United States: Candidates debate climate crisis, Trump fails hurricane victims

September 13, 2019
Hurrican Dorian devastated the Bahamas in September.

Hurricane Dorian hit the Bahamas, a small nation on a series of islands east and south of Florida, as a category five storm with nearly 300kph winds. It stalled there for two days as a category four storm, destroying more than 13,000 homes.

Storm surges and heavy rains added to the carnage. Scenes of the destruction have been shown on TV across the world.

It is not known how many people lie dead under the wreckage, but hundreds, maybe more, are unaccounted for. The death toll, which was 2500 at the latest count, is expected to rise.

This was the backdrop for a CNN special, where the top 10 Democratic Party presidential candidates were interviewed on the subject of climate change. The Democratic National Committee (DNC), which organises the debates, had previously rejected holding one on the subject.

Before discussing what the Democratic candidates said, it is useful to go over President Donald Trump’s reaction to Hurricane Dorian and his environmental record.

At first Trump said he had never heard of a category five hurricane, and questioned its existence.

Then, while the Bahamas were being flattened, he sought to divert the discussion with a bizarre prediction that the state of Alabama would be hit. This was in the face of United States and European weather services projections that the hurricane would graze the east coast of the US, and head north, which it did.

While it weakened and didn’t make a direct hit, Dorian created large storm surges, heavy rains, flooding and wind damage as it moved up the coast.

Trump’s climate denialism

Bizarrely, Trump did not admit his weather forecasting was wrong, and has continued to insist that Alabama was in danger of being hit by the hurricane.

To buttress Trump’s assertion, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross threatened to sack the scientists who contradicted Trump.

This led the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – which the National Weather Service is part of -- to issue a statement “disavowing the National Weather Service’s position that Alabama was not at risk,” according to the New York Times.

Why does Trump continue with all this?

First, he insists on personal loyalty at all levels of government. No agency has the right to contradict him. Secondly, he wants to change the subject from dealing with the catastrophic destruction of the Bahamas. Thirdly, he wants to cast doubt on scientists who say climate change is real.

Trump, as candidate and then as president, has insisted that climate change and global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels is a hoax perpetrated by China.

He does this to justify his campaign to further unleash the fossil fuel industry. Using the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Trump is systematically repealing regulations on the industry which curtail (albeit minimally) greenhouse gas emissions.

Trump’s EPA should be renamed the Environmental Destruction Agency for its drive to repeal these regulations and other environmental protections.

Trump’s response to the Bahamas is nowhere near commensurate with the need. A major mobilisation of material and human resources by the US is required to clean up and help the islands rebuild. Aside from some help provided by the US Coast Guard, this is not happening or even being contemplated.

Hundreds of Bahamian survivors have asked for temporary asylum in the US to help them rebuild their lives. Trump has refused, using the same racist charges he uses against asylum seekers at the Mexican border: they are “criminals”, “gangsters”, or “drug dealers”, according to Trump.

Moreover, they are largely people with black skins.

Trump’s attitude toward brown-skinned people is evident at the Mexican border, as well as in his deliberate failure to provide adequate aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the US colony in 2017.

Trump’s pressure is evident on the media coverage of Dorian.

Television meteorologists told us that Dorian rapidly increased from a tropical storm into a Category 5 hurricane, due to warm ocean temperatures. However, in almost all broadcasts they refused to say that this was related to global warming.

The phrases “global warming” and “climate change” were barely ever mentioned in the coverage of Dorian.

Fracking, nuclear — no solution

Unlike Trump, the Democratic candidates interviewed by CNN acknowledged that climate change is real and is an existential threat to the US and human civilisation.

Coal burning wasn’t discussed much, as that industry is in decline in the US. Most candidates wanted to put a moratorium on new oil and gas leases. Differences emerged over gas (particularly methane), however.

Bernie Sanders called for a ban on fracking for gas — an industry that thrived under President Barack Obama. Sanders’ position was supported by Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Others were not sure.

Joe Biden, the preferred candidate of the Democratic establishment, was opposed to a ban.

Some candidates supported nuclear power as part of the solution, and others equivocated. Bernie Sanders flatly opposed it, saying:  “It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me to add more dangerous waste to this country and the world when we don’t know how to get rid of what we have now.”

The major long-term danger of nuclear power is that its waste is highly radioactive and stays radioactive for hundreds of thousands of years, posing a cumulative danger for future generations.

There is also the danger of catastrophic incidents, the most recent being the meltdown at the Fukishima reactors in Japan.

Sanders was the only candidate calling for the nationalisation of the public utility companies.

Most of the candidates supported putting a price on carbon emissions, in the hope that “the market” would solve the problem.

One idea discussed is to tax carbon emissions. However, such a tax would have to be quite high, far beyond what any of the candidates proposed, to force power companies to stop using fossil fuels by 2030.

The 2030 target date was supported by many of the candidates and is the date scientists have set for eliminating greenhouse gas emissions to avoid climate catastrophe. Other candidates supported a target date of 2050.

Utilities produce 28% of greenhouse gas emissions. Taxing the remaining 72% at the high rate necessary would largely fall on transportation, including on the petrol workers put in their cars. It would also raise the cost of transporting goods, including food. If such high taxes took effect now, however, before a transition to an emissions-free transportation system, they would not work in time to avoid climate catastrophe.

Another proposal discussed was allowing polluting companies to continue to pollute by trading with industries that do not pollute — an idea climate activists reject as absurd.

The candidates by and large acknowledged that the costs of transitioning to a carbon-free economy while protecting workers affected — and dealing with the results of an already dire situation — are very high. How to raise that money, however, was only vaguely approached.

Sanders proposed that some funds could come from the nearly one trillion dollar-a-year military budget (spending approved by both Democrats and Republicans).

If the Democrats win the presidency, the Senate, and the House in 2020, it is unlikely that even the best of these plans would get through Congress. A significant number of Democratic politicians and almost all Republicans would oppose them or water them down to ineffectiveness.

Green Party candidate

Another candidate running is Howie Hawkins. Hawkins is vying to become the Green Party’s presidential candidate.

Hawkins was pleased to see the Democratic candidates putting forward climate plans, but said none go far enough. “Even the best plan announced by Senator Sanders fails to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions fast enough for climate safety,” said Hawkins

“His cuts to the military, the largest climate polluter, are insufficient and vague. I am calling for a 75% cut in military spending to redirect major financial, physical and human resources into a Green New Deal.”

The Green Party’s Green New Deal has been around for some time, and is specific in its proposals, unlike the Green New Deal being proposed by the left wing of the Democratic Party.

The US Green Party is different from most Green parties in other countries. A few years ago, it adopted the position that it is an anti-capitalist party, although it is somewhat vague on what it would replace capitalism with.

Hawkins is a revolutionary socialist. To address the climate crisis, Hawkins calls for socialising, under democratic control, key productive sectors, notably energy production, power distribution and railways. He also calls for the domestic manufacturing sector to be rebuilt with clean power and zero waste.

To build a 100% clean energy system and eliminate greenhouse gases by 2030, Hawkins would create a cabinet-level office of Climate Mobilisation, to coordinate all federal agencies to meet this goal.

He urged the next president to declare a Climate Emergency on the first day of taking office, and lists immediate steps the president could take under that national emergency to swiftly begin to combat the climate crisis.

His full climate program is available at: gp.org/hawkins_calls_for_climate_emergency.

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