Sachs: Big oil, Abbott must pay a price in recovery

Story highlights

  • Jeffrey Sachs: Houston is an oil town, so Texas politicians have long ignored climate truth and climate preparedness
  • Sachs: They have lied to their constituents for too long, expecting the rest of US to keep bailing them out. Harvey was foreseeable

Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)It's important to politicize Hurricane Harvey. Not politics in the sense of political parties, or politics to win elections. Politics to protect America.

The priority in the next hours and days is to save lives and reduce suffering, without hesitation and without question of costs or politics. But then must come the reckoning.
    Jeffrey Sachs
    Once the immediate crisis ends, the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, should resign with an apology to his state and his country. Then the Texas delegation in Congress should make a public confession. They have lied to their constituents for too long, expecting the rest of America to keep bailing them out.
    The reason is this. Texas politics aims to bring profits to the oil and gas industry, but it does this at high cost and dire threat to Texas residents and the American people.
    Hurricane Harvey was a foreseeable disaster. Indeed, a massive hurricane strike on Houston, followed by massive flooding, was widely anticipated.
    But Houston is an oil town, and the American oil industry has been enemy No. 1 of climate truth and climate preparedness. Most oil companies and Texas politicians see nothing, say nothing, do nothing. Even worse, they hide the truth, and then beg for help as needed. Gov. Abbott has played this game one disaster too many.
    Abbott, for example, was the governor to sign a new law in 2015 that prevents cities and municipalities in Texas from setting their own regulations that might rein in oil and gas drilling activities. On his watch, Texas supported withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement.
    Over many years, he has raked in millions in campaign contributions from the oil industry, including in his former role as Texas attorney general, where he sued the Environmental Protection Agency repeatedly over rules designed to curb carbon emissions.
    And the state, under Abbott's direction, has taken no significant steps toward flood protection, despite the recognized risks of a mega-hurricane and flood.
    The problem is not about his crisis management this week. I can't judge that. It's about his long-standing relentless opposition to environmental protection, including his blind eye to global warming and the grave dangers it poses.
    The Texas Tribune and ProPublica published a 2016 award-winning report on "Hell or High Water," explaining why Houston is a "sitting duck for the next big hurricane." In 2015, Inside Climate News wrote that "as weather extremes like flooding batter Texas, its refusal to prepare for an even more volatile climate leaves residents at risk, experts say."
    On June 16 of this year, citing the city's widening concrete sprawl and deaths from flooding in recent years, the UK Guardian wrote that "Houston fears climate change will cause catastrophic flooding: It's not if, it's when."
    There were countless reasons to fear the worst with Harvey, in addition to the obvious fact that Houston is a low-lying coastal region situated deeply within the Gulf of Mexico's hurricane strike zone. Houston has been growing rapidly without attention to flood risk. Houston has experienced several serious floods in recent years. Houston narrowly dodged a bullet in 2008 when Hurricane Ike swerved away from a direct hit on the city just before landfall.
    Moreover, climate change is making it all worse. The rise in the sea level, roughly a foot during the past century, means more flood surges. The warming of the Gulf of Mexico means more energy for hurricanes. The global warming also means more moisture in the atmosphere, enabling the catastrophic rains now inundating Houston and environs.
    So, what has been the policy response in Houston and Texas more generally in terms of prevention, resilience, and preparedness? Almost nothing until disaster hits. Then the response is to ask for federal bailouts.
    In other words, Texas is the moral hazard state.
    Here is what has not happened: There has been little or no effort at zoning protection to keep development clear of floodplains; little or no offshore and onshore infrastructure for flood protection; no discernible heed paid to the scientific evidence and indeed the growing practical experience of catastrophic flood risks; and of course, relentless, pervasive climate change denial, the mother's milk of Texas politics.
    So, here's the deal. Those of us elsewhere in the US also suffering from flooding and other disasters from warming temperatures, rising sea levels, and more intense storms (such as New Yorkers who are still rebuilding from 2012 Hurricane Sandy) want truth from Texas politicians and the oil industry.
    We are bearing the costs of your lies. We are tired of it. More importantly, we are in pain and solidarity with the good people of Houston who are losing lives, homes, and livelihoods because of your lies.
    Gov. Abbott, we would like to bid you a political adieu. Perhaps you can devote your time to rebuilding Houston and taking night classes in climate science. Senators Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, you will soon be asking us for money to help Texas.
    My answer will be yes, if you stop spewing lies about climate dangers, agree to put US and Texas policy under the guidance of climate science, back measures to lower carbon emissions and stay in the Paris Climate Agreement. Then, of course, let's help your constituents to rebuild.
    And to ExxonMobil, Chevron, Koch Industries, ConocoPhillips, Halliburton, and other oil giants doing your business in Texas: You put up the first $25 billion in Houston disaster relief. Call it compensation for your emissions. Tell the truth about growing climate threats. Then, as citizens seeking the common good, we will match your stake.