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Who’ll Stop The Rain? Not Trump

President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles, La., following a visit with first responders to Hurricane Harvey, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. (Susan Walsh/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
President Donald Trump boards Air Force One at Chennault International Airport in Lake Charles, La., following a visit with first responders to Hurricane Harvey, Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017. (Susan Walsh/AP)

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I’m sure you've had enough news about bad things for which Donald Trump is to blame. So let’s talk about the weather, for which Trump isn’t yet to blame, but soon will be.

The nation has grieved for Houston as Hurricane Harvey killed at least 38 and dumped more than enough water to keep Niagara Falls going for 15 days. What many Americans may not realize is that Houston is only the most extreme victim. From Virginia to Florida to California, researchers forecast beach destruction from rising sea levels.

Beach erosion and Harvey both are happening because past leaders made two blunders that Trump is on course to repeat. By denying climate change and dithering on vital infrastructure repairs, they contributed — and Trump will contribute — to these mitigable disasters.

Whoa, there. ”Mitigable?” Climate change? Who could have foreseen, let alone mitigated, a biblical deluge in Texas that made even Trump’s ego look small? And while eroding beaches might be part of climate change, scientists say you can’t pin a single storm like Harvey on warming temperatures!

Beach erosion and Harvey both are happening because past leaders made two blunders that Trump is on course to repeat.

Let’s address “mitigable” first. Back during last year’s presidential primaries, a report quoted experts who warned that Houston was unprepared for an all-but-certain catastrophic storm. They noted that Houstonians skirted such a disaster in 2008, when Hurricane Ike almost clobbered the city.

In response to that near-miss, scientists suggested measures from an “Ike Dike” (giant floodgates shielding Galveston Bay from surging waters) to a floodgate closer to Houston’s industries. Nothing happened. Just as foolishly, Houston long has allowed building in flood-prone areas. (It is not alone in making that mistake.)

So heedless construction invited Harvey’s boundless destruction, as did cluelessness about the need for protective infrastructure. Similar infrastructure efforts could help with beach erosion as well.

What about blaming Harvey (and Hurricane Irma, bearing down on Florida and Puerto Rico as you read this) on climate change? It’s true that scientists are gun-shy about declaring any specific Weather Phenomenon X to be a consequence of globally warming temperatures. But blaming the intensity of this phenomenon on those temperatures is meteorological science. Experts say unusually hot weather in the Gulf of Mexico this year added brass knuckles to Harvey’s punch, because warmer temperatures cause heavier rain.

In this aerial photo, homes sit in floodwaters caused Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. (LM Otero/AP)
In this aerial photo, homes sit in floodwaters caused Harvey in Port Arthur, Texas, Friday, Sept. 1, 2017. (LM Otero/AP)

It almost has become cliché to note that Houston has had three once-every-500-years storms in the last three years. When pondering climate change’s role in these events, bear in mind columnist David Leonhardt’s analogy: A single case of lung cancer can’t be tied to smoking, yet there’s no cigarettes-cause-cancer denial.

Trump’s not to blame for governing choices made before he put his hand on the Bible Jan. 20, but the president has made things much, much worse. Besides his foolhardy exit from the Paris climate accords, he eliminated a requirement that builders of infrastructure in areas at risk of flooding factor sea-level rise into their plans before receiving federal subsidies.

That’s asinine. “For every dollar that we spend in advance of an event — for example, elevating a structure — we will save $4 in damages” from flooding, says Alice Hill, a research fellow at the conservative Hoover Institute and former National Security Council staffer under President Obama.

Trump’s not to blame for governing choices made before he put his hand on the Bible Jan. 20, but the president has made things much, much worse.

And while Trump talked about spending $1 trillion on public works during last year’s campaign, he has delayed that to the point that construction companies’ stocks have swooned.

Even if his promises to local officials that he’ll come through bear fruit, killing the sea-level-rise requirement means the feds won’t fool-proof any public works against climate change’s effects. For that, we may have to count on enlightened (but spotty) local efforts. For example, officials elevated a wastewater treatment plant on a barrier island in Miami higher than is normally done to protect against future flooding.

It is a meme of the Trump era that, from climate change to immigration to health care, you need to go to city hall or the statehouse, not Washington, to behold real, thoughtful governance. Sadly, that kind of local initiative came too late for Houston, which, after Harvey, will be rebuilding for years.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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