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18 November 2017 10:33 (South Africa)
World

Letter from Trumpland: Will the Irma & Harvey tag team drown US climate denial?

  • Glen Retief
    Glen Retief

    Glen Retief is an Associate Professor of nonfiction writing at Susquehanna University. His The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood won a Lambda Literary Award.

  • World
Photo: A handout image provided by the Air National Guard shows an aerial view showing extensive flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in a residential area in Southeast Texas, USA, 31 August, 2017 (issued 01 September 2017). EPA-EFE/Staff Sgt. Daniel Martinez

Worst, biggest, wettest, hottest, costliest. Will a forest of climate superlatives force the world’s largest per-capita climate polluter to reconsider its increasingly bizarre-looking policy of official climate denial? By GLEN RETIEF.

As Florida declares a state of emergency, bracing for the possible impact from Category 4 Hurricane Irma, we in America remain drenched in images of the catastrophic damage wrought by Hurricane Harvey, the worst rainfall event ever to be recorded in the continental United States.

Over the past week, we saw kayakers struggling past a stop sign on a paved bayou. Cars got abandoned in impromptu lakes; the internet abounded in abandoned wet dogs and drowning cats. Texas Governor Greg Abbott estimated the damage at $180-billion, comparable to the world’s most expensive storm, Hurricane Katrina.

Nor was Harvey the week’s biggest weather news, even before Irma made her ominous appearance. As Donald Trump urged survivors in a Houston shelter to “have a good time”, UNICEF reported 16-million children and their families in imminent need of live-saving support in South Asia, where monsoon floods have left a third of Bangladesh under water.

Having finally shrugged off its most parched drought since the dust-bowl 1930s, cool, breezy San Francisco recorded its hottest-ever temperature on Friday, an astounding 41 Celcius in the shade.

Worst, biggest, wettest, hottest, costliest. Will a forest of climate superlatives force the world’s largest per-capita climate polluter to reconsider its increasingly bizarre-looking policy of official climate denial? From the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords to the rescinding of standards requiring that federally funded infrastructure in flood plains bear in mind climate change, the current administration’s hallmark policy has been to pretend that global warming is not a serious problem.

The question has real consequences for South Africa, which faces projected warming of 5-8° C over its own interior by 2050, along with fiercer storms and longer droughts.

Early post-Harvey signs do not seem hopeful. This week Myron Ebell, manager of Trump’s transition team at the Environmental Protection Agency, commented, by way of deflecting concerns that the unusually warm water in the Gulf of Mexico had intensified Harvey’s rainfall, that the previous decade brought few large hurricanes to US shores.

This claim, like so many made by climate sceptics, is true but misleading. Climate science does not, in fact, predict more frequent tropical cyclones, but rather more intense ones. And on that score, the supposedly calm 2010s brought us the two most severe storms ever measured, Haiyan and Patricia.

Once a year, I make a trip to Washington DC to visit the offices of both Democratic and Republican legislators. There, in plush offices lined with photographs of the representatives’ home districts, I join other citizen volunteers to lobby for carbon-fee-and-dividend, a free-market climate solution favoured by conservatives.

One thing is clear from these visits. Privately, few Republicans doubt either the reality of anthropogenic climate change or the need for mitigation and adaptation. Indeed, according to Politico, Trump himself cited global warming in a 2013 permit application to build a sea wall around one of his golf courses in Ireland.

Nor does a carbon tax, fully refunded to taxpayers, seem economically unattractive. A well-known economic modelling firm, Regional Economic Models, Inc, predicted in 2013 that the health benefits of reduced atmospheric smoke due to a revenue-neutral carbon tax would stimulate productivity, thus adding 2.3-million US jobs over 20 years.

The problem, rather, is political. With beliefs about climate change so fiercely partisan, any Republican sticking her head out ahead of the crowd risks facing a primary election where she gets demonised as a “watermelon”, green on the outside, socialist-red within.

Still, 26 Republican Representatives have joined the Climate Solutions Caucus in the past year and a half, indicating an appetite for truthful debate about the pros and cons of change rather than knee-jerk dismissal of reform.

Meantime, even in my home turf of sleepy, green rural Pennsylvania, the Earth’s changes manifest.

I have two Amish friends, Marvin and Katie, an elderly couple with horse-and-buggie, Bibles, and vegetable garden, from whom I buy eggs, milk, and produce.

Knee high by the fourth of July,” I joke with the two of them on a recent summer Saturday, pointing to their mealie crop, higher than either of our heads. North American sweetcorn, a marvel of nature, leaves green as pine needles, cobs full of sugary goodness.

An old farming adage in these parts, the words mean that by the nation’s birthday, when fireworks crackle across the night sky and families take to the parks with their hamburgers and hot dogs, your corn should be as high as your knees, or else you can expect a failed harvest by the time frost arrives in late October.

I suspect Marvin and Katie, with their eighth grade educations and their separation from television, internet and newspapers, have only the haziest notions of carbon dioxide and radiative forcing, or of the atmospheric half life of the methane produced by their cows.

Still, as Jesus might have said, they have eyes and ears in their heads. They see; hear.

Oh, I don’t think that’s been true for 20 years,” says Katie. She throws back her head and gives a full-throated laugh. “Today it’s at least shoulder high by the fourth of July, and then the leaves turn later, too, in the fall. Everything is getting warmer.”

How much further will we Americans, Chinese, and South Africans heat her world? How much are we willing to bet on the experiment?

How many Houstons and Bangladeshes? On 7 January 2016 even Oom Schalk Lourens’ fictional stoep in Groot Marico logged in at 45 Celsius, the highest temperature ever recorded in the town whose hot summer afternoons Herman Charles Bosman made famous from the 1940s onwards.

Oom Schalk frequently made fun of heat and drought, and human behaviour in the midst of them. “By the earnest manner in which the farmers of the Marico ask me for stories, I am always able to tell ... the pump handle is heavy,” he joked. But add the IPCC’s projected eight degrees to 45C, and the resultant heat may be simply too much for human survival.

In a sense climate change today is Oom Schalk’s proverbial leopard waiting for us in the withaak’s shade. Like the old uncle’s fool, we endlessly count this creature’s spots – IPCC reports; ice cap measurements.

Meanwhile, what is really being asked of us is probably a much simpler reaction: to do, as Oom Schalk advised his listeners, the only kind of running suitable for spotting a leopard—the fastest kind. A sprint towards stabilisation policies for the climate on which we depend for our existence itself. DM

Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood, won a Lambda Literary Award. He teaches creative nonfiction at Susquehanna University.

Photo: A handout image provided by the Air National Guard shows an aerial view showing extensive flooding caused by Hurricane Harvey in a residential area in Southeast Texas, USA, 31 August, 2017 (issued 01 September 2017). EPA-EFE/Staff Sgt. Daniel Martinez

  • Glen Retief
    Glen Retief

    Glen Retief is an Associate Professor of nonfiction writing at Susquehanna University. His The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood won a Lambda Literary Award.

  • World

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