Weathering the Storm: Environmentalism, Harvey, and Climate Change

My heart aches for Houston. The arrival of hurricane Harvey over the weekend has dumped trillions of gallons of water onto the city and much of the gulf coast of Texas, turning highways into rivers.

I’ve lived through a hurricane. I was seven when Andrew swept through Florida. My family evacuated to a motel in Fort Myers, thankfully on the other coast of the peninsula, away from the hard-hit Miami area. I was recovering from surgery. As I tried to peel off my bandages, I watched as streetlights and palm trees swayed and bent in the wind and rain.

My childhood experience left me predisposed to help those weathering the storm, and was certainly a contributor to my personal theory of environmentalism. In college, my school organized a relief effort to help those affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and I didn’t hesitate. Cleanup was hot, sweaty work. I still remember the smell of decaying wood, mold growth, and bleach, as we cleared out debris from people’s homes.

Storm after storm, I watch in enraptured dread. I pray, I donate, I try to move on when thousands, if not millions, live with the consequences.

Climate change is real, and one of its more dramatic effects is the increased frequency and intensity of tropical cyclones. Living on the gulf coast, this isn’t just theory for me. This is a consequence of how industry has developed the past two centuries, like an ancestral curse on mine and future generations.

Harvey has come at the worst possible time, during the tenure of President Trump, the most incompetent administration since Hoover (if not earlier), one which denies the science behind why this storm was so much worse than usual.

I graduated with a major in Environmental Studies and a concentration in Environmental Policy. Basically, I studied how political theory interacts with environmental movements, resulting in policies rooted in various worldviews. Carbon-tax credits for free market capitalists. Regulations intended to “internalize externalities,” meaning turning incalculable costs like air pollution into tangible ones like fines. I learned how all levels of government can, and ways that it potentially could, protect the environment.

But the contemporary political climate has rendered a lot of my education moot. The science is the same, but the politics make some faulty assumptions.

  1. Policy-driven environmental protection presupposes cogent political thought for those in power. But the driving force behind the current presidential administration is “screw the last guy,” which results in a fractured, self-contradictory platform. It wants to ignore climate change, but also wants to protect American interests, so it builds a wall around the southern border but not seawalls around coastal cities.

  2. Any policy-driven action requires a fully staffed, competent bureaucracy and the good faith of political actors. So even if the administration took up some half-hearted environmental policy, it wouldn’t have the labor force to enact it, and all of its stakeholders have conflicts of interest that would lead them to sabotage any such efforts.

  3. Policy often takes years to have any meaningful effect, yet such is the turnover of presidential staff and the short attention span of Trump that there might be an executive order one year that is countermanded the next.

  4. Policymakers must have the political authority to enact it without interference. Some state could pass state legislation that, for example, forbids the sale of internal combustion engines within its borders, but the administration could withdraw federal funds in retaliation. This administration has already set such a precedent on how it’s dealing with the “sanctuary city” movement.

My political education has become obsolete in the time of Trump.

If there’s an answer, I think it lies in the #resistance.

No political party can spearhead this. Party organizations are concerned about self-preservation, pushing and pulling the Overton Window left and right to continue to get votes. The Republicans, at this point, are the authoritarian party. The Democrats have shown a willingness to abandon principles in pursuit of wins, ignoring the fraught political landscape that led to this mess in the first place. Smaller parties have a variety of issues that I won’t get into today.

However, activism has surged since the election, and it is showing real results. Protests shed light on issues by drawing media attention. If it weren’t for the protesters in airports acting against the “Muslim ban” in January, it could have passed quietly, but instead it drew ire. Angry town-hall meetings were a big reason why the repeal of Obamacare failed. Protests are scaring politicians because they’re showing the rank hypocrisy that they survive on.

But that’s as far as my political theory gets me. I’m still stuck in twentieth-century notions of statecraft and the role of government. Most of what I learned isn’t going to work in a post-Trump world, and I’ll have to change my own notions of what can be accomplished. My own political orientation has shifted dramatically this year, which I’ll write about some other time. Regardless, the solutions for addressing climate change in Trump’s America are going to require creativity, lateral thinking, and courage.

There will be other storms like Harvey, and they will hit sooner rather than later.

Send love. Donate. Volunteer. Fight.

Here’s a list of ways you can help Harvey survivors.