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Hurricane Harvey, Joe Arpaio and the battle for America's soul

Unnatural disasters



As I write this on Sunday afternoon, horrific scenes of utter devastation in Houston are filling my television and social media timelines. These sorts of "unprecedented" events, experts tell us, will become more and more commonplace as the climate changes and the waters warm, producing stronger and stronger hurricanes. I wonder how long it will be until a storm like Harvey strikes Florida. Next month? Next year? That it will happen is inevitable; the only question is when, and how bad. Will Miami, which is all too vulnerable to flooding, find itself underwater, the same as Houston today, the same as New Orleans a decade ago?

In Harvey, our country's indifference to the great challenge of our age – manifested most recently in the Trump administration's intention to end the Clean Power Plan and withdraw from the landmark Paris climate agreement – has come back to bite us. Fifty inches of rainfall, the most in Texas history. Trucks stranded on the highway. Homes and businesses ruined. Seniors trapped in nursing homes.

"The breadth and intensity of this rainfall are beyond anything experienced before," the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center tweeted Sunday. Not anything we've experienced before, sure, but a tragedy we will almost certainly experience again.

As Houston rebuilds and friends and families bury their dead, Harvey should serve as a reminder of this clear and present danger – one that, as bad as things are right now in Texas, will affect the developing world on an existential level: deadly heat waves, famine, flooding. We know what the future holds; Houston is only a taste. But still, we don't bother doing anything about it, because doing something about it is too complicated, too difficult, too burdensome to the special interests lining politicians' pockets.

There's been a lot of depressing news over the last few weeks. But I think the realization that addressing the global calamity before us is simply too difficult is probably the most disheartening. Instead of taking long-overdue action, we stick our heads in the sand and try to pretend the problem doesn't exist.

On Sunday morning, The Atlantic published an op-ed by Joe Biden, in which the former vice president lamented, "We are living through a battle for the soul of this nation." He wasn't writing about Hurricane Harvey, of course, but rather the brazen outbreaks of white supremacy that have been shamefully aided and abetted by the coward-in-chief. But it occurs to me that, just as much as whether we collectively denounce the forces of hatred, this too is part and parcel of the battle for our nation's soul. Will we be a country that owns up to our responsibilities as a carbon polluter, that recognizes that doing nothing is tantamount to complicity in the deaths and dislocation of millions of people? Or will we be a country that callously shirks its duty?

President Trump has made his ennui clear. But as the flailing president travels to Texas this week for a photo op, we shouldn't forget that his policies will only produce more of this desolation. And as members of Congress vote to approve emergency funding for Houston – as they should – we shouldn't forget that too many of them deny the basic science of climate change while padding their coffers with lucre from the fossil fuel industry. (Looking at you, Marco "Not a Scientist, Man" Rubio.)

I'd be remiss if I didn't take quick note of other recent outrages, the ones Biden was referring to: Trump refusing to condemn the white supremacists in Charlottesville, then pardoning the racist former sheriff Joe Arpaio as Harvey bore down on the Texas coast, a Friday-night news dump that served as a slap in the face to both the Hispanic communities in Arizona that Arpaio gleefully terrorized as well as all those who care about the rule of law. (Arpaio, it's worth noting, was convicted of ignoring a federal judge's order to stop unconstitutionally profiling Latinos; his pardon sends a clear message to Trump acolytes who may find themselves facing court orders in the Russia investigation.)

Then on Sunday, NBC News reported that the administration will soon end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, President Obama's signature immigration policy. No longer will those whose parents brought them to America illegally be protected from deportation; instead, the government wants to ship them back to countries that are often entirely foreign to them. It's another callous sop to Trump's shrinking base and a coldhearted move that seems more tied to Trump's desire to expunge Obama's legacy that any actual policy goal.

Biden's right. This is a battle for the American soul, and a constant reminder that decency and equality and human dignity are worth fighting for. But so too is the fight against climate change – which, though less visceral than the neo-Nazis who've found a champion in Donald Trump, will have far greater ramifications for our posterity.

Houston is only the beginning.


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