As Americans have watched the flooding of Houston and the fierce advance of Irma, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, the foundations of conservative policies are giving way to a renewed respect for science and a stronger appreciation for the role of the federal government.
Consider how a few weeks of weather disasters have changed the perception of these key issues:
Climate change. A hard rain is falling on climate change deniers. They still gamely note that two hurricanes do not a global calamity prove, and that’s a valid point. But scientists say rising ocean temperatures increased the scale of rainfall from Harvey and the size and power of Irma. After witnessing these storm events, more Americans are inclined to agree that something is up with the weather. The danger of denying humans’ role in changing the atmosphere through the burning of fossil fuels is now vivid. President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord was unpopular at the time. It now looks reckless. Meanwhile, the Koch brothers and others in the fossil fuel lobby have seen their credibility and clout further diminished.
Immigration. Just days before Hurricane Harvey made landfall, President Trump was in Arizona ranting about building his wall. Two weeks later, he sent Attorney General Jeff Sessions out to declare an end to DACA and to repeat the conservative vow to purge the nation of “illegal aliens.” Both building the wall and ending DACA were unpopular ideas before the storms, but now mass deportations and walling off the southern border seem even more foolish. With tens of billions of federal dollars going to storm relief, who wants to spend billions of dollars more on the useless infrastructure of a 2,000-mile border wall? And now an army of laborers will be needed to make repairs in Texas, Florida and other states. Mustering that workforce will require hiring many undocumented workers, the very people Trump and Sessions want to seal out or kick out.
Taxation. Texas and Florida have strong anti-tax streaks. Both do not have a state income tax and their Republican-dominated congressional delegations favor reduced spending on safety-net programs and tax cuts, mostly benefiting the wealthy and corporations. But as both states line up for massive outlays in federal assistance, it will be hard to maintain their campaign against “takers.” No one expects a complete change of perspective. As the Dallas Morning News put it, “Resenting the federal government is as Texan as wearing cowboy boots.” And Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, now knee-deep in hypocrisy after opposing aid to the Northeast after Superstorm Sandy, but voting for hurricane recovery funds for Texas, won’t become a liberal. But the anti-tax fervor will be cooled by the evidence of federal funds providing direct support to Floridians and Texans in need.
Zoning and environmental regulation. Hurricane Harvey would have flooded any city, but flooding was intensified in Houston by poor planning, a lack of zoning and a political culture that put real-estate developers ahead of the city’s long-term interests. Housing developments were built on flood plains and proposals for preserving open space to control flooding were not carried out. The city has too much impervious surface and an inadequate stormwater drainage system. In Florida, planning and zoning are likewise lacking. The short-sighted expansion of Florida’s shoreline development in recent decades will greatly increase the cost of damages from Hurricane Irma. Meanwhile, the pollution caused or unleashed by the two storms shows the importance of the environmental regulations that Trump and EPA head Scott Pruitt have been attacking and eliminating. In Houston, flooded Superfund sites and flooded refineries mixed toxic waste and chemical supplies into the flood waters. The two hurricanes won’t convert the build-first-worry-later culture of Texas and Florida, but the scenes of flooding and devastation will argue for the value of zoning and tight regulation of waste disposal and chemical storage.
Washington politics. The pressure of these two storms may have broken through Washington’s political gridlock. After Houston flooded and as Florida braced for a direct hit from Irma, Trump made a deal with Democrats to get the gears of legislation turning to help states in distress. Trump’s agreement with Democratic leaders stunned and angered his fellow Republicans. But the move was generally popular and revealed a new path for Trump to gets things done by going around the squabbling and legislatively paralyzed Republicans in Congress.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com