The time is coming when people on the right will stop denying climate change. But when they do, we will long for the days when they denied it, because instead, they will decide it is necessary and fine—and perhaps even good—if some people die as a result.
Despite the role that California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, plays in the creation of U.S. jobs (the state produces two-thirds of America’s fruits and more than a third of its vegetables, along with 81 percent of the nation’s wine), Trump has decided to let the state burn, most likely because it is not sufficiently deferential to him. He tweeted the following.
“Every year, as the fire’s rage & California burns, it is the same thing-and then he [Governor Newsom] comes to the Federal Government for $$$ help. No more. Get your act together Governor. You don’t see close to the level of burn in other states.”
It is very possible that Trump is unaware that the federal government owns, and is therefore responsible for, 57 percent of the forests in California. The state owns about 3 percent, and the rest of the acreage is privately owned.
But then, if he does know it, it doesn’t seem to matter to him, as he shows no indication of caring. He has already cut the U.S. Forest Service’s budget twice this year, which made preparedness for and response to fires a much harder task. Governor Gavin Newsom remarked, “We’re successfully waging war against thousands of fires started across the state in the last few weeks due to extreme weather created by climate change, while Trump is conducting a full on assault against the antidotes.”
In another claim, Trump said that the fires are raging because people in California are inadequately raking leaves, which simply isn’t true. California is fire-prone because it receives 90 percent of its rainfall from October 1 to April 30. Plants spend the rest of the summer drying out, which makes them extremely easy to ignite. Coupled with high winds and a small spark from, for instance, a knocked-over power line, a fire can spread easily and quickly. The reason these fires are growing worse is because California’s fire season is stretching further into the year due to increased droughts and rising temperatures.
It’s simple: Fires are getting worse because of climate change. The hotter the world gets, the more California will burn.
Despite this, Trump is currently working to undermine efforts taken by California to address climate change. On a national level, Trump has made good on his promise to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, and he’s forced the Environmental Protection Agency to roll back almost all policies intended to capture heat-trapping fossil-fuel pollution (the main source of global warming).
But threatening to pull federal funding from California to fight the forest fires shouldn’t just be dismissed as another dumb action of an ignorant Florida Man.
In addition to penalizing a state that did not vote for him, Trump can also use this as a test for whether people will be outraged if the government doesn’t respond to disasters—or at least when disasters happen to people who are not especially supportive of him. Like California, Trump was very willing to blame Puerto Rico for experiencing the ravages of Hurricane Maria and very willing to deny those citizens aid for their recovery. Like California, Puerto Rico had a governor who did not care for Trump or his policies.
In addition to being able to use the horrors of the weather as a cudgel to silence those who oppose Trump’s unethical policies, letting people die from climate change is cost effective. Responding to climate-related disasters is already costing the government billions. Not responding and leaving states on their own is the easiest possible solution for the government in an age when these events will happen at an ever-increasing rate.
And make no mistake—your state will be affected by climate change wherever you live in the country. You live in the southern Great Plains? Brace for tornados, drought, and ice storms. The Midwest? Bomb cyclones. Coastal states? Hurricanes affecting them have already risen to unprecedented levels.
Emergency relief is going to be expensive and essential in the coming decades.
Not so long ago, we could expect to rely upon the government to help support people through the trials they would be forced to endure. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina was unforgivably mismanaged—a series of man-made tragedies compounding a natural disaster. But at least the outward response was not “Fuck those losers in New Orleans; they brought this on themselves.” There was a general sense among the public that we should aid our fellow citizens and do whatever we could to help. More than $120 billion in federal spending went toward emergency relief and rebuilding in New Orleans. And that’s necessary, because philanthropic donations—even for a disaster that garnered such tremendous sympathy and seemed to be in the news and papers every single day—raised just $6.5 billion.
Fortunately, not only did the U.S. government help, other countries pitched in. The Washington Post reported, “Mexico’s convoy of soldiers, all-terrain rescue vehicles and drinking water was followed by food, medical workers, water-treatment facilities and a kitchen that could feed 7,000 people daily.” Today, while portions of the city, like the Lower Ninth Ward, are still struggling, 90 percent of the residents of New Orleans have returned home, and the city is once again a massive tourist destination. For people to survive and rebuild after these disasters, it’s essential to see ourselves as part of a nation, but also part of a global community. In a better world, as climate change is the enemy of all man, it would be confronted by all mankind.
