Much of Canada and the American West is afire right this moment, and the air that humans and wildlife are breathing is horrible over an enormous swath of North America because of smoke and particulates. This has of course been in the national news, but Western wildfires have been happening with such frequency every summer that the drama of hurricanes, at least before and during, makes more exciting news stories. As we focus on Irma, the largest, most powerful hurricane ever documented and the unprecedented second Category 4 hurricane to hit the US mainland in a single season, Hurricane Harvey has also receded from front page news far more quickly than the toxins in its receding floodwaters are. USA Today reported on September 5:
Hurricane Harvey didn’t just dump torrential floods on the Gulf Coast, it also muddied the region’s water and air with toxic chemicals, smog-forming pollution and raw sewage, creating the potential for serious health risks.
At least 80 spills from inundated sewage and wastewater systems were reported across Texas as of this week, according to the state’s Commission on Environmental Quality. About 36 industrial facilities reported toxic chemical spills as of late last week, according to an analysis by Environment Texas, an advocacy group. And oil refineries and chemical plants had released nearly 1 million pounds of deadly air pollutants, the Center for Biological Diversity, another advocacy group, said over the weekend. Especially concerning are the high levels of smog-forming pollutants released by the nine oil refineries and hundreds of chemical plants in the Houston area, said Elena Craft, an Austin-based health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. An air-quality monitor in Houston measured 201 parts per billion of ozone pollution, also known as smog, the region’s highest concentration in a decade, she said.
The Environmental Protection Agency considers ozone levels above 200 parts per billion to be extremely unhealthy, meaning “anybody is at risk for adverse health effects … basically everybody breathing,” Craft said.Front page news across the country of course focuses on our primary concern: the human beings in immediate danger as a storm hits. My son Joe lives in Orlando, and his welfare has certainly been my primary concern all weekend. But the time for the national conversation about climate change is NOW—during this huge crisis, even as Irma continues her relentless and destructive onslaught northward into northern Florida, Georgia, and beyond, even as the fires rage, even as Houston tries to clean up.
Climate change deniers—both the political figures who have raked in financial rewards from their fossil fuel friends and the scientifically ignorant sheep on social media—are now saying that it is insensitive to talk about climate change during this crisis. Scott Pruitt, Director of the Environmental Protection Agency, said “To discuss the cause and effect of these storms, there’s the… place (and time) to do that, it’s not now.” But his own agency has excised the very words “climate change” from all their online documents. In this Administration’s view, the time to talk about climate change is never. On September 4 the Washington Post reported that the EPA put:
…a political operative in charge of vetting the hundreds of millions of dollars in grants the EPA distributes annually, assigning final funding decisions to a former Trump campaign aide with little environmental policy experience.
In this role, John Konkus reviews every award the agency gives out, along with every grant solicitation before it is issued. According to both career and political employees, Konkus has told staff that he is on the lookout for “the double C-word” — climate change — and repeatedly has instructed grant officers to eliminate references to the subject in solicitations.This means that the only agency charged with oversight over major pollution events after hurricanes and fires is intentionally tying its hands even as the extreme weather events predicted by Al Gore are reaching such violent levels. We know government can do a great job cleaning our air and water—it sure did in the 1970s when the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were first implemented. But major industries such as the Koch and Mercer empires have been working behind the scenes for decades, trying to “shrink government” and hamstring its agencies from doing their job so the billionaires can continue to hoard the only thing they care about.
The fossil fuel industries, shoreline real estate developers, manufacturing, and other industries that build their facilities where flooding is most likely have invested billions of dollars into misrepresenting climate science. These dark financial empires have succeeded in making climate change suspect in the minds of an increasingly skeptical and cynical populace—a populace not nearly skeptical enough of the money hoarders who have brought our country backwards in science and in the quality of the air and water every one of us needs.
Scott Pruitt is dead wrong. Right this very moment is the time to talk, and the time to act.