U.S. Politics

Politicize the weather

Hurricane Florence struck the Carolinas on Thursday, moving slowly inland. By Friday morning, it had brought a 10-foot storm surge and sever flooding to parts of North Carolina. Multiple people have needed to be rescued and power companies are reporting more than 150,000 outages due to strong winds topping 90 miles per hour.

Yet for all of its destruction, it's just one of many terrible weather events that have caused humanitarian disasters in the United States over the past two years — most notably Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

It's time to realize one simple truth: Republicans are very largely to blame. Democrats should not hesitate to point this out.

There are two main reasons why.

First, natural disasters become humanitarian emergencies primarily due to poor preparation and response, either through incompetence or poverty. For instance, a 2010 earthquake in Haiti killed perhaps 100,000 people, while a much, much stronger one in Chile killed only 525 (mainly due to superior building construction). The United States is very rich, and should be able to handle anything short of the most severe disasters.

But Republicans are not only apathetic and incompetent at governance in general, they are particularly terrible at emergency response. Democrats, for all their other faults, are generally pretty good at this. President Clinton appointed James Lee Witt to run the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who was widely hailed as turning the agency into a model of competence and efficiency.

George W. Bush immediately destroyed that effectiveness with cronyism and corruption, appointing his oafish horse breeder pal Michael Brown (a man with zero disaster management experience) to run FEMA, who then grotesquely botched the response to Hurricane Katrina. At least 1,245 people died as a result. President Obama successfully restored basic competence among the disaster agencies, and managed an Ebola outbreak and numerous hurricanes of his own without any massive death tolls.

Now we have President Trump, who is almost certainly the most inept president of all time. His administration's handling of the preparation and response to Hurricane Maria was, as evidenced by Nidhi Prakash's on-the-ground reporting, astoundingly incompetent. It took a full 11 months to restore power, and many communities remained without reliable food or water access for much of that time. Things were so bad that death tolls had to be estimated via demographic sampling instead of direct counting. A Harvard study calculated excess deaths at around 4,600, while a more precise George Washington University study commissioned by the Puerto Rican government put the total at 2,975. As Mattathias Schwartz writes, the post-Maria death spree was a man-made disaster.

But not only did Trump fail to take any responsibility whatsoever for the disaster, he now insists that the study was fabricated by Democrats to cast doubt on him.

His fellow Republicans are, as usual, doing nothing whatsoever to hold Trump accountable in any way or even conduct an official inquiry into why so many Americans died after Maria — just like they are doing with his dozens of corruption scandals. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan bizarrely commented that "Casualties don’t make a person look bad, so I have no reason to dispute these numbers," and blamed the death toll on the power outage. Other Republicans just dodged the issue or offered the limpest of criticism:

Meanwhile, Republican grandees like former President George W. Bush are doing their best to keep Republicans in control of Congress, where they can continue to collaborate with Trump. Their priorities are clear: Tax cuts for the rich and deregulation are worth the occasional deadly disaster.

The second reason to blame Republicans is, of course, climate change. The strength and intensity of weather disasters is likely being intensified by global warming, while the flooding from hurricanes is certainly being worsened by sea level rise. A climate policy package to cut domestic emissions, massively strengthen American communities against weather disasters, and pursue international diplomacy to help coordinate emission cuts in other countries is unquestionably the number one policy priority for this country.

Republicans categorically oppose all of this. The Republican Congress refuses to even consider a serious green investment package. The Trump administration pulled out of the Paris climate accords and has rolled back Obama's Clean Power Plan in favor of something that might actually increase emissions (and will lead to thousands of pollution-caused deaths according to their own science).

The Republican Party is effectively doing all it can to worsen climate-fueled weather disasters. It is also largely incapable of preparing for the ones that do happen or conducting rescue operations afterwards.

If Americans want to survive the gathering clouds, Republicans must be held accountable.


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