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The Deadly Risk of Ruling by Pettiness and Spite

Trump aims to repeal any Obama policy that mentions climate change. Only now that disaster has struck is he realizing how reckless this is.

Alex Wong/Getty

Over the last eight months, President Donald Trump’s doctrine on environmental policies has become clear. Did Barack Obama do it? Then get rid of it. Does it mention climate change? Then throw it out the window.

This strategy is red meat for Trump’s base, but crowd-pleasing rarely makes for wise policy. Case in point: Ten days before Hurricane Harvey hit Texas, Trump decided that America should no longer require federally funded projects like roads and hospitals to be built to withstand rising seas or heavier rainfall. He repealed these widely popular flood protection standards—put in place, of course, by his predecessor—for no apparent reason, other than wanting to speed up project approvals. 

But now that back-to-back record-breaking hurricanes have caused deadly flooding far outside of federally designated floodplains, Trump is reevaluating this decision. Last week, the Washington Post reported that Trump is considering proposing similar flood standards to the Obama-era ones he just repealed. This shift, the Post noted, “represents a striking acknowledgment by an administration skeptical of climate change that the government must factor changing weather into some of its major infrastructure policies.” In other words, Trump is open to preparing the U.S. for some of climate change’s worst impacts, but only now that he’s seen those impacts with his own eyes.

Trump shouldn’t have needed to see this devastation firsthand, as scientists have spent years explaining the risks rising seas and worsening storms pose to infrastructure. But that’s how petty and spiteful Trump’s climate policy has proven to be. Triggered by “climate change” and Obama’s fingerprints, he refuses to maintain common-sense adaptation policies that will save lives and money as the weather worsens. 

The administration insists they’re protecting Americans from the effects of a changing climate. “We continue to take climate change seriously, not the cause of it, but what we can see right now,” Tom Bossert, Trump’s homeland security adviser, told reporters on Monday. This is patently untrue. Even if Trump eventually reinstates the flood risk standard, he is seeking to dismantle the federal government’s climate adaptation mechanisms—undoing policies and scrapping funding for projects that seek to prevent death and destruction due to rising seas, more intense heat waves, longer droughts and wildfires, and other extreme weather. 

In March, Trump signed an executive order that, as ThinkProgress noted, “touches nearly every environmental action taken by the previous administration.” At least two of those actions were related to preparation for natural disasters worsened by climate change. One was a sweeping 2013 executive order, “Preparing the United States for the Impacts of Climate Change,” that required federal agencies to plan for climate change in myriad ways—for instance, by forbidding long-term leases for buildings in flood zones. As HuffPost reported, Obama’s order also charged the federal government “with helping states and localities improve resilience to natural disasters and established a task force of state, local and tribal leaders dedicated to determining needs.” Trump’s executive order repealed all of this, confounding climate policy experts. “All we’re doing is preventing people from being able to take protective measures ahead of time,” Union of Concerned Scientists’ climate policy manager Rachel Cleetus told HuffPost.

Trump’s order also undid a 2016 executive action that required the military to plan and prepare for climate impacts, such as rising seas at naval and air force bases that threaten to inundate expensive equipment. That doesn’t mean the military can’t adapt—the Pentagon still considers climate change a risk to its operations—but now it’s not required to do so. Sharon Burke, who was Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for operational energy, told Bloomberg News that she fears preparation won’t continue “in a concerted or consistent way” because of Trump’s order.  

While Trump does not appear to be delaying or muffling the National Climate Assessment—a major scientific report on how climate change will impact the U.S.—he is disbanding the group that helps state and local officials use the report for long-term planning. Joe Arvai, a University of Michigan professor who has been a peer-reviewer of the NCA, told me that the end of this group means state, city, and regional planners will lose a crucial resource for deciding where to invest and build in the future. “Anyone who would go to that report to get a better handle on their situation are now left shooting in the dark,” he said. 

Trump has sought to reduce the government’s extreme-weather preparation capabilities in other ways. In April, the White House proposed a $510 million cut to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s $2.3 billion satellite division. Rick Spinrad, NOAA’s chief scientist during the Obama administration, told me in April that these cuts would impact funding for new, improved earth-monitoring satellites that would not only be more accurate, but would give people more time to prepare before extreme weather events hit. Spinrad said if these cuts are approved, “at the very best, there would be no improvement in our ability to forecast. At the worst, we would see an erosion of our ability to forecast.”

The last two weeks show that Trump isn’t likely to reckon with these decisions unless more climate-fueled disasters strike. Only when hurricanes as fierce as Irma and Harvey become the norm might Trump consider improving weather forecasting capabilities. Only when a massively deadly heat wave hits a northern city like Chicago might Trump provide federal help for local resilience. Only if floodwaters ruin billion-dollar fighter jets might Trump realize that the military should prepare for climate risks. But this is backwards policymaking, and it’s endangering countless lives and billions of taxpayer dollars. We know the risks right now. Trump must prepare accordingly, before nature proves him fatally wrong again.