Monday, October 2, 2017

REPUBLICANS AND THE HURRICANES

HARVEY III

By Ronald T. Fox

NOTE: This essay is highly critical of Republicans and the Republican Party. In making my points, I admit to taking generalization liberties. Not all Republicans are guilty as I charge below; some, to be sure, are not completely heartless. Such Republicans, though, are few and far between. Today’s GOP is under the control of radical right true believers in unrestrained capitalism and the insulation of private property rights from the reach of government. Their emphasis on economic libertarianism leaves little space for humanity, or, for that matter, democracy. So, when I use the terms “Republican” and “Republican Party,” I’m referring to the party’s dominating--and uncompromising-- radical right.


Hurricanes Harvey was the largest rainfall event in American history. Over 51 inches of rain fell in some areas around Houston. While not bringing as much rainfall, Hurricane Irma delivered powerful winds and vast destruction to Florida, leaving more than a dozen dead and millions without electricity. Not to be outdone, Hurricane Maria, a category five hurricane, brought even greater devastation to Puerto Rico. Ninety percent of the islands is still--two weeks later-- without power or fresh water.

Terrible as this destruction was, it pales in comparison to mega-storm damage elsewhere in the world.  In India, Nepal and Bangladesh torrential monsoon rains and flooding has placed some 16 million children in urgent need of life-saving support.

High magnitude hurricanes, along with record heat waves, wildfires, and draughts, have been occurring with increasing frequency. These destructive natural events, climate scientists report, are almost certainly growing in magnitude because human behavior is causing the earth’s oceans to become warmer.

Each new gigantic hurricane makes me both sad and angry. I feel empathy toward victims, especially low income people who invariably suffer the most. (I’m not so sorry, however, for wealthy folks who choose to build in flood zones or live in fancy houses along a coastline). The know-nothing climate science deniers who have prevented our government from attacking the global warming problem spark my anger, as does the mainstream media, which relishes reporting on hurricane destruction, telling human interest stories, and showing journalists knee deep in flood water, but rarely probes deeper questions about what might be causing storms to grow larger and arrive more often.

In the U.S., climate change deniers are overwhelmingly concentrated in the Republican Party. In alliance with wealthy donors from the oil, gas and coal industries who have a financial stake in opposing any effort to reduce America’s dependence on fossil fuels, the party has blocked meaningful initiatives to cut greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, the GOP has blood on its hands. It has aided and abetted the extreme weather horrors we are experiencing.

And that is not all. Republican support for unrestricted development, opposition to regulations aimed at protecting the environment, and public health and safety, hostility toward immigrants, and opposition to federal spending that compromises principles of economic libertarianism, exacerbates the human costs of high magnitude storms and wildfires.

The GOP can’t help itself. Decades ago it threw in with billionaire and millionaire ideologues bent on changing the rules of democratic governance to promote unfettered capitalism. The party has become passionately dedicated to promoting their various agendas. This means, among other things, pushing for tax cuts for the rich and austerity for everyone else. It also means rolling back regulations that prioritize human beings over profits.

I’ve been wondering how the Republican Party will respond to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. Could these catastrophic climate events, coming so close together, lead them to question Republican "truths" about climate change? Could riveting visuals of destroyed neighborhoods, uprooted families, submerged towns from Houston to Jacksonville to San Juan, and flattened Caribbean islands, along with the realization that it will take years for full recoveries, reach into hard Republican hearts and squeeze out a little humanity? In short, will they learn any lessons from the hurricanes of 2017? 

The extensiveness of destruction in the paths of the hurricanes of 2017 cannot be fully explained by what we know about climate science. Republican opposition to reducing greenhouse gasses, and the party’s policies on land development, deregulation, immigration, and federal spending, made the hurricane-hit areas more vulnerable to destruction. I wish, in the aftermath of the great hurricanes, Republicans will ask themselves the following tough questions.


