Twelve years ago today, a storm called Katrina made landfall on the Louisiana coast, and exposed for all time a simple and brutal truth: Our unfolding climate catastrophe, clearly visible even then, is rooted in social and economic inequalities that render most vulnerable the most marginalized and powerless. It showed us that the storms of this century, in both causes and deadly effects, are inescapably political—as much about our democracy as about the changes wrought upon our atmosphere. (Note to those in the media: It’s not “politicizing” a tragedy to point out that the causes of the tragedy, and responses to it, are deeply political.)
It’s with this in mind that Donald Trump’s pardon, on Friday, of former sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona—even as the Category 4 hurricane known as Harvey was bearing down on the Texas coast—stands as an indelible image of the way our political and climate catastrophes now converge in real time. The unmistakable message, a president explicitly siding with militant white nationalism against the Constitution and the rule of law, coincided with news from Texas that Border Patrol checkpoints would remain in operation despite the storm. This raised the prospect of undocumented persons, fearful of law enforcement, choosing between deportation and drowning. If you want a glimpse of how Trump’s America will handle climate disruption and waves of internal climate refugees, beginning right about now, consider Arpaio’s pardon and all it represents.
Much of Houston now stands under feet of water, with the rains still coming, a predicted 50 inches in places before this storm is done. The National Weather Service calls the event “unprecedented,” its impacts “beyond anything experienced”—while climate scientists like Pennsylvania State University’s Michael Mann inform us, as they have for years, that such cataclysmic downpours are to be expected in a warming world. Soon the damage in Houston will begin to be assessed—the lives lost, the property and infrastructure destroyed, the homes, businesses, and livelihoods washed away. But the human catastrophe began long before the storm.
Decades of neglect, inequality, and disenfranchisement—to say nothing of heedless development and a lack of flood planning tantamount to criminal negligence—mean that Houstonians of all backgrounds, but especially the poorest and most vulnerable communities, primarily communities of color, have been left utterly undefended. As I’ve reported in this magazine, communities adjacent to the refineries and petrochemical plants on the Houston Ship Channel—the largest refining and petrochemical complex in the country—and along the Texas coast from Corpus Christi to Port Arthur, are exposed not only to deadly air pollutants every day but also to the threat of massive toxic releases as flood waters rage.