Editor’s Note: Alice Hill is the Senior Fellow for the Council on Foreign Relations. She previously served as Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director for Resilience Policy on the National Security Council staff. Before that she was a supervising judge on the Los Angeles Superior Court and a chief of the white-collar crime unit in the US Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles. She is the co-author of “Building a Resilient Tomorrow.” The opinions in this article are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.
The Trump administration’s appalling pattern of ignoring climate risks reminds me of a case I once handled as a federal prosecutor. The defendant was a young woman who had shipped 10 pounds of crack cocaine across state lines after her aunt had handed her the wrapped package, which bore no return address, and a wad of cash for the “favor” and watched from a safe distance. The woman’s defense? Her aunt had never told her what was in the package.
Before the judge sent the jury off to reach a verdict, he instructed that “willful blindness” was no defense. In other words, the defendant could not escape liability by intentionally avoiding learning the facts. The jury returned a verdict of guilty.
On Tuesday, President Trump called climate change activists “prophets of doom” in his formal remarks to the global elite assembled for the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland – even though the Forum, for the first time ever, ranked extreme weather, climate action failure, and natural disasters as the top three risks facing the world in its 2020 annual global risk report.
The Trump administration’s studied avoidance of the threat from climate change smacks of willful blindness or worse. But just like other reckless conduct, it carries consequences.
The latest affront occurs in the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s recently released National Preparedness Report. The annual report – mandated by Congress to help state and local governments, as well as the private sector, understand the nation’s efforts to prepare for the gravest threats and hazards it faces – glibly omits any mention of climate change.
It ignores the growing body of evidence that climate change likely fueled the wildfires that decimated California in 2017 and 2018 and contributed to the severity of hurricanes Harvey, Maria and Michael. It fails to mention climate change’s role in increased temperatures experienced across the nation in recent years, which also can prolong deeper droughts and produce greater precipitation and heat extremes, as well as sea level rise. And it skirts mention of the official predictions of the federal government’s own scientists in the Fourth National Climate Assessment report published in 2017 that climate change impacts will worsen in coming years, damaging more infrastructure and harming human health and security.
Notably, the report does criticize states and territories for relying on outdated building codes that do not adequately address the risks from natural hazards. In doing so, however, it conveniently leaves out mention of President Trump’s decision to rescind the first-ever national building code designed to reduce climate change-driven flooding, a decision he announced just days before climate-fueled Harvey dumped five feet of rain on Houston.
This latest report matches the Trump administration’s pattern of conspicuously avoiding any discussion of climate change in its leading strategic documents.
Two years ago, the National Security Strategy issued by the White House skipped right over it in its list of global threats. The Department of Defense’s National Defense Strategy issued in 2018, dropped all references to climate change, after having included them for a full decade prior. FEMA dropped any reference to it in its 2018-2022 Strategic Plan. And just last week, the administration proposed a plan to rollback requirements that environmental impact reports for infrastructure projects assess the affects of climate change.
It’s not the reality of climate change that has changed in the past three years, of course. What has changed is the willingness of political leaders in Washington to acknowledge the known facts.
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The Trump administration’s willful blindness to climate change flies in the face of the evidence. Pretending that climate change does not exist will not make it go away. Ignoring its existence, however, does carry real consequences.
It leaves the United States desperately unprepared for the damaging impacts of climate change—worsening floods, extended droughts, extreme heat, bigger storms and wildfires, and sea-level rise. By failing to help us understand the greatest threats we face, and what to do about them, those in charge are condemning us to greater devastation.