Unsurprisingly, no such help came from Mexico following Hurricane Harvey in 2017. By then, Trump had long been insisting that they pay for a border wall.
As we isolate ourselves, we’ll be less able to rely upon the world’s goodwill. Coupled with leaders who have very little goodwill themselves, that will have disastrous consequences.
And for those who think that we have nothing to worry about as climate change might resolve itself on its own—climate change is not going away. It is very unlikely to be stopped. To do so would mean halving all carbon emissions by 2030, which is, in all probability, not going to happen. So the refugee crisis will get worse. People will continue fleeing northward from inhospitable regions. Climate migration is already happening from regions like Guatemala, where food no longer grows. And it’s estimated that 143 million people will soon become climate migrants.
That is a great number of people, and it is already being used as an excuse by some on the right for a fascist mentality, whereby it becomes permissible to kill refugees or leave them to die. Among the Far Right, some exhort “lifeboat ethics”, a theory that postulates the following.
“When a ship carrying a hundred passengers suddenly capsizes and there is only one lifeboat? When the lifeboat is full, those who hate life will try to load it with more people and sink the lot. Those who love and respect life will take the ship’s axe and sever the extra hands that cling to the sides.”
Except that’s not true. The United States is not a flimsy lifeboat. It is a landmass almost comically massive. In nine states—Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wyoming—cows outnumber people. If every member of the United States lived in an area with the population density of Brooklyn, New York, all 327 million of us could fit into New Hampshire. (As someone who lives in Brooklyn by choice, I can promise you, it’s quite pleasant.) With some changes in the layout of our cities and our expectations about suburbia as a default living situation, even assuming certain U.S. regions become entirely inhospitable, we could accommodate not only the refugees likely coming to us from Latin America, but those around the world.
Nonetheless, people pretend it’s impossible, because doing so fits in with white nationalist goals, like those shared by Trump’s senior advisor for policy, Stephen Miller.
In recently uncovered emails, Miller shared his thoughts that offering immigrants sanctuary as the Pope suggested would lead to a Camp of the Saints–style situation. The Camp of Saints is an avowedly racist dystopian novel from 1973. In it, a group of Indians who set sail for France are portrayed as people who eat their own feces. They are led by a man called the “turd eater.” When they arrive in France—and the government fails to shoot them en masse—they promptly rape all the white women. In a 1975 New York Times review, it was described as “like being trapped at a cocktail party with a normal-looking fellow who suddenly starts a perfervid racist diatribe.”
It’s a book that political commentator Pat Buchanan, who Donald Trump once called a “Hitler lover,” is a fan of too. In 2015 Buchanan pondered, “Will the West endure, or disappear by the century’s end as another lost civilization? Mass immigration, if it continues, will be more decisive in deciding the fate of the West than Islamist terrorism. … Does Europe have the toughness to seal its borders and send back the intruders? Or is Europe so morally paralyzed it has become what Jean Raspail mocked in ‘The Camp of the Saints’?”
Again, the moral paralysis described in that book is just an unwillingness to commit mass murder.
The fact that immigrants do not destroy our society and that, indeed, they are actually essential to certain industries isn’t terribly important to anyone with this mentality. Nor is the fact that immigrants commit no more crimes than U.S. citizens.
For the regrettable people who regard foreigners as a shit-eating hoard, any causality of climate change is not a sad consequence of a “lifeboat mentality.” It is a perk.
When people like Miller talk about how America should be for native-born Americans—to his mind, white people—do remember that you can subdivide tribes almost indefinitely. Eventually, you’re unwilling to help anyone outside of your village, then your family, and then, finally, yourself.
We’ve already begun down that road. The fact that the president is willing to deny increasingly essential resources not just to foreigners but to his own countrymen whom he sees as insufficiently adoring should be regarded as terrifying. That road ends with a Mad Max–style dictator denying all but his favorite subjects access to water.
Because it’s not just the citizens of California or Puerto Rico that will be hurt in the years to come. It will be your state too. You can start thinking now about whether you’d like to have generosity and support from your neighbors, or whether you’d like them to say that you brought it on yourself and should be left to die.
And if you’re part of a country that can not or will not help you or your countrymen when you’re in trouble, when people around you are drowning or your house is on fire, what, really, is the point of being a member of that country at all?
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