Trump’s climate policy legacy will be making disasters like Harvey worse
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After Hurricane Harvey first bore down on Texas, unleashing unprecedented rainfall and triggering deadly floods, President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE declared “we will come out stronger… believe me, we will be bigger, better, stronger than ever before.”

But Trump’s promise contradicts the priorities embraced by his administration. In reality, his lasting legacy could be an America less prepared than ever to prepare for, and withstand severe hurricanes made stronger by climate change.

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An overwhelming majority of scientists say human-caused climate change makes extreme weather more frequent and more severe, and we’re already seeing impacts like sea level rise and heavier rainfall happening faster and worse than predicted. Each day we delay reducing greenhouse gas emissions, planning for sea level rise and making infrastructure more resilient is another “natural” disaster waiting to happen.

 

Rather than prepare for reality, the Trump administration’s actions will achieve the opposite effect: weakening our ability to forecast storms, making our infrastructure more prone to flooding, reducing federal assistance to help communities rebuild, and increasing fossil fuel emissions that cause our oceans to rise.

Let’s start with our forecasting ability. Trump’s budget proposed cutting the National Weather Service 6 percent, and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by 16 percent. He also proposed cutting NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research (which collects and disseminates data to improve forecasting) by 26 percent and NOAA’s satellite division by 22 percent.

Consider the U.S. already trails Europe in weather forecasting to the point that many meteorologists discount American forecasts compared to European ones, and the widening gap in America’s ability to warn our communities about looming disasters becomes clear. 

Even with advance notice, our communities still need to withstand flooding caused by heavy rainfall and storm surges. That’s why Trump’s executive order repealing President Obama’s 2015 rule that roads, bridges and other infrastructure be designed to survive sea level rise is so staggering. Major flooding is now involved in 90 percent of all natural disasters in the U.S. and average damages have nearly doubled in the past two decades.

Trump’s executive order, issued two weeks before Harvey hit, contradicts supporters of the 2015 rule from both parties, as well as from the public and private sectors, who said it would protect lives, strengthen infrastructure and prevent investment losses.

That brings us to post-storm recovery. A week before Harvey, Brock Long, Trump’s FEMA director, said he supported shifting disaster relief costs from the federal government onto states, cities and homeowners. While this could improve resiliency over the long term by pushing local governments to pass stronger building codes or steer development away from flood-prone areas, it doesn’t help solve the immediate problem of how to pay for today’s storms.

The National Flood Insurance Program, which helped New Orleans and New York City rebuild after their own storms of the century, was $24 billion in debt before Hurricane Harvey came ashore. This is particularly relevant to Texas, where 80 percent of the people hit by Harvey lack flood insurance, and underlines the growing national trend — at least 1.3 million households have applied for federal disaster assistance at least twice since 1998.

The disaster is still ongoing and the full scope of damage unknown but initial estimates for Harvey recovery effort costs range from $40 billion all the way up to $100 billion. Trump’s budget also proposed cutting FEMA funding to help cities and states prepare for natural disasters by $667 million, including cuts to the FEMA program that helps states and cities survive hurricanes and flooding. Assuming state and local governments, let alone individuals, can pay their way out of extreme weather disasters like Harvey is a stretch, to say the least.

Those costs are only going to rise. As our world warms from greenhouse gas emissions, climate change worsens the flooding and hurricane threat in two ways: Sea level rise has increased in recent years, and in 2014 was 2.6 inches above 1993, which was the highest annual average in satellite records. 

Sea levels are rising about an eighth of an inch per year, and flooding is estimated to be between 300-900 percent more frequent within U.S. coastal communities than it was 50 years ago.

A warmer world also means warmer water. Sea surface temperatures rose an average of 0.13 degrees per decade between 1901-2015, and have been consistently higher during the past 30 years than at any other time since reliable observations began in 1880. Science tells us each half-degree of warming increases average atmospheric moisture content 3 percent. 

In essence, warmer temperatures mean higher water levels and more rain during storms. Along the Gulf Coast, water levels are roughly a half foot higher and water temperatures roughly 1 degree warmer than just a couple decades ago, according to climate scientist Michael Mann. It’s hard to deny those two factors increased Harvey’s impact.

Nearly every nation and nearly every scientist studying climate change agree we must cut emissions to prevent catastrophic global warming. But Trump rejects the scientific consensus on climate change, pulled America out of the Paris climate agreement, and continues to pursue expanded fossil fuel production, all increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

Trump’s actions are an extreme outlier in an era of extreme weather as the U.S. flies blindly into a world of rising waters and storms our coastal cities won’t be able to withstand. Count me among the disbelievers when Trump says America will be stronger than ever before, and among those who fear his actions will harm our communities, country and climate.

Silvio Marcacci is the communications director of Energy Innovation, a California-based think tank focused on delivering high-quality research and original analysis to policymakers to help them make informed choices on clean energy and climate policy. He has been published in Forbes, Greentech Media and The Energy Collective.


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