by the French multinational Arkema Inc., the owners refuse to disclose the toxic chemicals or a map of the stricken facility. Arkema operates six plants in Texas and has enjoyed nearly $9 million in tax subsidies from the state, and heavily lobbied the Trump EPA to postpone rules that would require disclosing its toxic chemicals to first responders and their risk management plans for worst-case scenarios. Scott Pruitt eagerly complied. With no one able to get real information that might challenge them, Arkema has pronounced the smoke billowing from their plant’s fires to be no more toxic than that from a campfire. Never mind that campfire smoke is itself highly toxic, but because of the rule, Texas citizens will not be able to find out what they’re inhaling.
Flood waters in any urban area are always contaminated. A Houston Health Department spokesperson said, “There’s no need to test it. It’s contaminated. There’s millions of contaminants.” That is especially true of the Houston area. From dangerous chemicals seeping into and out of homes, soil and groundwater, exploding chemical factories, breaching of toxic waste Superfund sites, refineries discharging thousands of tons of carcinogenic pollution, to sewage contaminated drinking water, to mold, bacteria, mosquitoes and escaping alligators, the nightmare triggered by Harvey will cause a public health disaster that will linger for decades, if not generations.
It is no small irony that Houston, the glittering metropolis created by the US’s fossil fuel empire and “golden calf” monument to our global warming denial, would be decimated by the consequences of that denial. But as Houston goes, so goes the world. The same weekend that Harvey was pounding the Gulf, a monsoon halfway around the globe killed 1,200 people and drove millions from their homes in Bangladesh, India and Nepal.
A flooded Houston, and the environmental nightmare it leaves behind, is a symbol of the excesses, degeneration and corruption of modern civilization and the shocking denial of reality that our politicians cling to.
During the Houston flood, large colonies of biting fire ants bubbled up from their underground tunnels and instinctively formed large mounds of tens of thousands of ants into “live rafts” impenetrable to water. Those mounds are capable of traveling on the top of floodwaters for miles until they reach solid ground. To create the live raft, thousands of ants tightly intertwine their legs in a remarkable group choreography to fend off peril. Through cooperation, fire ants will survive just about any storm. Because of anti-government politics, the same cannot be said of humans.
The political legacy of Ronald Reagan looms large over the wreckage that is now Houston. Reagan canonized conservatives’ antipathy toward government. His famous quip, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help,'” has embodied the battle cry of conservatives for 30 years. It was a marketing home run. With one sentence, the motives and competency of those in government were impugned, the need for government regulation mocked and rugged individualism was exalted in its place. It is a complete non sequitur that conservatives revel in their patriotism and love for the Constitution, but they hate the federal government that is the living, breathing manifestation of that Constitution and the functional arm of the very country that they supposedly love so much.
In a world where every day, we march inexorably deeper into a dangerous climate, where government regulation and global cooperation are our only hope for a livable future, the Reagan ethos is much more than an anachronism, it is a death sentence. In 2017, the 15 most terrifying words in the English language are, “I’m from the Republican Party, I control the government and don’t count on any help.”