Droughts, Storms, Floods, Fires and the Tea Party

04/08/2013 04:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2013
  • Carl Pope Former executive director and chairman, Sierra Club

My last posting mused about the inability of North Carolina conservatives to demonstrate their alleged commitment to get ready for -- since they won't try to stave off -- climate disruption. But conversations with front-line disaster response officials at the Inaugural Climate Adaptation Summit here unpack even more layers of complexity; wherever the Tea Party is strong, sensible measures to respond to climate change get very tricky.

At one level, local planners in conservative jurisdictions practice the Mike Huckabee gambit. Huckabee, while running for president, parsed climate change as a reality whose cause was secondary to the urgency of response: "Even if the Lord sends a flood, people have to pile up the sandbags." And speaker after speaker here made the point that "I don't worry about the cause of climate change -- people are experiencing it, and they need to get ready."

This works, up to a point. Biloxi, Miss., has included sea level rise in its hazard mitigation planning. In Texas, the legislature is poised to approve an initial $2 billion investment in water conservation and storage projects, acknowledging that Texas now faces a future with less water and more frequent droughts.

But even though the Governors of New York and New Jersey are arguing that post-hurricane Sandy infrastructure repair should be designed to protect communities from the flood next time, it is far from clear whether Congress has given the Federal Emergency Management Agency the needed authority to draw up flood zone maps that take climate into account. And while Governor Chris Christie acted like a real conservative in approving new and tougher flood maps, he is talking in ways that suggest that even these current maps are too "aggressive." In the absence of a clear national policy on taking facts like future sea level rise into account, government may still end up allowing thousands of citizens to be put into harms way, at a public cost of billions. Christie boxed himself in by dismissing the causes of climate change as too hypothetical before Sandy slammed into his state, and now lacks the running room to tell people the hard truth that barriers islands in the Atlantic are no longer a safe place for communities.

And there is an time-bomb ticking inside the "talk climate change to prepare but stay silent on its causes" ploy. It's hard enough to forecast how regional climate will change if you are willing to use the full array of forecasting tools, including climate models. Those, of course, are inextricably based on climate science that accepts the warming impacts of greenhouse pollution. But if you refuse to reference the climate models, then you have no solid basis for saying to planners, "By the way, don't get ready for the last century -- prepare for the next."

So even in the climate adaptation field we are paying a higher and higher price for the climate denial caucus -- and the conservative followers whom the fossil fuel interests (and some developers) have bought for it.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope spent the last 18 years of his career at the Sierra Club as CEO and chairman. He's now the principal advisor at Inside Straight Strategies, looking for the underlying economics that link sustainability and economic development. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber --of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."