In August 2016, months after Houston had been hit by the second of two back-to-back “hundred year floods,” Mike Talbott, then the head of Houston’s flood control district, told The Texas Tribune and ProPublica that he still had no plans to study climate change or its potential impacts on the county — Harris, the third-largest in the nation — that he was charged with protecting. Talbott criticized scientists for being “anti-development,” and not only ignored but denigrated studies — even those conducted by his own department, one of which he called “absurd” — that suggested development was worsening flooding, or that urged him to leave prairies intact to absorb floodwaters. When the Tribune told Talbott that a host of scientific experts had said the contrary, his reply was blunt.
“You need to find some better experts,” he said. When asked for names, the Tribune reported, Talbott would only say, “starting here, with me.”
Almost exactly one year later, Harvey made landfall.
Hurricane Harvey has drowned the paved, populous sprawl of Houston to an extent that, to most Americans, is all but inconceivable. Our fourth-largest city is now a sunken, subdivided ghost ship. Tens of billions of dollars of damage done. Countless homes, the vast majority uninsured, lost. Thirty-eight people killed (so far).
In such a storm’s wake, we are often reminded that it’s time to band together, to persevere, and to rebuild. Now we are also reminded, correctly, that this is what climate change looks like. These are the two guiding mantras of modern natural disaster recovery: Come together; global warming is here and now and we'd best get to work. Neither is sufficient.
We are not as often reminded that homes and lives may have been saved if officials and policymakers had incorporated the recommendations of sound science in their outlook and preparedness plans. Which is why we need to add a third response to our evolving national post-catastrophic storm mourning ritual: Identifying and investigating the negligent officials who put the public in harm's way by repeatedly ignoring crucial data and scientific evidence that can help prevent disaster.
Scientists knew a disaster like Harvey was coming. Those in power who refused to listen — who refused to use the best available data to do their jobs of protecting their constituents from disaster — should be held accountable. Mike Talbott’s department could have acted on sound evidence and saved lives. They did not. They repeatedly favored development over public safety, going so far as to allow 7,000 homes to be built in low-lying, flood-vulnerable areas since 2010. It is impossible to determine how many have died as a result of any official's refusal to appropriately prepare the city for disaster, but there is little doubt some of the blame for the scale of this calamity is theirs. The Washington Post generously calls it “ignorance.” But it's high time to start taking this pointed refusal to prepare, this refusal to observe the basic tenets of science seriously — and call it what it is: Negligence. Criminal negligence, even.
Climate change denial can and will leave people dead.
According to the Texas penal code, “A person acts with criminal negligence, or is criminally negligent… when he ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise....”
The list of ways in which Talbott and his office should have been aware of the substantial risk of ignoring a robust body of scientific evidence, at the tragic expense of the people of Houston, is stunning. As a climate change skeptic, Talbott, who is trained not as a scientist but as an engineer, refused to consider projections of rising sea levels and heavier rainfall. He let developers pour concrete over prairielands that used to soak up that rainfall, exacerbating flooding. He refused to acknowledge that constructing elevated buildings in a floodplain was probably redirecting floods elsewhere. All of the above led to a sharp rise in complaints from increasingly flooded homeowners, activists, and scientists. Instead of preparing Houston for a climate-changed, flood-prone era, Mike Talbott and his office helped it evolve into a deadly urban aquarium waiting to happen.
This sort of science-denying recklessness is happening all over the country, in various guises, and many more lives are in danger.
In 2012, North Carolina’s Coastal Commission released a scientific report projecting a sea level rise of 39 inches along the state’s shores over the course of the coming century. It was an alarming finding that would require major planning in order to protect the state’s many coastal residents. Instead, North Carolina legislators responded by passing a law that, as ABC News put it, “will ban the state from basing coastal policies on the latest scientific predictions of how much the sea level will rise.”
The motive of the maneuver was thinly veiled. Coastal real estate values would plummet if the properties for sale were eroding into the ocean, after all. The bill was drafted by the Republican Pat McElraft, a former real estate broker whose biggest donors were, surprise, in real estate. Key advocates for the bill included outspoken climate change denier John Droz and Tom Thompson, who led NC-20, a group that advocated for economic development on North Carolina’s coastline — and, surprise again, another climate change denier. He told a North Carolina-based paper, the INDY, that it would cost coastal communities millions to prepare for the rise, which he didn't believe was going to happen: "It will be a miracle if the sea level rise reaches 39 inches. If we wait and see, then it costs nothing. If they're right, then fine."