On Climate Change. Many Houstonians and Floridians expressed shock about how unprecedented were storms like Harvey and Irma. Few saw them coming, few were prepared, and fewer yet contemplated the science and deeper politics of why such events are happening more often. Given the highly effective disinformation campaigns promulgated by wealthy individuals and organizations opposing efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, primarily representatives of the oil and gas industries, the lack of awareness is not surprising.

The Harvey storm, for example, was not unprecedented. Houston has experienced several catastrophic floods over the last few decades, most recently in the spring of 2015 with the Memorial Day Floods and in 2016 with the so-called Tax Day Floods. One hundred and 500-year floods are occurring with such increasing frequency that climate scientists probably need to develop new categories for storm magnitudes.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. Climate experts have been warning for decades that global warming will produce extreme weather events and that people would die if preventive measures were not undertaken. Warmer air and oceans may not cause hurricanes, but the evidence is strong that they increase their size, frequency, intensity and destructiveness. This is an indisputable fact, yet you would not know it if you relied on President Trump, Republican leaders, Fox News, or much of the local media in red states for your information.

President Trump has filled his administration with climate change deniers, notably at the EPA and NASA. Worse yet for global warming, he and most of his fellow Republicans are aggressively pushing for more oil, gas and coal production. If the victims of Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Harvey, Irma, Maria and other catastrophic hurricanes to come, want an accounting for their miseries, they need look no further than to the despicable climate science deniers who inhabit the Republican Party.

Questions: After Harvey and Irma, will Republicans reexamine their falsehoods about climate change? More important than recognizing scientific facts, will they begin to think about what can be done to slow global warming? Will Republican Party leaders reconsider their incestuous ties to the oil, gas, and coal industries and get serious about the expansion of clean, renewable energy?  

On Predatory Land Development. The Republican Party has been a best friend to predatory land developers. Hurricane Harvey demonstrated what can happen when development projects are approved without a careful assessment of environmental, health and safety risks. Federal flood protection standards, which have been kept deliberately weak, have not deterred land development in disaster-prone areas. The resultant urban sprawl into high-risk areas in and around Houston facilitated the extensive flooding that Harvey unleashed.

Houston has been a flood zone for nearly a century. This is well known. The warnings of flood specialists, engineers, and environmental scientists about the dangers of building in key flood zones have been disregarded by city leaders who have carried the water (pardon the pun) for big land developers. In the Texas political arena, as in other Republican-dominated states, environmentalists are vastly outgunned.by profit-minded developers and their political allies, mostly, though not exclusively, in the Republican Party. Development around Houston has paved over large swaths of grasslands and wetlands, leaving nothing to absorb water when it comes.

In addition to development in flood zones, expensive construction projects along coastlines have mushroomed. When these properties are destroyed or damaged by rain, wind or a storm surge, the cost of reconstructing these properties grows exponentially.  One would think that the resultant drain on taxpayer dollars would have a sobering effect on governing officials.  Yet, time and time again, development and infrastructure projects continue to be readily approved in flood zones and environmentally-sensitive areas with scant attention to climate impacts.

Questions: After the hurricanes of 2017, will Republican officials more seriously consider expert testimony about environmental, health and safety risks before approving development projects? Will they ever be able to say no?

On Deregulation of Oil, Gas, and Chemical Companies. Federal regulation of the oil, gas and chemical industries has never been robust. Under the Trump Administration and Republican-controlled Congress regulation has become even more lax. Important regulatory programs have been defunded. People with few scientific credentials have been appointed to key environment positions (none worse that EPA Director Scott Pruitt). Scientists whose research validates the human contribution to climate change have been purged. Important climate science studies that could enlighten both government policy and the American public have been censored. These actions have increased the vulnerability of flood-prone communities to natural disasters. Hurricanes Harvey and Irma testify to this.

