Courting Disaster

Courting Disaster

An aerial view of Houston in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, August 31

Weather creates storms. It’s people who turn them into disasters, as this summer has made all too clear—from Texas and Louisiana, facing the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, to India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, where monsoon floods have killed more than 1,400 people in a single month.

In the United States, Harvey presents perhaps the starkest illustration since Hurricane Sandy of the kinds of disasters we are capable of concocting. And as with all such extreme weather events, the slow disaster most directly precipitating this immediate one is climate change, making storms and floods more frequent and fearsome than they otherwise would have been.

Unless you deny climate change exists outright—as several members of the Trump administration do—it’s hard to argue that there isn’t something at least a little unnatural about Harvey. Penn State climate scientist Michael Mann argues that the storm surge from Harvey was seven inches higher than it would have been just a few decades ago thanks to sea level rise. Harvey benefited from hotter-than-average temperatures in the waters where it brewed: average sea surface temperatures in the Gulf have risen about 0.5 degrees Celsius in recent decades, and as Harvey approached in August, stood at up to 4°C above average. “Not only are the surface waters of the Gulf of Mexico unusually warm right now,” Mann wrote, “but there is a deep layer of warm water that Harvey was able to feed upon when it intensified at near record pace as it neared the coast.” As a result, Houston is now dealing with the aftermath of the third “500-year flood” the city has experienced in the last three years.

Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, meanwhile, called it “opportunistic” and “misplaced” to talk about climate change in the storm’s wake, telling Breitbart radio that, “to look at things like this and to talk about a cause and effect really isn’t helping the people of Texas right now.” Worth mentioning, too, is that Pruitt has spent the better part of his tenure as EPA director trying to peel back regulations that would cap greenhouse gas emissions. He’s currently gearing up for a government-funded Red Team-Blue Team debate on the reality of climate change—with help from the Heartland Institute, a climate-denying think tank copiously funded by the oil and gas industries.

Even if Pruitt is right and tides aren’t rising, Harvey still would have hit the Gulf harder than it should have. Storms happen all the time in nature, from solar flares to Martian dust storms. No one would care much if a hurricane of Harvey’s scale struck some unpopulated stretch of land or spun out to sea. The difference when they hit places like Houston—the nation’s fourth most populous city—is that people do live there, and that those people are organized in particular ways: by racism and capitalism and any number of other structuring forces in society, themselves sharing a web of connections to one another.

In the case of Houston itself: The Magnolia City has long been heralded by libertarians as a kind of case study for no-holds-barred development, un-zoned and untainted by regulations and—by extension—a playground for enterprising real estate moguls. As a ProPublica and Texas Tribune report last year found, there have been 7,000 residential buildings constructed in floodplains since hurricane Katrina. From 1996 to 2011, Harris County (containing the wider Houston area) has also seen a 25 percent increase in the amount of impermeable—that is, paved—surfaces, which displaced absorbent wetlands and prairie grass that help provide a buffer against runoff. That development not only puts more people and property in harm’s way, but drives up the cost of dealing with disasters.

While developers have been able to move about Houston at will, the same can’t be said for its residents. Houston alone is home to an estimated 575,000 undocumented immigrants, the third most of any metro area after New York and Los Angeles. As thousands began to evacuate, the Border Patrol announced that it would keep its checkpoints in the Rio Grande Valley open so long as the highways also remained open. This left undocumented Texans in Harvey’s path with an unbelievably cruel choice as the storm approached: try to ride it out, or risk deportation. Had it not been temporarily blocked via court order, this past Friday would also have seen the implementation of SB 4, one of the country’s most draconian anti-immigrant laws. Now, many of those attempting to rebuild their lives post-Harvey will also have to deal with the White House’s decision today to rescind DACA, which protects from deportation undocumented immigrants who arrived to the United States as children.

There’s nothing natural, either, about the fact that Harvey’s floods inundated thirteen of Texas’s forty-one Superfund sites that are still awaiting clean-up, sites whose toxic contents now threaten their neighbors. A group of AP journalists visited storm-impacted sites around Houston before EPA inspectors, whose spokespeople claimed the sites were inaccessible. Long-term, the administration seems posed to make a bad situation even worse. Trump proposed a 30 percent cut to the EPA’s Superfund cleanup fund in his March budget blueprint, extending the George W. Bush administration’s doctrine that the polluters responsible for creating such sites should no longer have to contribute to cleaning them up.

Some of those same polluters are at the root of yet another kind of disaster unfolding in Southeast Texas. Storm damage has resulted in an emissions spike from the area’s oil and chemical refineries, which spat out 2,700 extra tons of pollution because of storm damage, and still more from preventative shut-downs. Beginning Thursday, chemical fires at the Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, about twenty-five miles from downtown Houston, sent a plume of noxious black smoke billowing over the area. The fires lasted through the weekend, as International Business Times reported that the company had successfully lobbied Republicans to block relevant safety regulations—despite being fully aware of the risks.

A broader analysis from the Center For Biological Diversity has found that Harvey has so far triggered the release of an estimated 1 million pounds of harmful substances from the area’s sixty petroleum plants. On top of storm damage, then, Texans—particularly the low-income communities of color clustered around oil and chemical operations—now face a mounting public health crisis. And that’s without mentioning the risk of infectious diseases carried by sewage and other waste contaminating floodwaters.

It’s not very many people who create these man-made disasters. That catastrophic weather events are growing more common and severe is owed—in large part—to the 100 companies that have spit 71 percent of carbon emissions into the atmosphere since 1988, including many of those with hubs in Texas. Then there are developers who’ve taken advantage of lax zoning laws, and the members of the GOP eager to gut the budgets of the programs and agencies tasked with helping both prevent and recover from some of the storms’ worst impacts.

So if the response on the ground to the crisis in Houston has been defined by a sense of collective solidarity—of neighbors helping neighbors—the precipitating causes of that crisis are undoubtedly a product of wealthy elites.

Like climate change itself, Harvey’s horrors can’t be broken down to any one cause, be it rising warm tides or greedy developers or austerity-addled politicians. Yet what’s most foreboding about the prospect of an increasingly climate-changed reality is that all of those things which are already making life unlivable for so many will get muddled with the new ecological normal of our hotter, wetter world: immigration authorities threatening to deport people as they try to get out of harm’s way; capital swooping in after waters subside for a fresh round of land speculation; a hollowed-out public sphere, growing less nimble with every passing budget negotiation.

Even a socialist America would have to deal with bad weather, and probably a lot more of it given the level of warming we’re already on track to experience. How we respond to that weather—and prevent more of it from happening than needs to—will mean the difference between a changed climate and an altogether meaner one.


Kate Aronoff is co-host of Dissent’s Hot & Bothered podcast on the politics of climate change and a writing fellow at In These Times.

A Social Revolution [Advertisement]