ThinkProgress

Trump team politicizes superstorm Harvey by attacking scientists for doing their job

Texas Interstate 69 inundated by Harvey. August 29. CREDIT: AP Photo/David J. Phillip

The Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday rejected climate scientists’ efforts to explain that global warming worsened Harvey’s impacts, calling the explanations “attempts to politicize” the historic flooding in Texas.

The EPA’s cynical statement is not only wrong, it indicates that the Trump administration will fail a critical test for this natural disaster — figuring out how to prevent future such catastrophes.

For several days, climate scientists have been explaining how global warming, while not the “cause” of superstorm Harvey, has worsened it. But on Tuesday, the EPA rejected those explanations, Reuters reported. “EPA is focused on the safety of those affected by Hurricane Harvey and providing emergency response support — not engaging in attempts to politicize an ongoing tragedy,” agency spokeswoman Liz Bowman said.

In fact, explaining cause and effect is a crucial role scientists play in helping us understand and prevent worst-case disasters like Harvey. Science becomes politicized when politicians and others engage in spreading misinformation for political ends, which is precisely what President Donald Trump and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt have been doing all year.

It is basic physics — confirmed by decades of observations — that says global warming puts more moisture into the atmosphere. That moisture then gets swept into superstorms and dropped on coastal communities in deluges. “There is universal agreement” on that fact, MIT climate and hurricane expert Kerry Emanuel told Reuters. “It’s solid physics.”

And it is also basic physics — confirmed by decades of observations — that says global warming raises sea levels, which worsens storm surge. MIT’s Emanuel told the AFP that is a point of near “universal agreement.”

Denying science leaves us literally exposed to the elements. As Reuters notes, just a week before Harvey formed, Trump “signed an executive order revoking an Obama-era rule requiring projects built in coastal floodplains that receive federal aid to account for the impacts of sea-level rise.”

How can we rebuild Houston to give it resilience — how can we prepare for future Harveys and Sandys with their ever-worsening impacts — if the president is actually encouraging building in coastal floodplains without considering sea level rise or the increase in 500-year storms?

The fact is that the EPA, and indeed the entire Trump administration, is focused on “an attempt to politicize an ongoing tragedy.” The ongoing tragedy is climate change, and they are politicizing it by spreading scientific misinformation and by becoming the only country in the world out of 190 signatories to abandon the Paris climate accord, America’s best hope to avoid these catastrophes.

Science helps us prepare for the future, to avoid injury and death. Without science, we can’t forecast or plan, and we need that now more than ever.

Take Harvey’s rapid intensification over the weekend.

“The thing that keeps forecasters up at night is the prospect that a storm will rapidly gain strength just before it hits land,” Emanuel told AFP on Sunday.

In March, Emanuel published an analysis in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society titled, “Will global warming make hurricane forecasting more difficult?

That study projects that “the incidence of storms that intensify rapidly just before landfall could increase substantially by the end of this century, and as rapid intensification is difficult to forecast, there is a risk of an increased frequency of poorly anticipated, high-intensity landfalls, leading to higher rates of injury and death.”

It concludes: “This, coupled with rising sea levels, suggests that greater emphasis be placed on improving hurricane intensity prediction and on preparing populations to respond to high-intensity landfalling hurricanes at short notice.”

The two greatest tests for an Administration in any disaster are 1) how they respond to it and 2) how they work to prevent similar disasters in the future.

The jury is out on the results of the first test, but the Trump administration has already failed the second.