Lax regulation of chemical plants proved especially troublesome in the Harvey-ravaged Houston area. While the Obama Administration tried to give the EPA more regulatory authority and require chemical companies to disclose information about dangerous chemicals, the Pruitt-led EPA has rolled back these efforts. Other federal agencies tasked to regulate health and safety, such as OSHA and the Chemical Safety Board, have been hamstrung by funding-cuts that, among other things, has diminished their pools of trained staff. This made chemical plants ill-prepared for a catastrophic natural event like Hurricane Harvey (and for non-natural accidents as well).

Harvey exposed the extreme risk in allowing chemical companies to be virtually self-regulating in matters of safety, risk disclosure and emergency preparedness. The Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, outside Houston, has been identified as one of the most hazardous in the state. Despite being targeted by regulators, it has been able to avoid addressing risks of flooding and power failures. With no requirement to have backup generators or to isolate hazardous materials from high wind or water, the inevitable happened: Harvey flooding engulfed the plant and when power failed cooling systems vital to preventing overheating of organic peroxides failed, resulting in a series of explosions. Fortunately for many Texans, the organic peroxides released were not highly toxic. Although there’s no evidence more toxic chemicals stored at the plant, like sulfur dioxide and isobutylene, were released, we can’t be sure since Arkema refuses to provide details of chemical storage. The absence of mandatory disclosure requirements makes post-storm cleanup more challenging—and costly.

Several other area petrochemical plants also experienced systemic breakdowns of water and sewer systems, sinking tank roofs, and loss of power, which resulted in the release of hazardous chemicals into the local air and water supplies. People living in areas of concentrated poverty and pollution are being most affected by under-regulated waste sites that are leaching toxic contamination.

HARVEY  IV
The Poor Suffer the Most
Impoverished people will be further victimized during the post-Harvey cleanup and reconstruction period. They will be more vulnerable to respiratory disease from secondary epidemics of fungi and mold growth, like occurred after Superstorms Sandy and Katrina. Lack of flood insurance, inadequate remediation, and Harris County’s general lack of affordable housing will add to the recovery challenges of the less affluent. If history is a guide, public assistance for the impoverished will be slow to arrive or outright missing in action.

Questions: Will the hurricanes of 2017 motivate the Trump administration and fellow free-market zealots in Congress to support strengthening regulations aimed at lessening the risks of secondary destruction from natural disasters? Will the chemical explosions around Houston bring fresh attention on whether chemical plants need to be more closely regulated by federal and state officials? Will Congress look more favorably on the need to better fund environment, health and safety regulatory agencies and programs?

On Immigration. Houston has nearly 600,000 undocumented immigrants. There are some 68,000 DACA-eligible young people. Harvey and Irma dramatized for the American people the precarious plight of the undocumented. What normal person cannot feel for a displaced undocumented immigrant who refuses to seek shelter or available assistance out of fear of being deported?

Houston’s dependence on undocumented workers in the agriculture, service and construction sectors has been widely reported, as has the success stories of several DACA-protected immigrants who are attending school, working, and contributing to their communities. These stories have shown that undocumented workers are human beings, not just numbers on a graph. Many have also pointed out how important such workers will be for post-Harvey reconstruction, especially in the construction industry.

Republican-led anti-immigrant crackdown efforts, which have included calls to outlaw sanctuary cities and end the DACA program, threaten to deprive Houston of workers not only critical to its economy, but to post-Harvey recovery and reconstruction as well. Undocumented workers make up an estimated 30 percent of construction laborers. Where will replacements be found? If Republicans carry out their anti-immigrant threats, the revival of storm-damaged communities will be seriously, if not irrevocably, compromised.

Questions: Will the anti-immigrant posture of the radical right be tempered by the tragic plight of storm-ravaged illegal immigrants? Could GOP hardliners become more amenable to immigration reform, including providing a path to citizenship? Will the radical right still push to discontinue DACA?

On Federal Spending. Red state Republican leaders are notorious for bad-mouthing Federal spending, except when the money flows in their direction. Spending on the poor and needy, bad! Subsidies to big corporations, good! Funding on defense that brings business to their states, good! Funding for Superfund cleanup, bad. Republicans only have problems with federal spending that goes to things they don’t like.

