Whole neighborhoods are under water. Families trapped by rising floods. Exhausted rescue workers and heroic volunteers stretched to their limits by an unprecedented calamity.

Hurricane Harvey has unleashed heart-breaking devastation in South Texas. But the troubling truth is that even more damage is in store in the years ahead as climate change worsens — and our federal government is now on track to be less prepared.

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Just days before authorities began warning Gulf Coast residents to get ready for Harvey’s devastating storm surges and catastrophic flooding, President Trump was sending America’s coastal communities a dangerously different message.

 

With hurricane season looming, Trump rescinded a life-saving Obama-era rule that required federally funded infrastructure like schools, housing, and highways to be better able to withstand flood damage. 

Why would the new administration increase risks for coastal residents from future storms? Because the rule Trump rescinded is based on scientists’ warnings that manmade global warming is driving up sea levels and increasing flood risk — and the current occupant of the White House rejects climate science in the most reckless way imaginable.

Indeed, Trump has spent his brief time in office making our communities more vulnerable to disasters like Harvey through a cascade of executive orders, proposed budget cuts and failures to fill key posts in federal safety and scientific agencies.

In March, for instance, Trump revoked a rule calling on federal agencies to help state and local governments prepare for and cope with natural disasters being made worse by climate change.  And he has pushed steep budget cuts to programs that provide Americans with early storm warnings and disaster relief.

These moves might not seem surprising from an administration full of officials linked to the oil industry and, not coincidentally, determined to deny or obscure the most basic facts about global warming. Scott Pruitt, the new EPA administrator, has even denied that carbon pollution is the primary driver of climate change. 

But Harvey offers Americans a terrifying preview of the damage such denial will do to our coastal communities. 

The truth is that Harvey was fed by climate change. As our planet heats up, rising sea levels make storm surge more dangerous and increased water vapor in the atmosphere drives up flood risks.

One study found that extreme storm-surge events of Hurricane Katrina magnitude have already doubled in response to warming. These massive walls of water could become up to seven times more frequent in the coming decades.

Houston has been singled out as especially at risk.

The Third National Climate Assessment, released in 2014, identified the city as particularly vulnerable to increasing flooding, sea level rise and storm surge. The report warned that damage to Houston’s low-lying port — the second largest in the nation in terms of tonnage — would cause serious societal and economic disruption.

Harvey has driven those predictions home in a truly terrifying way.

An updated version of that climate assessment is due out soon. Unfortunately, scientists on the team putting that crucial document together have gone public with concerns that Trump will try to censor this critically important assessment of global warming’s threats to coastal communities and America as a whole.

But perhaps Harvey’s devastation will cause the Trump administration to rethink its willful dismissal of climate change risks. We certainly can’t prepare for extreme weather and global warming by burying our heads in the sand.

If Trump has a change of mind, the first step is absolutely clear: He should immediately reverse his own recent order to disregard flood risks to federal infrastructure in the coastal zone.

By any measure, that would be a common sense move — and surely one that any president concerned about the lives and safety of everyday Americans would make.

Shaye Wolf is climate science director at the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.