To witness three deadly hurricanes, Irma, Katia and Jose, ravaging the Caribbean and reducing homes to rubble is to understand Old Testament interpretations of natural disasters as manifestations of the wrath of God.
Accepting such epic destruction as bad luck – a freak event with no underlying design – would have meant embracing a world without structure or meaning. If natural disasters were acts of revenge for evil doings, they could be viewed as part of a divine plan and averted through prayer and good deeds; if not, then all was chaos and beyond human control.
You would think that, by the 21st century, the urge to invest meteorological phenomena with supernatural significance would have disappeared but – even with all our cynicism and sophistication – it still lurks below the surface.
It’s particularly strong in those Christian leaders and frothing Trump supporters who maintain that – as with Sodom and Gomorrah – the hurricanes were the deity’s response to ‘homosexuality’. Yet even those of us who find such attitudes grotesque are not above trying to turn the disaster into our own quasi-religious parable. I mean it’s tempting, isn’t it, as Irma heads straight for Trump’s luxury Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, to feel that it’s karma: some greater force’s defiant middle finger at all the man-made climate change deniers; an apocalyptic warning to the administration that withdrew from the Paris Agreement and signed away Obama’s flood protection standards: “Repent or Perish”.
To see it in those terms is, of course, reductive; it is repugnant to present those who have died and lost their homes as collateral damage in some grand scheme to teach Trump’s administration a lesson. Hundreds of thousands of people have had their lives ruined and we should not be trivialising their plight.
Still, you could reasonably hope a tragedy of such proportions would herald a period of introspection for the president; you could reasonably hope that as the phenomenon he dismissed as Fake News flaunts itself in his face, Trump and his acolytes might reflect on their own shortcomings.
There is little indication so far that Trump is seriously taking stock. His reaction two weeks ago, as Hurricane Harvey caused unprecedented flooding in Texas, was less of shock than of awe. #Historic rainfall; #Wow; #Even experts say they have never seen one like this before, he gushed in the manner of an over-excited grower judging marrows at a village fete. As Irma prepared for landfall last week, he said the consequences would be “not good”, but at least he declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
Other worshippers at the Infowars altar played down the scale of hurricanes, even as they were laying waste to Trump’s mansion in St Martin; just as, at the time of the inauguration, Sean Spicer saw thronging crowds in photographs of sparsely occupied sections of the National Mall, so they looked at whirling satellite images of the three hurricanes and could distinguish only “media manipulation”.
In the middle of all this – like a badly sketched caricature – stood Rush Limbaugh, the Florida-based alt-right chat show host who kept on branding Irma – one of the most powerful hurricanes in history – “a liberal hoax” right up until the moment he fled, panic-stricken, from its path.
So persistent were his claims – as the wind whipped at his ears and the water lapped at his feet – that he became the butt of a succession of internet jokers. Yet the irresponsibility of downplaying the risk to fellow citizens, as officials attempted to co-ordinate a mass evacuation, meant his behaviour was no laughing matter.
Despite all this chicanery on the right, the notion the left was engaged in an unseemly attempt to exploit the disaster – ie link it with climate change – quickly took hold. Last week, apparently unable to countenance the idea that human beings might be able cope with two separate strands of thought at the same time, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, said any discussion about the cause of the storms was a distraction from helping its victims.
On the other side of the Atlantic, Conservative MP Alan Duncan made the same point, accusing Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, of lacking humanity when she said Parliament should be discussing what can be done about global warming. But how is it possible to consider the ferocity of the storms that have hit the States in the last few weeks without asking ourselves what ought to be done to secure the future of the planet?
True, we don’t know for certain yet, whether these particular hurricanes were caused by the effects of global warming; tests will tell us soon enough. What we do know – because myriad scientists have confirmed it – is that climate change exists and that Trump’s refusal to acknowledge it is costing the planet dear.
On top of withdrawing from the Paris Agreement (on the grounds it would harm the US economy and cost jobs) he has axed contributions to the Green Climate Fund, which supports clean energy and climate adaptation programmes in vulnerable countries.
His budget also includes massive cuts to the National Flood Insurance Programme to update maps showing which areas are at risk of flooding and the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s grants that help state and local governments prepare for natural disasters. Congress has until 1 October – the beginning of the fiscal year – to pass its spending bill, which may or may not include the White House proposals.
The only glimmer of hope and sign that the hurricanes might be leading some politicians to question the country’s direction of travel came last week when the Senate stepped in to prevent Trump revoking $10m of funding to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, the body that oversees the Paris Climate Agreement.
Of course, up to a point, Alan Duncan is right: the immediate priority is to help those whose lives have been devastated; to rescue the stranded, find shelter for the homeless and feed the hungry. But also we need to ensure the country’s capacity to carry out such emergency operations isn’t being undermined by the president’s delusional choices, shore up support for preventative schemes so future generations will be better protected and discuss how the US’s intransigence will impact on the rest of the globe.
If we don’t keep calling Trump out – presenting the real facts, and challenging his spurious assertions – he might still be saying: “I see no climate change” as the world plunges into darkness.