In 2005, appalled by the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, I was compelled to publicly criticize the Bush Administration’s delay in providing life-saving assistance to the people of New Orleans.
“Mr. President,” I declared at the National Press Club, “We cannot allow history to say that, at the time of the great storm and flood of 2005, the difference between those who lived and those who died was their poverty, their age or the color of their skin.”
To the Bush Administration’s credit, the pace of federal assistance to the victims of Katrina did improve somewhat after my public challenge. Regrettably, however, history has confirmed that my warning to President Bush was prescient.
Although Americans of every background suffered in the wake of Katrina, our countrymen and women who were Black, poor or aged endured the most lasting, and all too often permanent, injuries from that horrifying storm.
In the years that followed, instructed by our successes and failures in other superstorms like Hurricane Sandy, it is fair to conclude that we have made some progress in our ability to respond to these disasters. Coastal states like Maryland and Florida have undertaken important first steps toward making our communities more resilient to these onslaughts.
As a result, our initial response to the devastating hurricanes this year has been more effective and humane than the ineptitude that followed Hurricane Katrina – and I readily acknowledge that the Trump Administration, building on the work of President Obama, deserves some credit in this regard.
Yet, more than a decade later, the harsh forces that conspire to disproportionately threaten the most vulnerable of our society continue to assault our national conscience.
A growing body of scientific evidence confirms that human-caused changes in our climate are underway – changes that pose long-term dangers to African American communities. Although some, including President Trump, wish to dismiss this evidence, any prudent policy analysis takes into account both the probability that a risk will be realized and the adverse impact of that risk, should it occur.
As to the probability of severe, long-term damage, we now know that the average global temperature has gone up by more than 1.0 degree Fahrenheit since 1900 – and that most of this warming has occurred since the 1970s. In all probability, we soon will exceed the maximum global temperature experienced by any human civilization in history.
Even more alarming, projections by a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warn that the average surface temperature of our planet may well increase by an additional 2.0 to 11.5 °F during the remainder of the 21st Century.
Although there are skeptics, most credible scientists now conclude that the driving forces have been human activities that produce “greenhouse gases,” like carbon dioxide and methane. Even non-scientists can see the consequences of climate change that are staring us in the face.
In recent years, we have witnessed drought in Africa, shrinkage of the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets, rising sea levels, shifts in fisheries and more intense hurricanes like Katrina, Sandy, Harvey and Irma.
These generally observable changes have led to a growing sense of public urgency about climate change among scientists and policy makers alike. In these policy debates, two chilling projections have been made crystal clear.
First, we have no reason to believe that the intensity and destructive power of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma this year were isolated or rare exceptions. It is far more likely that the intensity and pattern of future storms will cause far more serious damage than in the past.
This was President Obama’s observation about Hurricane Sandy and future superstorms; and there is compelling evidence that Hurricanes Harvey and Irma fit this emerging pattern.
Second, minority communities will continue to endure a disproportionate share of the costs if we fail to do everything within our power to better protect our communities in the immediate future and reduce adverse human impacts on our climate in the longer term.
As this year’s hurricanes are demonstrating with compelling clarity, coastal regions – including their large minority, poor and elderly populations – are now at increased risk of devastation.
At the state and local levels, minimizing the damage that we can predict from future hurricanes must be a top priority. Ideology and short-term economic interests must take a back seat to our survival.
At the federal level, we must expand our support for these local efforts at “resilience,” compelling them when federal funds are involved. We also must continue to fight against those who deny the human impact on our climate and future survival.
For Americans of every background in our coastal states, whether red or blue, we must not hesitate to make our voices heard in the halls of government at every level, including the White House and the Congress. Accurately and effectively addressing the impacts of our changing climate must, once again, become a top priority of our national security policies.
We cannot afford to equivocate or delay. We are living in “the eye of the storm.”
Congressman Elijah Cummings represents Maryland’s 7th Congressional District in the United States House of Representatives.