Trump administration will waste billions by disregarding science in hurricane recovery

Refusing to factor in projected sea level rise will put those who rebuild at risk.

A flooded Florida home in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. CREDIT: AP/Gerald Herbert
A flooded Florida home in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma. CREDIT: AP/Gerald Herbert

The Trump administration is consciously choosing to reject climate science in its plan to rebuild from superstorms Harvey and Irma. And that means their reconstruction of Houston and Florida will squander billions of taxpayer dollars and put Americans who rebuild at risk in the future.

In stunning remarks during Monday’s White House press briefing, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert told reporters that the administration does not take seriously the “cause” of climate change. “I will tell you that we continue to take seriously the climate change — not the cause of it, but the things that we observe,” Bossert said.

“And so there’s rising flood waters — I think one inch every 10 years in Tampa — things that would require prudent mitigation measures.”

But the problem is that if you don’t take seriously the cause — human activity and carbon pollution from burning fossil fuels — then your rebuilding plan will be blind to the reality that the change is only going to accelerate. Or, I should say, the change is going to continue accelerating since sea level rise is already triple the rate it was in the 1990s.

And so while sea levels are rising about 1 inch per decade right now, which seems manageable, the peer-reviewed draft final report from the top scientists at 13 federal agencies leaked this summer makes clear we are accelerating toward 1 foot per decade in sea level rise in the coming decades.

And this coastal catastrophe becomes vastly more likely as long as the Trump administration is undermining the domestic and global climate action needed to reduce the chances sea level will rise several feet this century.

So when Bossert says, “What President Trump remains committed to is making sure that federal dollars aren’t used to build things that will be in harm’s way later or that won’t be hardened against the future predictable floods that we see,” he is saying that the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which is part of Homeland Security, is going to waste billions of dollars in rebuilding hurricane-ravaged communities in Texas and Florida by ignoring science.

You can’t predict what “harm’s way later” will be or what the “the future predictable floods” might look like if you reject climate science and the human role in speeding up climate change.

But after months of rejecting climate science and dismantling climate action, Trump officials have worked themselves into an intractable position regarding the reason Harvey and Irma were so intense and how they can help communities prepare for such events in the future. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt went as far as to criticize scientists last week for discussing “the cause and effect of these storms,” saying that “to use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.”

FEMA’s “mission is to ensure that as a nation we work together to build, sustain and improve our capability to prepare for, protect against, respond to, recover from and mitigate all hazards.” But until and unless rebuilding in coastal areas is based on actual climate science, FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security will be failing utterly at this mission, risking life and property by building inadequately designed structures in the wrong places.

Climate change remains the single greatest preventable threat to the security of our homeland. The Trump administration’s climate science denial is making all Americans less safe, less prepared, and less protected from future hazards.