This reasoning — carrying out preventative measures would be expensive and prohibitive to development, so let’s wait and see; if people’s homes ultimately fall into the sea, “then fine” — echoes Talbott’s at Houston flood control. It’s all too common — as the Texas Representative Joe Barton once said of climate change, “If it gets hot, we get shade.”
After the bill was widely mocked, most notably on The Colbert Report, the policy was eventually amended with a compromise: North Carolina would look to the future of sea level rise, but no more than 30 years. Sea levels are rising on coastlines between North Carolina and Massachusetts, after all, faster than anywhere in the world, according to actual reputable science. Homes in North Carolina’s Outer Banks are already literally falling into the sea, meaning the state-sponsored disinformation campaign is putting residents in very real danger. Again, this is how climate denial manifests as gross negligence.
On a more general level, climate change denial, famously sponsored by fossil fuel companies like Exxon and advocated by GOP strategists like Frank Luntz, has impeded sound policy for decades. But in the Tea Party era of 2009, it exploded into a mandatory Republican tribal belief. (As recently as 2008, Republican presidential candidate John McCain ran on a platform calling for carbon pricing and fighting global warming, and Newt Gingrich taped an ad with Nancy Pelosi urging bipartisan action on climate change.)
Accordingly, in 2015, Texas senator Ted Cruz told NPR that “Climate change is the perfect pseudoscientific theory for a big government politician who wants more power.” Like many in his party, he thinks it’s a hoax. Yet in reality, obviously, climate change is an existential threat to residents of his home state not only in the form of hurricanes, but from plights like heat waves, too. A study published in Science found that for every degree Celsius that temperatures rise, the nation will see roughly five and a half more heat deaths per 100,000 people. In poorer counties in the South, in states like Florida and Texas, the stats jump to 20-40 deaths per 100,000. It’s not hard to see how Cruz’s position, and that of others in his camp, is heinously immoral and irresponsible.
Yet we seem to have located few tools of recourse against officials who ignore sound science and imperil their citizenry. Maybe we should find them negligent.
One of the earliest cases of negligence in the U.S. was built on sinking ships.
In 1947, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company leased a barge to ship U.S.-owned flour from the New York Harbor on the Anna C. It was docked when the Carroll Holding Company sent one of its tugs to retrieve another barge. Anna C was accidentally cut loose and sunk, and the U.S. sued the CHC for negligence.
The judge ruled in favor of the United States: “Since there are occasions when every vessel will break from her moorings, and since, if she does, she becomes a menace to those about her; the owner’s duty, as in other similar situations, to provide against resulting injuries is a function of three variables: (1) The probability that she will break away; (2) the gravity of the resulting injury, if she does; (3) the burden of adequate precautions,” he wrote.
The decision yielded the Hand Test for determining negligence, and would be a standard used for some time: “If B < PL, then there will be negligence liability for the party with the burden of taking precautions,” according to Cornell Law, where:
B = burden of taking precautions
P = probability of loss
L = gravity of loss (gravity of the personal loss, not social loss)
In the case of climate change, which just so happens to be breaking many vessels from their moorings, B is perhaps not granting unrestrained development, while pursuing policies like reducing carbon emissions and preserving green spaces. P is near certitude. L is truly massive.
B < PL.
Denying that human activity is warming the globe has been treated in our media and general discourse as a reasonably valid, if crude, political opinion — not an outright, immediately disqualifying falsehood contrary to mountains of scientific evidence accrued over decades of painstaking inquiry. Not a poisonous fiction that sits contrary to a robust body of science that contributes to our understanding of the physical world, and contrary to a field that is crucial to adapting to a meteorologically hostile future. Not a lie that kills people.
If you’ve watched any given Congressional hearing on climate change over the last ten years, you’ll see this principle in action — behold a poor, bespectacled climate scientist diligently explaining the urgent details of atmospheric warming to sneering conservatives, who smugly retort with a talking point lifted from Fox News. They ignore meticulously documented warning after warning after warning. There is no cost, no consequence to this behavior; they’re cheered for it.