Who can forget the heartless partisan Republican response to Hurricane Sandy which battered the East Coast in 2012? Not only were they hesitant about providing federal assistance, Texas Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn demanded that relief provided be matched by federal budget cuts elsewhere. Vice President Mike Pence was the top promoter of Operation Offset. In the end, 20 Texas members of Congress voted against the relief package. Now with Texas being the victim, tight-fisted Republicans are climbing over each other to speed-deliver generous relief and reconstruction funding. Hurricane Maria- ravaged Puerto Rico, however, with its brown and black inhabitants, isn't viewed with the same sense of urgency.  It'll have to wait for the Trump Administration's latest "fantastic job."  

On the eve of Hurricane Harvey, austerity-minded Republicans were poised to cut FEMA funding to free money to build Trump’s ridiculous wall. They threatened even to shut down the government if they didn’t get their way. Now, because of the unfolding disasters, they’ll probably back off on the threat to slash the FEMA budget (though probably not on finding another way to fund the wall). It’s unlikely, however, that  their austerity mindset will be compromised.

We’ve become familiar with the partisan games politicians play. Sadly, its usually the least fortunate citizens that pay the heaviest price for their gamesmanship, especially in cases of natural disasters. The destruction paths of mega-storms may not discriminate, but in their aftermath social class realities invariably come into pay. Reconstruction and recovery is always filled with inequities for the disadvantaged. We saw this with Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, and there’s little chance things will be different after Harvey and Irma, and, especially, Maria.

In a perfect political world, politicians would be class, race, ethnic and gender blind when it comes to the allocation of national resources. Unfortunately, this is not our world. Decisions on who gets what, when, and how, follow the white-man’s money.  In America, plutocrats rule.  

Questions: Could a prompt and effective Washington response to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma temper the GOP’s prevailing anti-Washington mindset? Will the Republican Party become less prone to double-standard judgments? Does the bipartisan response to Harvey and Irma suggest the radical right—the main obstructers of bipartisanship—will become more receptive to compromise in the future?

Republicans After the Hurricanes 

Every American had to be profoundly moved by visuals of the destruction caused by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. I know I was. What horrifies me more than the current destruction, however, is the certainty that in the future high category hurricanes will reach land more often and inflict even greater damage. The same can be said for wildfires and droughts. It’s virtually guaranteed as-long-as mankind refuses to radically roll back greenhouse gas emissions. This basic truth has sadly not entered the consciousness of most Republicans, and scarcely any Trump supporters.

I began this essay asking whether the hurricanes of 2017 might awaken Republicans to the consensus facts about climate change. I’m sorry to say there is little hope for such an awakening, and virtually no prospect of a large-scale federal action on climate change in the near future, especially with the climate science-denying, village idiot Donald Trump occupying the White House. The Republican Party is too beholden to oil and gas interests, and its base too much under the sway of the highly successful Koch brothers-led, anti-climate change propaganda campaign (see my 2014 Phronesis post: Climate Change Denial: Follow the Money) to open its mind, let alone shift gears, on the climate change problem.* These factors predict that Republicans will remain wedded to their pseudo-science delusions about climate change: terrible storms have happened throughout human history, before fossil fuels were being burned, so man is not the problem. Tragedies like Harvey, Irma and Maria? God’s will. This head-in-the-sand stance, I believe, amounts to mass murder.

I questioned further whether the radical right, after witnessing the hurricane drama, might began to think about how their policies on unrestricted land development, deregulation, immigration, and federal austerity can exacerbate the human costs of hurricanes that reach landfall. Could a clearer understanding of this connection, were it to take place, somehow humanize the party?

No chance. The GOP, as it is currently constituted, is too ideologically extreme, too prone to pander to its far-right base, too entrenched in an anti-Washington, anti-tax, anti-welfare, anti-science, anti-humanity mindset, too riveted to big corporations and the super-rich, and too contemptuous of those who, in the immortal words of Oliver Twist, want “some more for themselves,” to shift its weight in a more public-spirited direction.

