When extreme weather hits the United States, coastal Southern states tend to get the worst of it. Just look at the past few years: In 2017, Texas, Louisiana, and the Carolinas were hit with back-to-back hurricanes, which left parts of those states submerged and displaced hundreds of thousands of people. The two years preceding that were rough on the South, too — flooding related to hurricanes Joaquin and Matthew killed dozens of Americans and cost the United States billions combined.
Any climate scientist will tell you that the natural disasters of the past few years pale in comparison to the climate change-fueled weather events coming down the pike. If state legislators were savvy, they would have taken steps years ago to protect their citizens from what’s ahead. The problem is, some of those hurricane-magnet states also happen to be governed by climate deniers.
In 2018, Congress devised a plan to help disaster-ravaged states actually prepare for extreme weather for a change, and President Trump signed off on it. It’s the first time national legislation has designed block grants to help states prepare for future disasters, rather than just clean up damage from ones that have already occurred.
That money, $16 billion of federal funding, will soon be released — more than half will go to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the rest will go to nine mainland U.S. states. The states that got the most money to prepare for climate change all went for Trump in 2016 and are all under at least partial Republican control: Texas is getting upwards of $4 billion, Louisiana is getting $1.2 billion, Florida $633 million, North Carolina $168 million, and South Carolina $158 million. Missouri, California, West Virginia, and Georgia are also getting grants. There’s a reason why a bunch of Republican trifecta states accepted climate change mitigation money without a fuss: none of them had to actually acknowledge climate change to access the funds.
That’s because, when the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) solicited proposals from the states explaining how they aim to use the funds, it didn’t require them to take climate change into account, even though the money being handed out by the department will be used to protect states from the effects of rising temperatures. Instead, the department asked the grantees to describe their “current and future risks,” based on the latest available science. HUD didn’t even use the terms “global warming” and “climate change” in its request for proposals, though it did ask states to take “continued sea level rise” into consideration. The task of drawing up the states’ proposals generally fell to housing and community development specialists at state general land offices or housing departments.
The results are telling, as the New York Times reported last week: Florida and North Carolina’s applications said climate change poses a major risk to their states. South Carolina and Texas ignored the issue entirely, instead using phrases like “changing coastal conditions” and the “destabilizing effects and unpredictability” of disasters. Louisiana mentioned climate change once on the last page of its plan.
It might seem like allowing states to sidestep climate change is just another way the Trump administration is undermining science, but HUD’s reluctance to compel states to explicitly say they’re preparing for rising temperatures might actually be a good thing. “There are still states where it’s a political lightning rod to acknowledge that climate change is responsible for damage,” Marion McFadden, head of disaster-recovery grants at HUD during the Obama administration, told Grist. “HUD is focusing on the plans, not the root cause of the need to mitigate.” Whether Republican states accept the reality of climate change or not, they’re starting to prepare for it — which could save lives and prevent economic damage down the line.
“Climate change clearly is the motivation behind Congress making the money available, and HUD is making the funds available to communities to put together their own plans for what they want to do at the state or the local level,” McFadden said. “They have to use the best science and the best data available, they just don’t have to connect the dots explicitly.”
Regardless of HUD’s stance on climate change, it seems as though climate-denying state officials could soon face pushback from their own constituents. In Texas, Republicans control the state house, senate, and governor’s office. But the top elected official in Harris County, Texas’ most populous county, thinks climate change is a major problem for the state. “If we’re serious about breaking the cycle of flooding and recovery we have to shift the paradigm on how we do things, and that means putting science above politics,” Lina Hidalgo, a Democrat, said in a statement to the Times. Two-thirds of Texas voters, Republican and Democratic, are in favor of government action to combat the climate crisis, and a third are strongly in favor of it, a recent poll shows. It might not be long before the Texas officials are forced to start connecting those dots.