I hope Harvey is a lightning rod that makes this clear: Climate change denial can and will leave people dead. It has never been more evident than now that it is not only scientifically wrongheaded but dangerously and morally abject.
When a family of six drowns in the wake of flooding that could have been seriously mitigated, we blame mostly ill fate. But there are faces to this blame, and naming them will help us better and more seriously prepare for a more calamitous future—instilling the specter of consequence may be the only way to break the current cycle of ignorance and denial. But those faces reside not just in Houston, but city halls, state governments, Congress, and, of course, the White House.
Just days before Harvey hit, as has been noted widely, Trump revoked Obama-era regulations that required developers to take flood risk into account. Because of course he did. Trump, as we know, does not believe in climate change, either. And we might use the climate denying officials who exacerbate rather than mitigate disaster in Houston and North Carolina as an indicator of the kind of damage Trump could impart with his own aggressive, virulent, and attention-seeking strain of climate change denial.
If there’s anything we know about Trump’s concrete feelings on climate policy at all, it’s that he loves coal and coal miners and he really  hates wind  turbines. He once said climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. His EPA is, in effect, striving to dissolve itself; its most recent public act was chastising climate scientists for talking about climate science in public, in the wake of Harvey — doing their jobs, basically. Suffice to say Trump, buoyed by his inert baseline climate denial, will continue to try to dismantle Obama’s climate progress, out of prodding by fossil fuel interests, and out of spite. This, while the US Global Change Research Program projects that there will be “an increase of thousands to tens of thousands of premature heat-related deaths in the summer” each year by 2100. Trump is also in the process of pulling out of the Paris Accord, the best effort the world had been able to cobble together to slow the rising temperatures. This might be a good time to note that the World Health Organization estimates that climate change will cause an additional 250,000 deaths per year beginning in 2030. And that’s a fairly conservative estimate. Trump’s climate negligence is a prime factor in dooming those souls.
Obviously, climate change is fueled by many sources, and is made such a “wicked problem,” as scientists, analysts and even the World Bank have termed it, by its vast complexity. There is a vast universe of contributors, from fossil fuel companies to consumers, and there’s plenty of blame to go around. The coming tragedies it will inflict don’t begin or end with the likes of Trump, Talbott, Cruz, or McElraft, but they are the ones who are ostensibly responsible for acting in the public interest while discounting the facts that would allow them to do so. The science is too clear about what will happen in the near-term to continue to allow profiteers and ideologues to place the public in danger without consequence. Climate change is killing us right now, as Emily Atkin has noted—and a relatively small pool of negligent technocrats and strivers are preventing us from taking action to waylay it.
The science is too clear about what will happen in the near-term to continue to allow profiteers and ideologues to place the public in danger without consequence.
Talbott retired from his post as chief of flood control at the end of 2016. His successor, Russ Poppe, shares his stances. The Houston Press found that out the hard way, when one of its reporters asked him about climate change, and whether it is contributing to increased frequency of major rain events. Poppe said, "If there’s climate change data that exists showing that the rainfall amounts we use to design our projects are wrong or need to be adjusted, I have yet to see it."
That was mere months before Harvey.
The enormity of that storm, the epic scale of its tragedy, the organic wrath of its winds, rains, and floods, and our penchant for carving heroic man vs nature narratives out of the rubble make the notion of assigning specific blame feel unthinkable. This storm was a force of nature, a capital T tragedy—who can you blame for something like that? Not only does it seem impossible, given its scale, but petty, even insensitive. Hurricanes happen.
And that’s one reason more and more people will keep dying in them. We refuse to hold the negligent accountable. We refuse to strike back with adequate force at the toxic climate denial that corrupts our public policies. There’s hope—a coalition of flooded homeowners sued Houston in 2016, alleging negligence. More should follow suit after Harvey.
The burden of precaution may at times be made to seem high—it may seem expensive and time-consuming to engage and heed scientific guidance, but it’s nothing compared to the probability and gravity of coming loss. B < PL. It’s not even close.