Editor’s Note: Alice C. Hill is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, where her work focuses on building resilience to catastrophic events, including the impacts of climate change. She served as special assistant to the President and senior director for resilience policy for the National Security Council during the Obama administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
As this year comes to a close, 2017 is on track to set the all-time record for the most billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in any single year in US history.
There were 15 in the first nine months (equal to all of 2011, which set the record) and the final count, due early next year from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), will no doubt include at least some of the hurricanes and wildfires that have happened since September.
Remarkably, the five costliest billion-dollar disaster years – 2004, 2005, 2008, 2011, and 2012 – have all occurred in the past 15 years. This trend matches what climate scientists have warned: Climate change makes disasters worse. Higher temperatures bring deeper droughts, extreme heat, higher-intensity storms, more wildfires, and stronger storm surge. 2017 brought us a taste of the Armageddon that lies ahead.
Unfortunately, as the rest of the nation has suffered, the Trump administration has spent its 2017 dismantling federal actions designed to both address the root causes of climate change and to prepare for its impacts. In just one short year, the White House has buried climate information, choked funding for scientific research, and stomped on efforts to prepare the United States for the coming risks.
This path will not only cost all of us more in the long run, it will also place more people in harm’s way. Yet, the need for commonsense action on climate change, including preparing for its catastrophic impacts, could not be more urgent.
The Trump administration’s assault on climate information began when the White House web page on climate change disappeared shortly after the President’s inauguration. Less than two weeks later, information on federal climate plans, international climate cooperation efforts, and even reports that mentioned the role of carbon emissions in causing planetary warming vanished from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) websites.
As the year rolled on, the new administration continued to stifle the flow of climate information. In August, the director of soil health at the United States Department of Agriculture blacklisted the words “climate change” and “climate change adaptation,” replacing them with “weather extremes” and “resilience to weather extremes.”
Less than a month later at the EPA, a former Trump campaign worker sought to ban the “double C-word” (climate change) from the agency’s research grant solicitations. Now, in December, we learned that senior officials at a Department of Energy-funded laboratory ordered scientists to censor the phrases “global warming” and “climate change” to accommodate the President’s budget and its lexical contortions.
Meanwhile, Trump’s EPA boss Scott Pruitt has promised for 2018 a “red team, blue team” scientific debate on an issue about which 97% of climate scientists already agree. And just this week, even though his own secretary of defense earlier this year told Congress that “climate change is impacting stability in areas where are troops are operating today,” President Trump issued a 55-page National Security Strategy that omits any reference to climate change as a security threat.
Within his first 100 days in office, President Trump’s administration smashed the cornerstones of numerous federal climate policies. In a March executive order, Trump killed guidelines on how to consider greenhouse gas emissions and the effects of climate change in National Environmental Policy Act reviews. In the same order, he axed requirements that agencies develop climate adaptation plans and that national security officials plan for climate risks.
In June, Trump announced he would withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. Finally, in August, just 10 days before Hurricane Harvey deluged Houston, Trump killed the Federal Flood Risk Management Standard, which required construction projects built with taxpayer dollars to account for future flood risk caused by climate change. After Harvey proved just how wrongheaded that decision was, the Homeland Security Advisor promised a new policy was on its way.
We are still waiting.
It isn’t just the climate words and policies the Trump administration has it out for. The President’s proposed budget also chokes federal spending on climate science. If the President had his way, the budget of NOAA – the same agency that tracks the alarming rise in billion-dollar disasters – would drop by 16%, taking $513 million from the satellite division that produces “90 per cent of the data that inform weather service forecasts.”
It would also hack away another $250 million from NOAA’s coastal resilience program. NASA would lose 8.9% of its Earth sciences budget. The Energy Department’s Office of Science, the single biggest funder of physical science research in the United States, would drop by 17%, with substantial cuts to funding for climate research. The EPA’s Global Change program would be eliminated altogether, while the National Weather Service budget would drop by 6%.
Addressing climate change is not a partisan issue, nor should it be. But, sadly, the Trump administration’s wholesale attack on efforts to address climate change – its causes and its impacts – comes as no surprise. We have a President who has called climate change a “hoax” and mouthpieces who called the environmental movement “the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world.”
The Trump administration acts as if it believes that its climate denialism will keep people happily ignorant about the threats we face in a changing world. As horrifying and infuriating as that is, it also has serious consequences for all Americans. In 2017, the people of Houston, Miami, Puerto Rico, Los Angeles, Napa, California, and many other communities across America have all tasted the suffering that climate change impacts are predicted to bring.
The victims of those events bear witness to the fact that, as we experience more droughts, floods, hurricanes, and deadly heat, we can do more today to mitigate the threat and prepare for what will surely come tomorrow. The least this administration could do is help.