A disaster area is no place for political theater. The governor of flood-ravaged Louisiana asked President Barack Obama to postpone a personal visit while relief efforts were still underway. (Meanwhile, by all accounts, the substantive federal response has been infinitely superior to the Bush administration’s response to Katrina.) He made the same request to Donald Trump, declaring, reasonably, that while aid would be welcome, a visit for the sake of a photo op would not.
Sure enough, the GOP candidate flew in, shook some hands, signed some autographs, and was filmed taking boxes of Play-Doh out of a truck. If he wrote a check, neither his campaign nor anyone else has mentioned it. Heckuva job, Donnie!
But boorish, self-centered behavior is the least of it. By far the bigger issue is that even as Trump made a ham-handed (and cheapskate) effort to exploit Louisiana’s latest disaster for political gain, he continued to stake out a policy position that will make such disasters increasingly frequent.
Let’s back up for a minute and talk about the real meaning of the Louisiana floods.
In case you haven’t been keeping track, lately we’ve been setting global temperature records every month. Remember when climate deniers used to point to a temporary cooling after an unusually warm year in 1998 as “proof” that global warming had stopped? It was always a foolish, dishonest argument, but in any case we’ve now blown right through all past records.
And one consequence of a warmer planet is more evaporation, more moisture in the air, and hence more disastrous floods. As always, you can’t say that climate change caused any particular disaster. What you can say is that warming makes extreme weather events more likely, so that, for example, what used to be 500-year floods are now happening on an almost routine basis.
So a proliferation of disasters like the one in Louisiana is exactly what climate scientists have been warning us about.
What can be done? The bad news is that drastic action to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases is long overdue. The good news is that the technological and economic basis for such action has never looked better. In particular, renewable energy – wind and solar – has become much cheaper in recent years, and progress in energy storage looks increasingly likely to resolve the problem of intermittency (the sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow).
Or to put it a different way, we face a clear and present danger, but we have the means and the knowledge to deal with that danger. The problem is politics – which brings us back to Trump and his party.
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that when it comes to climate change, as with so many issues, Trump has gone deep down the rabbit hole, asserting not just that global warming is a hoax, but that it’s a hoax concocted by the Chinese to make America less competitive.
The thing is, he’s not alone in going down that rabbit hole. On other issues Republicans may try to claim that their presidential nominee doesn’t speak for the party that nominated him. We’re already hearing claims that Trump isn’t a true conservative, indeed that he’s really a liberal, or anyway that liberals are somehow responsible for his rise. (My favorite theory here, one that has quite a few advocates, is that I personally caused Trumpism by being nasty to Mitt Romney.)
But when it comes to denial of climate change and the deployment of bizarre conspiracy theories to explain away the evidence, Trump is squarely in the Republican mainstream. He may be talking nonsense, but anyone his party was likely to nominate would have been talking pretty much the same nonsense.
It’s interesting to ask why climate denial has become not just acceptable but essentially required within the GOP. Yes, the fossil-fuel sector is a big donor to the party. But the vehemence of the hostility to climate science seems disproportionate even so; bear in mind that, for example, at this point there are fewer than 60,000 coal miners, that is, less than 0.05 percent of the workforce. What’s happening, I suspect, is that climate denial has become a sort of badge of right-wing identity, above and beyond the still-operative motive of rewarding donors.
In any case, this election is likely to be decisive for the climate, one way or another. Obama has made some serious moves to address global warming, and there’s every reason to believe that Hillary Clinton would continue this push – using executive action if she faced a hostile Congress. Given the technological breakthroughs of the last few years, this push might just be enough to avert disaster. Donald Trump, on the other hand, would do everything in his power to trash the planet, with the enthusiastic support of his party. So which will it be? Stay tuned.