While prevailing GOP policies on the issues I touched on are not likely to fundamentally change, it is possible moderate Republicans, as well as some lawmakers from flood-prone states, having witnessed their home states hammered by the recent drastic weather events, may at least become more open to measures to reinforce coastlands, strengthen disaster preparedness, build resilient infrastructure, and support renewable energy research and development. It is thus possible that bipartisan cooperation on measures to mitigate some of the effects of natural disasters might be forthcoming (that is, if the talk is about “severe weather events” and not climate change).

My greatest wish is that the Republican Party would somehow dethrone the radical right ideologues that currently dominate the party. Without such a revolution, there is little prospect the GOP will abandon its dismissal of scientific experts, academics, historians, and, indeed, anyone with factual knowledge and move in even a semi-reasoned direction.  I expect the party will remain affixed to the pseudo-profound, intellectual- sounding, bullshit they believe, if postured enough, will establish a new reality (or at least raise uncertainty about what is true). The party’s libertarian ideologues have taken a page from Joseph Goebbels alleged observation that “if you tell a great lie and repeat it often enough, the people will eventually come to believe it.” They’ve come to understand how vulnerable Americans are to hardwired campaigns that resist reasoned evidence, leading them to unwittingly support unpopular agendas, like climate change denial.  There appears scant hope for an ideological transformation, at least for the foreseeable future.

Still, hope springs eternal. “Remember the Alamo” has served as a rallying cry for millions of Americans. Maybe if we shout, “Remember the Hurricanes,” loud and long enough Republican know nothings will finally get the message. Maybe they'll turn against the plutocrats that have leveraged their ignorance. Wouldn’t that be nice?
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*The New York Times reported that the number of Americans who believe that “the continued burning of fossil fuels would alter climate” dropped from 71 percent in 2007 to 44 percent in 2011.

HARVEY VI


3 comments:

  1. The Republican Party is also under the thumb of the National Rifle Association. In a doubly tragic coincidence, the Las Vegas massacre occurs shortly after the hurricanes. Could the Democrats quickly put together reasonable gun control legislation that forces many Republicans to show their true colors by voting it down?

    This country needs something to happen soon to make us feel that America is becoming great again.

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  2. In the wake of the recent hurricanes and Las Vegas terror attack, the Republicans in Washington will double down on their backward-ass policies.

    The apologists, deniers and zealots will continue to toe the extremist party line. I can almost predict what they will be saying in the coming weeks as they undoubtedly make their rounds on the news and talk show circuits. Here’s a brief example of what’s to come;
    Science has nothing to do with hurricanes. It was simply an “Act of God.” Nothing could have been done to predict of stop it. As for the massive and unregulated paving of the South-East Texas wetlands? Well, that wouldn’t have been necessary if those illegal hordes didn’t invade our great country. And guns didn’t kill those 59 people and wound over 500 more in Las Vegas, it was the work of an unpredictable madman.

    The deafening silence of the NRA on the Las Vegas tragedy is all too common. But, don’t mistake that silence for inaction. One can almost see Wayne “Lord Voldemort” LaPierre snaking his way along the dark cervices of Congress leaving gold coins for his iodic minions in his stenchful wake.

    All while the Democrats sleep.

    As Bob Dylan would say, “It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there.”

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  3. To be a little cynical there is an old saying "we get what we deserve". In a country that just had probably the most important Presidential election of at least our life time to barley muster a 50% voter turnout says a lot about how much we don't care about our democracy. Its even worse in local and midterm elections. Yes we have gerrymandered districts and voter suppression but in a presidential election a very high percentage of people chose not to vote. So we who are in the majority who believe in protecting the environment, that health care is a right, that there should be universal background checks on all gun purchases and that military weapons should not be in the hands of civilians, and many other progressive ideas will continue to be ruled by the minority.

    ReplyDelete

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