We can't be short-sighted on weather disasters intensified by global climate change

Gov. Chris Christie (R) in his feisty way called out Texas Republicans for their hypocrisy in opposing federal funding for victims of Superstorm Sandy while insisting on national taxpayer support for rebuilding Houston. Help for the battered residents of the Houston area is a must. But another record storm is barreling down on us, and we face the near certainty of additional weather disasters intensified by global climate change.

As we help those affected, it is also time to confront longer term issues about our national responsibility to fund restoration of impacted areas if these areas continue to flaunt the inevitable while depending upon the rest of us to help them out.

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This is not the first time that sectional issues related to the environment became part of a national debate. In 1973 an argument about the role of regional responsibility pitted Texans against the North. The impact of the Arab oil embargo included much higher oil prices, long lines at gasoline stations and the imposition of a national 55 mph speed limit.

 

Many Texans and residents of other  U.S. oil producing regions registered strong opposition to sharing their oil, including bumper stickers saying “Let the Yankee Bastards Freeze in the Dark” and “Drive 80 mph and Freeze a Yankee.” Another bumper sticker, “For Lights & Heat Turn Off the Ecology Freaks!” reflected the blaming of Northern environmentalists for rules imposed under the 1970 Clean Air Act that favored lower sulfur crude oils from the Arab Middle East rather than the then more polluting, and harmful to health, higher sulfur crude oils from Texas and Oklahoma.

The blame goes in a different direction now. Texans and Oklahomans have been among the most vociferous deniers of the linkage between the burning of fossil fuels and climate change, including virtually their entire Republican congressional delegations.

Climate deniers in high places include former Texas governor Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryTexas Democratic megadonor dies at 46 Nuclear and coal are essential for reliable energy The Hill's 12:30 Report MORE, now head of DOE; former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott PruittEdward (Scott) Scott PruittMy freedom is on the line to fight climate change, more will follow Sessions: DOJ prohibited from issuing guidance that creates new rules Overnight Regulation: Senators unveil bipartisan gun background check bill | FCC rolls back media regs | Family leave credit added to tax bill | Senate confirms banking watchdog MORE, now head of EPA; and Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), head of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Pruitt and Perry are aggressively defunding programs related to climate science and impact, and are now further obfuscating the issue by their absurd plan to give credence to a red team of discredited contrarians to attack climate science.

Congressman Smith not only denies a role for fossil fuels in climate change, he has led his committee in attempting to impose laws that alter standard scientific methodology and that would cripple EPA’s ability to obtain unbiased scientific information and advice. Importantly, antipathy to accepting climate change has led Texas to not only fight against limiting emissions of greenhouse gases, but to avoid spending money on protective measures that could have lessened Harvey's impact.

I was President Reagan's political appointee in charge of science at the  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1985 when EPA received initial funding to study increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.

The theoretical basis for carbon dioxide contributing to our planet’s heat had been accepted for almost a century, and early evidence of global warming was already being seen. Now, more than thirty years later, the evidence linking carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to climate change is incontrovertible.

It does not require a computer model to convincingly argue for a role for climate change in exacerbating the current disaster in the Houston area. Hurricanes derive energy from ocean heat, and the Gulf is now much warmer than ever measured. Warmer air also holds more moisture which then contributes to the amount of rainfall and flooding. Sea level rise also plays a role in the flooding.

An age-old ethical issue is whether those whose negligence contributed to their problems are as deserving of our support as are those who are impacted through no fault of their own.

A smoker with lung cancer warrants our compassion as much as a non-smoker with lung cancer. But smokers often pay higher rates for health insurance, on the reasoning that non-smokers should not subsidize the effects of bad habits. Similarly companies with frequent worker injuries pay higher workers compensation rates, and drivers with more accidents pay more for car insurance.

There is also an asymmetry in the impacts of GCC that emphasizes the unfairness of the opposition of Texas leadership and industry to accepting the role of fossil fuel emissions in climate change. Disaster relief for acute problems such as hurricanes is readily supportable, but as a nation we are less likely to provide charitable or taxpayer support for the more insidious effects of global climate change imposed on all of us by climate deniers.

These include more deaths of vulnerable infants and the elderly during heat waves, higher levels of air pollutants; altered patterns of infectious disease; changes in growing seasons affecting farmers; military threat intensification as refugees are set in motion worldwide — who will pay for these?

Nobody wants to punish innocent victims of Hurricane Harvey for the errors or greed of those who should have known better. But global climate change is not going away and almost certainly will get worse. For the long-term well-being of those in Houston and other coastal areas who will continue to face intensifying threats, and for the nation as a whole who will continue to generously donate recovery resources directly or through our taxes, it is important to consider the issue of responsibility.

Would it not be better, after the immediate rescue efforts are completed, to require recognition of the reality of global climate change in planning for a rebuilt Houston that can better withstand the next Harvey?

Dr. Bernard Goldstein is a member of the National Academy of Medicine who was EPA assistant administrator for research and development in the Reagan Administration.


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